A Principled Position

I’ve always been rather sceptical about principles. Well hang on, let me back track a little as that statement could read the wrong way… to be more precise, principles I have found documented in teams/organisations.

“Having principles” is a good thing, it is in life and it should be in organisations.  Its just that all too often there is no rhyme or reason to them. I can’t help but ask why those principles are important, do they fit with with organisations culture, it’s strategy? If we apply them, will they guide us to success? Do we all understand them? Is our understanding common to us all with no ambiguity?

I think part of my mistrust comes from previous experience in how teams go about defining principles. The typical scenario starts when someone says, “we need a set if principles”. Everyone agrees that would be a good idea and then they set about brainstorming what those principles might be. What you end up with is a fairly random set of principles picked for no other reason than the need go get some post-its on the board. The more people involved the wider they stretch and the more there are. The less people involved the narrower, more closed their focus.

Now it may well be true to say that some of the principles will be appropriate for the organisation. After all, they have come from people in the organisation who instinctively know how it operates and what it values. However, a fair number will have come in because they are “industry standard” or “best practice” (I need to write a post about those terms).  Others will have come from people with a particular perspective that they believe to be important. There may be others from people new to the organisation.

Do we need principles? Well, I certainly question the value of generic, all things to all men sets of principles defined by committee but as I work with more organisations I can see the value of principles (or the damage done by lack of principles). Having principles just for the sake of having principles undermines their value. Principles are things that you and your organisation should hold dear. They should be at your very core and not be up for negotiation.  When you find yourself in a difficult situation they should help you see your way to the right path for your organisation.

Take Steve Jobs and Apple as an example. Reading Jobs’ biography you come to realise that there were a set of principles guiding much of what jobs did at Apple and those principles rippled through the organisation.
I came up with the following set that I felt reflected how Jobs came across:

  • Quality throughout the product, right down into the core, even the bits you can’t see.
  • Do not compromise on quality
  • Look for people who are passionate about their work
  • You cannot separate software from the tin it runs on
  • Innovate/be daring
  • Do less but do it really well
  • The customer doesn’t know what they want, its up to us to show them

Now you may or may not agree with them (or my interpretation). That’s not the point. The point is, these embody who Jobs was and Apple is and so far they have been pretty successful…I think a post about the actual principles might be worthwhile.

I find that understanding an organisations principles is invaluable in understanding what will and won’t work. However, I’m unlikely to rely on the principles as documented.  If there is a list I’ll read it with interest and then compare it to how the people in the organisation operate and make decisions.

Does having a list in a document have any value? Well, if they are based in how the organisation operates then certainly they are useful, especially for those new to the organisation.

They can also be useful in effecting transformation, to explain too people how they should be operating rather than how they currently operate.  Care must be taken that these really are the right principles and that they align to the strategy of the organisation but if they do they can help everyone understand how to change their behaviour.

I would encourage you to think carefully about your organisation’s principles. Document them, certainly.  Aspire to new ones, certainly.  More importantly, use them and when it doesn’t feel right examine why – wrong principle or ingrained behaviour that you need to change?  Oh, and keep and eye on where they are taking you – guiding you to success or delivering you to disaster…?