No Guardrails Needed

Guardrails are a tool to ensure alignment with the organization’s goals and objectives and to keep people on the right path, but they are not effective in all circumstances. Three circumstances that lead guardrails to be less useful include:

  1. Calcification –  Guardrails need to evolve as the technology and business context evolve. Guardrails that don’t evolve with the technology or business environment become boat anchors. Just think how useful coding standards based on COBOL 73 are in a .Net based organization. Guardrails that don’t help individuals and teams make decisions tend to illicit two outcomes. The first is that they are ignored, which generates all sorts of moral hazards within an organization. The second, is that the guardrails facilitate poor decisions.  Poor decisions lead directly to lower ROIs.
  2. No consequences –  When not following guidelines has no consequences, that is a sign they have no value to the organization.  Tom Seffernick, Director of Software Products & Head of Quality at The Equity Engineering Group says,”show me someone that has be fired for not…”
    While firing is an extreme, his point is that if something is important to the organization there must be consequences. Consequences can range from have to push back on peer pressure to conform to formally having to explain why the guardrail could safely be ignored in the specific circumstance.  Guardrails work by reducing the economic cost/friction of making a decision within limits while increasing the economic cost to make a decision outside of those bounds. Without consequences guardrails are as effective as a rumble strip to a hovercraft. Note – having to pushback and/or explain why the guardrail isn’t useful on a regular basis is an indication that the guardrail needs to be evaluated and updated.
  3. Rare or New Decisions – Guardrails are a form of data or experience-driven decision making. Guardrails are generated from reviewing the outcomes of decisions and then using the results to inspect and adapt. Decisions that are new or rarely made will require different types of guardrails that are less directional and more oriented toward guiding how the decision will be made.

Guardrails are an important tool to help leaders push decision making down to the lowest level possible.  Decisions made close to the work are more timely and reflect the nuances of context only those that are doing the work can have.  Guardrails are not, however, a panacea; once they go stale, have no teeth, or are applied in the wrong circumstances all bets are off.