This post is the nineteenth part of a ramble-rant about the software business. The current posts in this series are:

This post is about the decline of an innovative organization.

Good Intentions…

…the road to hell is paved with them. As is the road to institutionalization.

Allow me to spin a sad tale of woe – call it a Geek Tragedy. A visionary leader starts a business and things take off. There’s more work than people to do it. So more people are contracted or hired. The enterprise grows. Pretty soon there’s enough money floating around to support a much-needed back-office staff. Things are indeed on the way up.

Innovation is flowing. Really cool code and ideas are being executed. This place is a lot of fun!

And then something unexpected happens. A customer isn’t satisfied, a deliverable is missed, someone makes a mistake. In almost every case, this unexpected occurrence is the result of actions involving one or two individuals. This is all normal. Nothing bad has happened. Yet.


And then management reacts. In and of itself, this isn’t a bad thing. The path of least resistance, though, is to institute a policy (please pay attention to the verb in that sentence). The policy is for everyone and forever. Don’t believe me? When was the last time you saw a policy removed? I thought so.

Policies are ok as long as they make sense for everyone and are applied to everyone in a uniform manner. In fact, my definition of a policy is something that makes sense for everyone. Things like “No weapons at work” or “No drinking on the job” – those are no-brainer policies for most occupations (…excepting police officers and wine-tasters here…).

But what if it doesn’t apply to everyone – or shouldn’t?


Pull up a chair and sit a spell. Grandpa Andy is going to tell yall a story:

There was a company in Roanoke Virginia that found their employees wasting time on the internet. I would name them but I sincerely believe all publicity is good publicity and I want them to receive no benefit from this post. Management decided the best way to address this was to post the names and websites visited on the company intranet.

Do you know what happened next? Employees most qualified (arguably some of the best employees) found other jobs quickly, resigned, and left the company. Less qualified employees found other companies for whom to work in time. The employees who felt trapped remained and suffered the indignity of this kind of treatment.

Those who remained spent a lot of their time looking busy. The last thing they wanted was more shame from management. Were they productive? No. They were spending all their knowledge-working cycles avoiding more punches to the brain.

That will teach those rascally internet-browsing employees!

What Should Have Happened

Instead of lowering the bar, productivity, and collective IQ of the corporation; this company should have addressed the offenders directly. This thought would never enter the minds of a corporate management team capable of deciding to publish the browsing habits of their employees, but leadership should always seek to praise in public and correct in private.

Does This Still Happen?

I don’t know if the company in question operates in this talent-hemorrhaging fashion these days. But these practices remain common. Take a look at the marketing material from companies ready to sell you a solution to your employees wasting time online.

What’s The Big Deal Andy?

I can hear you thinking “Andy, what’s wrong with companies controlling their employees access to the internet at work?” Two words: Trust and respect.

Everyone who thought that question needs to stop right now and read J. Ello’s article: (warning: ComputerWorld link. Check your popup blocker before proceeding…) The Unspoken Truth About Managing Geeks.

Done? Good.

Treating your team poorly does not produce better results. It produces worse results. That means less bonus money for tyrannical management, to put it into terms to which they’ll attend.

Treat your team with trust and respect and they will work harder and smarter for you producing more and better results which will translate into even more bonus money for management. And, it’s actually less work for management. So you can scale. Add more people, produce yet more results… you get the picture.


It’s tempting to institute policies – especially after you’ve been burned a couple times. It’s certainly easier and simpler to do so. Is your goal to make your life easy and simple? Is that best for your company? Your customers? Your employees? You?

Apply Andy’s Policy Test™: Does this make sense for everyone? Or is it a matter best addressed with one person?

:{> Andy

Andy Leonard

Christian, husband, dad, grandpa, Data Philosopher, Data Engineer, Azure Data Factory, SSIS guy, and farmer. I was cloud before cloud was cool. :{>

One thought on “Institutionalized!

  1. Andy, I agree that few policies are revoked/reviewed, and that they are often the wrong approach. As employees we’ve created that culture to a degree by saying things like ‘the employee handbook doesn’s say that I can’t….’. As managers creating a policy is often done to avoid a direct conversation (confrontation) about something that concerns them. Businesses need a way I think to capture their culture and reasons for doing things, policies not always the right fit (nor are mission statements!). Whiteboarding the top 20 ‘rules’ might be interesting, to add one you have to remove one!
    Propagating culture is hard. If you don’t write the policy down, how do you make sure new hires learn the rules (and downsides) of internet usage or whatever?
    A last thought, too often policies turn into highly itemized lists instead of leaving some room. Dress codes are a great example. It’s enough to say that on various days we’ll be business casual or casual and here is roughly what that means. If a manager thinks someone isn’t following along, they just have a polite conversation and fix it, and not allow the employee to get into a legal interpretation of what the policy is. Hard stuff.

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