The Golden State Warriors were already leading by a whopping 25 points in their game against the Dallas Mavericks with less than 3 minutes to go. Warriors rookie Jordan Bell – like most rookies – doesn’t get too many chances to display his basketball skills but felt that that was his moment. Bell threw the ball to the backboard, leapt to catch it, and threw a thunderous slam into the ring. The fans cheered loudly and the young players on the team celebrated the stunning display of skill. Some of the older players and coaches shook their heads in disbelief.
Jordan Bell had broken an unwritten rule of the NBA brotherhood.
While the players were expected to play on until the final buzzer ended the lopsided game, the winning team was also expected not engage in acts that may be seen as taunting, mocking or otherwise disrespecting their opponents. Coach Steve Kerr warned Bell after the game that his act of playing to the crowd would probably cause him (Bell) some grief in future games from other players who felt offended by his grandstanding.
The basketball fraternity is about keeping fans happy
Clearly, the fans loved Bell’s play and the tension between the unwritten rules of the NBA fraternity and the interests of the paying fans cannot be more striking. The Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki noted though that while “the play was a bit too much”, it is “almost 2018” and acknowledged that the players views are beginning to shift.
In any case, I can almost hear Jordan Bell protesting to his coach, “… But coach, nobody told me!“
This incident reminds me of a principle in business process management, i.e., unwritten rules embedded in processes have to be recognized as a possible point of failure that may hinder the achievement of customer goals. The discovery of unwritten rules is thus a prior step to proposing process improvements or indeed, in introducing intelligent automation.
Uncovering unwritten rules
In the course of documenting processes, it is important to uncover implicit workplace norms and behaviors.
When we ask process operators why they perform certain activities the way that they do, it is not uncommon to get a response that’s something like “Oh, that’s the way that we’ve always done these things!” or “That’s how work gets done around here.” Whenever the underlying rationale for a habitual practice or behavior is unclear, there is often a forgotten unwritten rule whose use-by date has expired.
Rites of passage
One area worth looking into for unwritten rules are practices (particularly in professional organizations) that appear to unduly saddle new joiners with unreasonable tasks that could otherwise be easily eliminated with either process streamlining or role redesign. Oftentimes these are anachronistic activities that have been retained to serve as nothing more than rites of passage in the organization. A good example is the accounting firm that I joined as a fresh graduate from University. In that firm, one of my first assignments was to deliver confirmation letters to client companies – a task that could have been performed more than twice as efficiently by messengerial companies. That was an initiation rite as much as it was a way to familiarize new staff such as myself back then with the addresses of client companies.
The streamlining of initiation-like practices can be more significant than just the elimination of non-value adding process steps. I have been told a story about a brilliant and ambitious young intern who was driven to quit a medical field of specialization that was in great demand because his supervising consultant drove him too hard too often with successive 24-hour hospital shifts. The inability to grow its specialist pool will certainly affect the hospital’s bottom-line over the long term even if it manages to cope and not suffer any immediate loss in revenue. Certainly, the societal costs of not having an adequate number of specialized doctors will be high.
Tone at the top
Another area to look into are the attitudes, values and behaviors being driven from the top. A famous case study that demonstrates the impact of the leader’s long shadow is the downfall of Enron. In the 1990s, Enron had built a reputation around innovation, ambition and financial sophistication. Nevertheless, the unwritten code of conduct that permeated the organization was the top leadership’s drive for success at any cost. This inevitably led to unscrupulous actions and widespread accounting fraud. By 2001, the company was bankrupt and a number of its top leaders were indicted for various criminal offenses.
More recently, we have seen one head of state speak insensitively about race and ethnicity once too often serving as fuel for white supremacist organizations to assert their intolerant views and violent tendencies. In an equally infamous case, we have another head of state who often casually recounted his personal acts of violence against suspected criminals despite the abolition of the death penalty in the country, in the process giving rise to a perceived carte blanche for law enforcers and vigilantes to murder suspected felons.
The long shadow of the leader subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) drives behaviors in a way that documented policies, processes and procedures do not reflect.
In all the different instances that I cite here, process improvement and intelligent automation will only succeed if the process owners and change managers first recognize the impact of an organization’s unwritten rules and implicit norms and behaviors on its roles, activities and practices as well as the other dimensions of the system at work.