The Semco Style 5 Principles to transform the way we work

Write, Erase And Rewrite Rules

Our constitution is of course not written; it just conceptually encompasses the basic values and culture that are currently in place (and that change with time) – Ricardo Semler


In a Nutshell

When organizations scale, processes and rules are their best friends: They help standardize how things should be done so that the business can run without stumbling often. The rules were originally meant to break down complex tasks and make it possible for anyone to get into the thick of things at anytime.

However, people often confuse rules for being rigid routines that cannot be modified once set. But, in reality, rules need to be flexible enough to accommodate evolutions in technology, the market and customer needs.

Although no company explicitly forces employees to follow every rule, there’s an underlying current of coercion when such rules are painted on the office walls. They act like constant reminders to people to never cross the line; to never look beyond what’s already set; and to never experiment, innovate or grow.


What

Take decisions or formalize things today in a way that allows them to be changed tomorrow if needed.


Why

Rules and codes of conduct are the foundation of any type of society, the workplace included. However, rules that are placed on a pedestal and made unchallengeable, sow the seeds of autocracy. Large organizations that are several decades old, often tend to be undemocratic places, where rules are sacred and people blindly follow them without ever questioning why they do what they do. It worked very well in the industrial era because it helped to automate production with very little room for error – as long as the rules were followed to the hilt. However, rules set in stone will no longer hold water in today’s market where changes happen fast and there’s very little time to react. Only those companies that are proactive and agile can hope to survive because their rules can be written, erased and rewritten according to the situation.


How

Write rules and procedures in pencil: When you write your rules and procedures in pencil, you send out a powerful message, to everyone in the organization, that they aren’t permanent. It helps show people that there’s some wriggle room around the rules and that they weren’t created once and for all. Instead, they’re living documents that evolve along with the need of the hour. It’s a great way to show that you want to put people ahead of rules and procedures and that you value better alignment between stakeholders.

Encourage people to challenge processes: Everyone in the organization, right from the intern to top-level managers, should be given the freedom to question the relevance of a rule and propose changes to it, if necessary. If someone does challenge a rule or a procedure, then everybody involved should discuss its relevance. For instance, people could ask, “Why we need to do this before sending that? Maybe we could just send that without doing this little extra step/process and we would gain time, be much more productive and profitable.” If everyone agrees that it’s time for change, then erase the rule and rewrite it.

Accept there will be some initial confusion: In the beginning, it’s natural that people feel a little bit lost. After all, rules that have always been around create a sense of security and a comfort zone that’s difficult for people to step out of. But, over time, they will begin to get used to the new way of doing things and understand that they’ve actually improved their productivity, creativity and innovation.


Level to implement

 Easy


DO’S

Be flexible

Take everyone’s opinions into account

Empower people to challenge processes and how things are done

Be open-minded to change

DON’TS

Put rules ahead of people

Create rigid rules

Keep doing things without questioning why you’re doing it

Paint the walls with mission statements, vision statements, values, code of conduct etc. If  

 you do want to do it, just write it down in pencil

Pros

Enhances agility

Improves flexibility

Helps adapt to changes much faster

Puts people first

Cons

People might feel lost initially

Some time may be lost in finding the right information/person to help with a specific task

Risk to knowledge management if someone leaves


CASE

 

Semco’s culture is unique primarily because of its lack of too many processes and organizational rigidity. The company has famously organized itself in informal ways because they understood that it was the best way to maintain themselves as a fast-change environment. In the years between 1990 and 2010, Semco underwent some rapid changes, thanks to an intense period of mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures.

Had Semco been a very structured and process-oriented company, with lots of controls and procedures in place, it would have been quite complicated. In this period, when new businesses were being created, it helped people moving between departments to adapt fast. The processes were created on an ongoing basis, as and when needs were identified.

It’s not that Semco was entirely against processes and rules: They knew processes need to be in place to optimize people’s jobs. But when they do the opposite, where leaders create silly processes that don’t really add any value to the workflow, they stayed away from them.

The way Semco co-created it’s code of conduct is a case in point: During an annual retreat, the whole organization discussed and aligned itself to co-create the code of conduct. Over the course of two days, they came up with seven items, with some overarching concepts and a few bullet points wherever necessary. The new code of conduct was developed with everything that made sense at that point in time to the company. It covered all the important and relevant aspects of working together and by the end of the exercise, every employee signed the new code.

What made it even more special was the fact that the new code was written down in pencil. It was a symbolic message that whatever’s been put down might make sense at the moment, but it doesn’t mean it should be the same forever. Also, if someone wants to challenge any idea in the code of conduct because they’ve come up with something different or want to improve it, they can do so. Eventually, if the rest of the team agrees with them, then they could just erase the particular parts and rewrite them.

Although it was a simple practice, it showed the importance of weeding out irrelevant processes and extreme stakeholder alignment. It put people over processes and sent out a message that rules and controls that hindered people have no place in the organization. It encouraged all levels of employees to question and challenge processes – and, to improve them if needed.

Here’s a glimpse of the Code of Conduct that was written down in pencil:

  • Practice feedback
  • Speak and stimulate others to speak
  • Take initiative
    • Identify problems and seek for solutions
    • Seek knowledge from others and in other areas
    • Seek available information
  • Learn to listen
    • Listen, understand and request clarity
  • Discipline
    • Commit yourself to the team’s deliverables
    • Manage your time
    • Document things
  • Be more generous
    • Be patient
    • Be tolerant
  • Be assertive when communicating key information


Changemaker

Expert avatar

Borges, Ian

Co-founder at LeadWise | Partner at Semco Style Institute | Entrepreneur | Lifestyle Strategist | Digital Nomad

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Portuguese, English, French, Spanish

  • facebook
  • twitter
  • linkedin

Related Resources

Your Organization Wastes Time. Here’s How to Fix It.

Podcast: Are You Making Things Too Complex?

TED TALK: As work gets more complex, 6 rules to simplify

5 Ways Process Is Killing Your Productivity

How To Reduce Complexity In Seven Simple Steps