Simple Rules!

"But, it's not on the list."

For years, I started a facilitation workshop by having the students come up with norms for the class. My intent was to both create ground rules for the session as well as have the students practice an activity that they would likely use themselves as facilitators in the future. The facilitation technique for this exercise varied from class to class, but the output of the exercise was usually a flip chart page with a list of do's and don'ts which we would then display prominently somewhere in the classroom.

Even with the ground rules for the class thus established, I found over time that it was not unusual for someone to do something during the class that, while not technically against the letter of norms, certainly violated the spirit... and further, it was not unusual for the someone, when called out for their behavior, to point at the poster the group had created and say, "But, it's not on the list!" From this individual's perspective, the fact that their behavior was not specifically prohibited by the norms captured on the flip chart page somehow made the behavior acceptable, no matter how disruptive the behavior might be.

On the positive side, the disruption gave the whole class an opportunity to practice their facilitation skills in another exercise, a retrospective, the intent of which was to improve the class norms — two birds with one stone, you might say. However, what also became clear over time was that no matter how valuable the activities of facilitating team norms creation and running retrospectives might be, no list, no matter how exhaustive, could possibly cover all undesirable behaviors of ingenious disrupters.

What to do?

For inspiration, I turned to something a wise man, Dee Hock, said:

"Complex rules and regulations give rise to simple and stupid behavior." 

Dee Hock's words put the class norms poster in a new light. Instead of growing the list of items on the poster, what if we considered a new approach? 

For this new approach, I drew on additional wisdom from Dee Hock:

"Simple clear purpose and principles give rise to complex and intelligent behavior."

What if instead of a long list of norms — rules and regulations, you might say — we came up with a simple set of principles that along with our class purpose statement would help guide us through the workshop?


The first attempt at simplifying the class norms was a bit extreme. In the next class, the students decided on one principle as their norm: Participate! This one principle could inform individual choices as varied as arrival and departure times and when to return from breaks to how to use technology such as cell phones and computers during the class. We also found that the Participate! principle affected how students experienced the class. In addition to being physically present, the students tended to be more intellectually and emotionally present, as well.

This change worked so well that I decided in the next class to replace the ground rules poster with a simple poster on which was written the one word "Participate!" The team norms facilitation exercise shifted to one in which we discussed the difference between principles and rules and how using a principles approach might impact the work we did in the class. Confident that we were on to something, I decided to adopt this new approach to the class norms exercise. The principles poster with it's one word "Participate!" became a standard going forward.

For a few classes all went well... until one class, in which we learned that not all participation is desirable.  During this class, a difference of opinion between two students resulted in some unpleasant things being said by both parties. A resulting uncomfortable moment of silence was broken by one student congenially remarking, "Well... I'm not sure that's what we meant by "Participate!" To their credit, our verbal combatants chuckled and one, with remarkable humility, asked that we try out "that retrospective thing" to improve the class norms.


With Dee Hock's advice in mind, the class engaged in a retrospective to decide what to do. After a few minutes of discussion in which having and expressing different opinions was upheld as desired, the group decided that the interactions in the class could be made more effective by adding the word "Respect" to our current one word principles list. Respect would then inform the act of participation. We made this change and the class was a great success. To this day, these two principles serve as simple rules for all my classes and workshops.

What are your "simple rules"?

Look around your team environment. How do existing rules and regulations impact your team's interactions? What principles are present? Are they explicit? How do these principles inform your team's interactions? Can "simple rules" make a positive impact on your team's effectiveness?