Rules define how we approach virtually all aspects of life, not least of which is how we function in our organizations. There are the written rules, and the unwritten ones. Both shape our behaviour, and they interact with one another in fascinating and sometimes unpredictable ways. The larger question is how we interact with the rules around us—and whether or not it is safe, appropriate or advisable to do so. That depends a lot on the organization around us, how it functions and how we perceive our role within it.
It’s the unwritten rules that arguably most influence the culture of organizations. And organizational culture spills over into customer experiences. What is not necessarily clear is where the unwritten rules come from. In many—if not most—instances, they are a reaction to the written rules. Sometimes the influence is constructive. When the written rules are bureaucratic, unthinking or unfeeling, the unwritten rules and resulting behaviours can also be subversive. And sometimes they’re just destructive.
Cultural understanding is critical. Figuring out how we understand culture is a little bit more challenging. Models and frameworks help to understand the broad brush-strokes of culture. But if we want to understand the critical nuances, then we need to know the rules of how things get done. And that’s where things get complicated.
We like rules. Rules make life easier. Knowing that there is a right and wrong answer means that we can figure out how to be successful under all circumstances. The only problem is that life doesn’t actually work that way, particularly when engaging in politics and managing in the face of complexity and uncertainty. That’s not to say that there aren’t strategies that can help, but those strategies inherently require adaptation, a willingness to be flexible, and acceptance that the only right answer in any given situation is, “It depends.”
Some of our hardest questions are hard simply because the situation is complex and the possible outcomes are fuzzy and abstract. Knowing how to make a good decision, and how to sustain one, is hard. But it doesn’t have to be. There is a way to be able to sort through the fuzziness and get to the heart of what matters.