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Dec 9, 2019

Just tell me why, or the Tale of the Lost Rationale

You know how good newspapers do this idiot-proof summary at the end of their articles, for people who may not know the context. They were under the rock for the last 20 years. It is something like “The second and the last US president who was impeached but not removed from office was Bill Clinton in 1998.” Or, “American Civil War was between the North and the South states in 1861-65.” This is a good journalist practice every organization should try to follow.

As J.Q. Wilson has noted, every instance of red tape or of a seemingly stupid bureaucratic rule is the organizational memory of a past incident the rule aims to prevent from re-occurring. A contemporary large organization like a university is a land of forgotten rationales. We follow certain rule or a procedure without remembering why it was implemented in the first place. Not knowing why things are the way they are can be an alienating and frustrating experience, especially for new people. Why do we have to approve international travel a month in advance? – Because it goes all the way to the President for approval. And why does it goes all the way to the President? – Because international trips are especially sensitive to public perception, and because there were improper uses in the past that caused public embarrassment.

Only a trained mind can reconstruct the correct rationale. Most people have no organizational imagination whatsoever, because they had never been in a position to make those rules. When I taught a course on ed policy, I asked students to come up with any stupid rule they could not explain, and then brainstorm what would be the rationale for it. I remember one of them brought up the ordinance that banned overnight parking without a permit at any curbside in the City of Providence. Students thought it was just dumb, but I saw at least two different rationales for it, anв was pretty sure both were considered.

This is not an attempt to justify every stupid rule. Indeed, very often the original rationale has either gone away, or was weak to begin with. Without knowing the rationale, it is very hard to rescind a bad rule. I think every communication about a rule or a decision should have this short paragraph of explaining the initial rationale. It would help people who must follow the rule to feel more comfortable, and also help to see bad rules that need to change. Right now, we normally include rationale only in more formal memos that justify a new and complex decision. We do not provide rationale on our numerous forms, platforms, e-mails, and in routine and simple decisions. I think it is a mistake, and we all should try to write an extra sentence or two in most decisions and requirements. Let’s not assume the Why is obvious – it is often lost on most people, and almost always lost on some people.

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