‘Those ain’t our rules’

‘Those ain’t our rules
We didn’t write’m
No need to read’m’
[From the film of ‘The Cider House Rules’ – the apple pickers come back each season and only when Homer Wells joins them and reads the rules out loud have the rules ever been shared. Rules, and doing the right thing regardless of the rules, are the core themes of the film, elaborated in the book.]

We come across that a lot. How to to make rules that work and are not just the voice of a pointlessly rigid authority. Three illustrations.

1. Early on in the life of Spark, Philippa joined us, rejoining having left the team for a while and gone via one of the Big Five consulting firms. She brought with her the dress code instructions (lipstick, belts, earrings, every tiny detail proscribed). We wondered why there could not be a rule which was ‘dress appropriately’.

2. There’s a health centre in East London which has a bunch of rules, protocols, guidance, around diversity, inclusion, whatever. Not a single one of these is displayed, or even taught. These lists are filed somewhere and come out when they need to be attached to a bid for money. The rest of the time, those who work or have been around the centre a long time walk newcomers over an invisible boundary into the space where certain behaviour is OK and other behaviour is not. This is a part of East London rife with racism, confrontation, social tension. But the rules are not ever articulated as explicit constraints. Rather, when someone steps over in a line in their behaviour, somebody who understands what does and does not go will gently, in companionship, prompt an interruption, a reflection, and indication of what will and won’t wash. It comes from within, a tacitly shared understanding of what this place means. It’s a place made over 15 or 20 years of repetition, reincorporation, embodiment of what the health centre stands for.

3. Last year we spent most of the year engaged in a substantial lessons learned review for the Chief Scientific Advisor and Futures and Horizon Scanning head of a government department. The intention of the work was to research, emerge lessons and lead to production of governance and good practice guidelines for commissioning, carrying out and disseminating this kind of work. We initiated the work with private interviews with those directly involved with the original programme, supplemented by 10 minute telephone calls with 70 – 80 of those more on the periphery. Then we used this raw material to create an annotated timeline of the key turning points in the first 5 years and pinpoint where lessons might be found and to frame more detailed questions to work through in short, recorded conversations supplemented by a week of structured cross-department events, using pinboarding and narrative techniques. All the audio and visual material was documented. The body of materials was segmented and analysed in a tailormade cataloguing and research device designed for us by Spanner (www.spanner.org) and the emergent insights used to construct provocative essays on aspects of governance – a way of reporting back to the client and inviting department-wide reflection on developing and upholding standards and behaviours in these emergent and complex areas of evidence-gathering. At no stage did will tell anyone what to do or that that was a definitive guideline. Rather, we gathered experience and presented this back in such a way that the recipient would be inclined to consider it and form judgements in relation to it which would affect how they acted in future.

It calls to mind the story of the hotel key, as told by Bruno Latour in a essay on knowledge claims. The question is, how do you get the hotel guest to return the key? Do you put up rules? (‘Those ain’t our rules’) Do you attach a huge wooden object to the key that is a constant physical reminder and makes it bulky, uncomfortable and easier to leave at reception? Are the rules outside the object, or prompts, embedded in the object? So do you get to rules by words, or by a kind of oddness which interrupts the flow, the autopilot of actions and reactions, and shifts the relationship between person and object without anything having to be said?

Of course nowadays, the key is a disposable credit card sliver of a thing which mostly doesn’t work and needs reprogramming after several increasingly irritable trips to reception.

[Latour, Bruno (1991) ‘Materials of Power: Technology is society made durable’ in John Law (ed.) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination Sociological Review Monograph 38 Routledge, London, pp 103 – 132]

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