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STRAND 2 Part 2

[Last amended: 10 May 16]


Part 2 - Principles as a Guide to Decision Making


Where plans or rule-sets need to be modified, organisations should provide guidance against which modifications can be tested before they are enacted. In Dee Hock's book "Birth of the chaordic age" he suggests that "a few simple rules" is all that is required to manage a chaordic World. (Chaordic world is one that is on a knife edge between chaos and order; today this is more often referred to by the term "complex".) In other writing on complexity we see this idea applied to the understanding of how fish move in shoals or birds fly in flocks. Sometimes the idea is referred to as swarm theory. I have also seen it called Boid's law. In all cases the idea is that a few simple rules guide complex activity. One example of such rules, where it has been applied to human activity, is the episode in 1993, known as "Black Hawk Down". In this case local Somalis in Mogadishu caused great difficulties for a large force of US Rangers. An analysis of the events seems to suggest that the Somali actions were governed by three simple rules. These were: 1) head towards the sound of gunfire, 2) tell others to join in and 3) shoot Americans. These rules were however produced in hindsight.


What is evident from the work done so far is that, while superficially the rules may appear to be simple, it takes a great deal of thought and effort to produce a valid set that actually guide decision making. This is especially true when experience, or  hindsight, is not available. Therefore, in this research rather than referring to this guidance as "simple rules", I prefer to call them operating principles.


When we look for principles we start to find them everywhere. However, most are used as, to quote a leading US Academic, "totem hung on walls to ward off evil spirits", they are not used to actually guide decision making. Looking slightly harder I did find some principles that were meant to be used as such a guide. One such example is the military's "principles of war"; while the US and UK principles may differ, they are meant to be used as a guide to decision making. Another example is the Ten Commandants from the Christian bible that are supposed to be a guide to decision making about how Christians should live their lives. I have now found enough examples to suggest that this method is valid. It is consistent with finding a previous piece of academic work that examines whether "Verbatim Compliance" with rule sets was possible.


The next problem was to work towards a method of establishing a suitable set of principles to guide decision making within a range of different environments. So far I have worked on the following situations:


  • Research of the prevention of Failures of Foresight.

  • A special team working in a high threat environment.

  • A function with a nongovernmental body.

  • A function within a sport's governing body.


Results so far have been promising and the feedback has been that the ideas are proving helpful.


Part 2 - Method


The method accepts that within any working environment the number of factors that may affect any outcome are numerous. To be manageable, the number examined needs to be winnowed down to something workable. This can be done using one of three approaches or a combination of them. The first approach is based on analysis of existing procedures. The second is to use the idea of "what is critical". Finally, the third is based on an analysis of the organisation's objectives.


The first approach is based on an analysis of existing procedures both as written and as  they are enacted. The aim of this analysis is to extract the drivers, the common denominators, that lie behind the procedures as they currently exist; that is, to abstract the core essence of each procedure in order to determine why they have been written the way they have. This approach often exposes friction between what the organisation espouses and what it actually does, which management needs to resolve before the principles can be put into operation.  While this approach is the most effective, the main problem with it is that it is very resource intensive.


The second method is to reduce the number of factors down to those deemed critical to success. This can be determined against the criteria of "what needs to go right". While this criteria leaves much room for subjective judgement, if management can easily compensate for variation of a factor it therefore can be argued that it does not need to go right all the time. On this basis the factor would not be deemed to be critical. This debate highlights where short-term difficulties can be accepted in pursuit of a longer-term inalienable objective. It accepts that it is unrealistic to expect systems to always work perfectly first time. This allows management to concentrate on ensuring that those things that must go right first time do go right first time while not wasting resources pursuing unattainable perfection.


The third method is based on an analysis of the organisational objective. The objective and any sub-criteria may provide a source of establishing the required principles. Objectives often specify  a number of sub-criteria for success. These can be extracted and tested for their use as principles.


When using the second and third methods we need to determine and test whether:


  • the objective is articulated, clear and agreed?

  • the objective is very specific or generalised?

  • the factors for success are articulated?

  • the factor is specific or generalised?

  • the factor is really necessary for success?


Through one or a combination of these methods a list of principles can be established. Now their scope needs to be clearly defined.


Defining the Principles


Once identified the Principles need to be defined in enough detail so that those using them are clear as to what they mean. I suggest a simple table should be used for this purpose. As my example I have used the work done on the prevention of failures of foresight.

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Once defined the principles need to be tested.


The first test looks at the number of principles espoused. As a guide I would use the "Magical Number 7 plus or minus 2". Why seven? This is explained elsewhere if you are really interested; I will let you find the paper on the web. Several examples seen use a list of ten principles. While ten may be acceptable, I have seen cases which provide 23 principles and even a case which provided 37. In the case of 37 principles, principle 12 was to "keep it simple": in my judgement the person had failed to enact what they had espoused! At this stage do not be too concerned if you have more as this will be refined by the next step.


The second test is what I have called "The Round Table": see the figure below. Here we place the purpose to be achieved in the centre. Around the table we put the principles. Each time we need to make a decision on the matter in hand we check whether we need to consider all factors (principles) articulated. Experience to date has shown that process helps to refine our ideas through an iterative process. Principles may be regrouped, retitled and redefined but the process will settle down quite quickly. In my case the old labels are in yellow and the new ones in white.


Having tested each factor and verified their application, there is still some work to be done.  

  • First, there is a need to determine whether some of the principles make you question how you articulate your objectives and the factors necessary for success. If this is the case, then there is a need to re-examine the articulation of the task/ objective.

  • Second, there is a need to determine whether those involved have the necessary "seat of understanding" (that is the necessary level of expertise and training) required to have  to enact the principles? That however is an issue for change management and so is outside the scope of this work.

Web-Bk6-IssuesTable Web-Bk6-Principles-Issues