The Underrated Power of Procedure

The Underrated Power of Procedure

The other day, a friend pointed out an unfortunate controversy that was highlighted in American news a while back. It covers the account of Susan Van Son, who struggled with balancing her aspirations to be a great parent (by feeding her newborn son breast milk), with being a good employee (and following the rules of her workplace). Van Soon’s workplace was a prison, where breast-pumps were contraband, and the designated place for expressing milk had no privacy. The end result is that Susan Van Soon resorted to smuggling her breast pump into her place of work and creating a secret place to express her breast milk. I’m not sure that these issues get enough attention as an issue of design, but I have an idea why. 

For many, the concept of ‘design’, often evokes images of designing furniture, clothing, cars, buildings or other physical objects. However, the design of our intangible things, like laws, rules, procedures and cultural norms is as important, if not more important, than all these physical objects. However, perhaps because these are not things we can as obviously see or hold in everyday life, it’s sometimes easy to ignore their impact. 

Let’s unpack this a little. Rules, procedures, cultural norms are all different types of codified behavioural constraint. There aren’t any significant advanced technologies involved in the formation of organisational rules. In fact, one of the earliest examples of a set of codified social laws relied on little more than a two-metre stone and some intensive chisel work. These were known as Hammurabi’s laws and they were created around 1700 BC.

Laws of Hammaurabi

Laws of Hammaurabi

Hammaurabi’s laws covered a wide range of behaviours and attempted to define the envelope of allowed behaviour within a the kingdom. By modern standards, they do not appear to be overly fair, as they were heavily biased in favour of high status individuals and punitive to those with lower status. They also had a heavy taste for capital punishment. They issued from a mandate given to Hammurabi from the gods themselves and I’m sure they were backed up by a significant social, religious and military apparatus. The empire fell apart quite quickly after Hammaurabi’s death; though various versions of the laws migrated onward in history. 

There is a lot to learn from this. For a start, the laws were all pretty much made up. Also, the laws, procedures and social norms can be considered an intangible with tangible impact. They are also only as good as the process of inventing them, disseminating them, interpreting them and enforcing their standards. They can be changed, forgotten or otherwise superseded. Though there is a lag time involved in changing the cultural norms that help reinforce them. 

Organisational rules are an interesting sub-species of wider social laws. Though their written form may often be developed by legal specialists and they often have the tone of laws; they are not created in the same way. Organisational rules are not litigated in the courts or exposed to public opinion during development.

Rather, they seem more like Hammaurabi’s original edicts. Developed from a single person or small set of ruling elite. In this fashion, they are usually hierarchical and developed with little to no consultation with the people they impact. We are beholden to accept them by our obedience to our roles; regardless of whether they are fair or balanced. These corporate missives set the permission envelope for behaviour. 

More importantly, they are often interpreted or enforced with a strangely dogmatic stupidity that challenges belief. There are always social gatekeepers willing to inform us that we have crossed the line. Individual preferences, especially those with power, can heavily affect how they interpreted or enforced. 

In the case of expressing milk, it appears there are United States Federal Laws that protect an employee’s ability to express milk. Yet, corporate law protects employers, making it difficult or impossible to punish organisations for doing the wrong thing. This has consequences. In the same report about Susan van Son, we learn that another women, Randi Freyer, developed an infection after her human resources department ignored her repeated requests for a modified flight schedule to allow her to express milk. What are we thinking? 

Clearly, organisational procedures may contravene the law, or good potential procedures may be ignored by management unwilling to negotiate. 

Either way, do you want to make an impact on the world? Stop looking for the next killer gadget, application or digital tool. Have a look at how organisational rules, procedures and rules impact people. Crucially, spend some time learning about the cultural norms that bend and twist how good procedures are (or are not) enforced. 

These intangible things have hypnotic power on how people act.


Photo of Breast Pump, Copyright (2019) Christopher Roosen

Photo of Laws of Hammurabi, Public Domain, Louvre Museum



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