Rules stifle innovation, says Microsoft Research's Rick Rashid

The fallout over the Washington Post's new rules on social media has been insightful on a topic that's vexing many today, the place of tools such as Twitter within the world of

The fallout over the Washington Post’s new rules on social media has been insightful on a topic that’s vexing many today, the place of tools such as Twitter within the world of “traditional” publishing. In particular, I enjoyed my colleague, Steve Baker, writing about why he falls foul of the WaPo’s rules and this scathing analysis from Time’s James Poniewozik.

Both emphasize the somehow radical idea that common sense is the key. And this sent me back to an interview I did a few months ago with Rick Rashid of Microsoft Research (here’s the piece we ended up publishing.) We were discussing Rashid’s theories of management, and the kind of organization he had wanted to build. His theories hold relevant advice for those looking to mesh something new or frightening into an organization.

“Have the fewest number of rules and give people the greatest latitude for personal responsibility,” he said. “We try to have minimal bureaucracy. Usually, what I’ve found over the years is people like to make up rules, partly because they don’t want to take responsibility. If there’s a rule, they don’t have the burden of making a decision. ‘I did that because that’s the rule.’ When I see things like that happen, I intervene [and tell them] ‘we don’t have a rule, because if we did I’d have made it up, and I didn’t. You have to make a good choice and I won’t make that choice for you.’ When you do that you’re treating people like adults. My experience is that while people do make mistakes, on balance if you treat people like adults they’ll behave like adults. On balance, the results will be good. If you treat them like children they’ll behave like children and in effect you’ll wind up with many more problems. You’ll have problems either way: people are people. Things happen. People make bad choices sometimes, because they’re people. But I think you tend to minimize it. I’d rather deal with a problem that arises after the fact, which is rare, rather than try to put restrictions on people so they don’t make bad choices.”

Interesting, no? It should also be noted that in the previous world, this gem would have been lost, as I’d have locked up the file on MSR and moved swiftly onto the next story, with no opportunity to use a quote that didn’t fit into the context of the story we ended up producing. Modern tools allow for more of the story to be told, and that strikes me as a wonderful and marvelous reality.

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