To write great policies, arm those in the future who will kill your darlings
Writing policy and process guidelines is hard. You work for weeks collecting everyone’s feedback, tweaking the wording to avoid all kinds of anti-patterns, and then still you have to watch people use it as a blunt instrument to bludgeon colleagues with anyway. There is no bulletproof policy that can’t be misused. There’s no trick to designing process so that people consistently honor the spirit and intention rather than the literal interpretation of the document in front of them. I spent months working with some of the deadliest and most effective policy wonks in DC — both on the Hill and in the White House — and the one thing I learned is that policy has a natural lifecycle. When it’s brand new it moves awkwardly through the world, when it settles in it hopefully thrives for a time.
But even if it does, no matter how successful it might be, eventually its routine wears its effectiveness down, its body starts to fail and it can no longer perform its role.
That’s because good policy fixes problems and when a problem is removed from the system, the system incentives change. Think about this way: why do startups start young, idealistic and innovative only to eventually grow more and more corporate and litigious in nature? It’s because early stage companies tend to hire people who prioritize the company’s well being and mature companies tend to hire people who prioritize their personal gain. But this isn’t about the loss of company culture. Nor are the early stage employees saints and the later stage employees parasites. It’s all about how structure determines incentives. When a company is young, the risk of failure is high. People who choose to join have likely passed on more stable opportunities, probably for better money. They do this because if the company is successful the reward for being early is greater than the reward they would get at those stable jobs, but the company has to be successful first. Prioritizing for personal gain doesn’t make any sense. There isn’t much personal value that can be extracted out of a young company, and the more you extract the more likely you will lose the big pay off in the future.
But once the company is successful, the risks/reward calculation is different. There is no big future pay off on the…