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Beneficence in Business

“It’s Monday.  Time for a new policy.”

And sometimes it can feel that arbitrary.  A new policy or process created in good faith to solve some recent ill or meet some compliance schedule.  A process that we must immediately observe (for fear of reprisal!) regardless of whether it helps us, our team or our customer.

When I saw these processes earlier in my career, I trusted that those introducing them were more knowledgeable of the situation or need, and that – with some kind of invisible hand at play – I needed to do my part and support them.  Aligned with that thinking that there was a ‘right’ way, I put faith in common standards and approaches too – whether that was ITIL, MSP, ISO or otherwise.  If we weren’t performing, it was because we weren’t following a process or that we needed to have someone with X job title – and of course a visiting assessor knew more.

Over time, the wheels have come off this way of looking at the world.  Through experience, curiosity and learning, I realised – late perhaps – that it’s just not that simple.  While great process can transform, poor process or process in the wrong place can debilitate.

Some examples I’ve seen could be taxi-ordering processes that cost more than the taxi abuse, Escher-like approval processes that crush creativity, hiring practices that discriminate and complicated change systems that savvy developers automate their way around (or that people go ‘off-radar’ to avoid).  Processes like these cause more harm than good, regardless of their origin, and only in the last years have I begun to appreciate why.

What’s going on?

The first flaw in my earlier thinking was that an organisation had a known structure and ‘correct’ way of working together; that a practice applicable to one organisation would be transferrable.  And isn’t that appealing?  When we’re under pressure to solve some problem or another, to legislate for the recent disaster, wouldn’t we all be tempted to reach for the bottle of ‘Manage your Infrastructure, Guaranteed!’?

The reality is not so ordered.  Organisations are more akin to living, complex, unpredictable and sometimes irrational systems; systems where there isn’t ever going to be one right answer, no standard that can control for all situations we might meet, and no pure process that guarantees only the result we want.  (NB The idea of Cynefin is a great model for thinking more about this, and I’ll write about that in a coming article).

In that context, we can’t know that the process or change we make will do what we expect, and that’s the crux.

Take change management: the principle that we should apply some rigour and thought around making changes to production systems.  This is a very sensible idea as change carries inherent risk, however on more than one occasion I’ve seen these change systems become onerous, often building up to legislate for previous “failed changes”. 

If the change system is prescriptive and difficult to use, what are the implications?  Here are some examples:

  • Drop in accountability.  If it was approved by the change process, it’s not my fault if it fails.
  • Waste of time.  It takes longer and more paperwork to complete any change.
  • Drop in quality.  Copy / Paste responses to the change questions (I don’t think anyone reads them)
  • Changes outside of the system.  It’s just easier and it’s a low risk anyway!
  • Morale and Engagement.  No one trusts us around here.
  • Customer frustration.  Why can’t you just…? (and an escalation through Sales)
  • No changes.  It’s too hard, I’m not going to work on that (probably important) fix.

And – because we can’t test for everything – we know that changes can still fail and cause issues anyway.

The second flaw in my earlier thinking was more to do with the danger of local optimisation.  According to the Cambridge Dictionary, and organisation is “a group of people who work together in an organised way for a shared purpose”.  Critically, an organisation is not one process, function or team: it is all of them, working together.

I enjoyed the parallel that Klaus Leopold made in his work on Flight Levels (https://www.leanability.com/en/blog-en/2017/04/flight-levels-the-organizational-improvement-levels/) describing an organisation like a keyboard.  From his article, imagine each one of the keys representing a department responsible for a single character.  If your purpose is to write a love letter, you will need all the keys in order to do so.  If one single character types much faster than the others, the letter doesn’t get produced any faster.

It might well make sense to improve a local practice, but if that’s done in isolation of our purpose or at different rates to everyone else, the work could be in vain.

You might do harm

In medicine, there are some well-known maxims that outline the principles and ethics in which people work.  One of the most widely known is “primum non nocere” or “first, do no harm”, and I’ve been thinking recently about how this and related concepts could be usefully applied in business.

At face value, a doctor could be forgiven for not treating at all – indeed, with attempts at treatment, there’s a very real chance of harm – however it should be read in the context of ‘sometimes its better to do nothing’.  In other words, be guided by the principle that any good must outweigh harm, to the best of your practicing knowledge.

In medical research – where participants are even more likely to be exposed to harm, the balance of risk is expanded a bit further in the concept of beneficence.  Beneficence (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beneficence_(ethics)) broadly describes that:

  • one should not do harm
  • one should prevent harm
  • one should remove harm
  • one should practice good

The idea here is that if the first is outweighed by the sum of the others, that the harm is outweighed by the good, then the research is more likely to be acceptable.

Beneficence in Business?

I believe the same concept in business would genuinely help.  I don’t mean that we should go as far as analysing and checking the detail of whether our process or intervention is safe, but rather acting with the humility that – in a local and systems context – it might not be. 

In other words, if you embedded the assumptions in your company that a) the system is complex and changeable and b) no individual can ever understand the whole system, you open yourself to the idea that the change you’re making might do harm and that should trigger you to approach it differently. 

Perhaps we might approach new processes as research and validate their performance as experiments rather than adopting an absolute policies written by someone external to your business.

And as a secondary benefit, over time we’re going to build up a better knowledge of what actually leads our company to perform. We’ll be compelled to look at why things had the impact they did, leading the way to a much more learning-based organisation. Sounds good to me.

Image credit: Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

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