We all recognise that it is hard to make change happen. This is nothing new. In the early 16th C Machiavelli commented in The Prince “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order…”.

I regularly see leadership teams trying to bring about change in their organisations puzzled and frustrated that none of the management levers they pull seem to have much impact. They have developed a plan, communicated the changes, set appropriate metrics in place, lit the fuse…but nothing happens. What’s going on?

What are the unwritten rules?

There are many ways of approaching the mismatch between what is being propagated from the top, and what is actually happening on the ground. One of my favourite diagnostic tools is “The Unwritten Rules of the Game”, a methodology developed by Peter Scott-Morgan and colleagues at A D Little, and published in a book of the same name [1]. The book is now sadly out of print, but copies are readily available second-hand, and it deserves to be on the shelf of anyone interested in strategy development and change management.

Peter and his colleagues had spent a long time trying to understand why change programmes failed so often. Eventually, they realised that unless there was agreement between what people were being told about a new policy, strategy or way of working, and what they were experiencing in their day to day work, change could not succeed.

He argues that any attempt to change the way an organisation works must deal with the unwritten rules. The things that are never made explicit, but represent the shared knowledge in a group of “what is important” and “the way things work around here”. These unwritten rules are often in direct conflict with the public rules, policies, procedures, strategies, mission statement etc. And they are much more real and enduring to people in an organisation than the latest pronouncements from senior management, because they reflect their own personal experience and the experience of people they know and trust.

To bring about change you need to understand how people are making their decisions and how they view the world around them.

The model identifies three attractors that grab people’s attention and helps them decide what to do:

  • Motivators – things an individual wants; such as money, prestige, promotion.
  • Enablers – the people who can give them what they want; such as line managers
  • Triggers – things that need to be satisfied to make the enabler provide the motivator.

The motivators, enablers and triggers interact, and people are constantly seeking to find and deliver the triggers to the right enablers to get their motivators. Out of this struggle come the unwritten rules that tell people how to behave to achieve their goals.

This may appear cynical and self-serving, but it is not. It is simply the way we make sense of the competing pressures in the world around us.

The tension between written and unwritten rules

What happens when there is a conflict between a new initiative, with its public “written rules”, and the existing motivators, enablers and triggers with their real but hidden “unwritten rules”? It depends on how strong the conflict is. If it is weak, you get resistance. If balanced an increasing strident struggle, and if strong the resistance goes underground. Behaviours can easily become extreme. The types of behaviour Scott-Morgan saw are summarised in the table:

The only way to effectively implement change is to understand what drives people in the organisation, understand where the conflicts lie and seek to mitigate those conflicts by the way you introduce and support change. The main message is don’t be taken by surprise!

The recommended approach uses a series of structured interviews to identify the motivators, enablers and triggers and the associated unwritten rules, and to compare them with the desired organisational change or outcome. Once you have understood the relationship between the written and unwritten rules you can develop an action plan to get the alignment needed for a successful change programme.

The book gives a comprehensive and practical approach to working out the unwritten rules in any situation.

My favourite starter questions are:

  • What does your boss care about most?
  • What do you need to do to get on around here?
  • What does success look like for you, your team, and the business?

It is amazing what these simple questions unleash, and with some careful follow-up questions, you can quickly uncover the main unwritten rules.

Some Health Warnings:

  • It is not really possible to use this tool in your own organisation. People must feel that they can tell the truth as they see it, even when it contradicts the ‘official’ position. Use the tool to help other organisations and get someone external to help yours.
  • The interviews are carried out in the context of a specific business change issue. What is uncovered depends on the broad question you are asking, and if you look at a different issue you may find different problems and rules.
  • It’s nobody’s fault. If people are not behaving the expected way it is not because they are mad or bad. They are trying to deal with the situation as they understand it, and that may not be the same way the leadership understand it.
  • What you get from the interviews is people’s perception. They may be factually correct or not, but this is what they believe. You can’t argue with it because you believe it is wrong.

What does it look like in real-life?

“The unwritten rules are always there and always powerful. You can’t just crash through them no matter how strong you think you are. You have to work with them and around them.”

Over the years I have used this tool with a number of companies and always found it worthwhile.

In a financial services company, the leaders were trying to shift their relationship with the customers. They had a pretty good strategy, but had not made sure the shop-floor knew what was happening and why. So some new priorities and new procedures came down from on high with instructions to implement. However, the company was not working in a vacuum. Competitors were making changes and the market was shifting. So the plan had to be adjusted from time to time to account for bumps in the road or to swerve around obstacles. This made sense to the leadership because they knew what the full plan was and understood what the external pressures were. Unfortunately, to those further down the organisation, it looked like random changes in direction. So they decided that in the absence of clarity, they would choose the priorities. And they decided that the best thing to do was to carry on with the old priorities because they knew those worked.

There was a complete disconnect between what the leaders were trying to do and the behaviours of the frontline teams. Figuring out the unwritten rules helped the leadership to realise they had to go back to square one and relaunch the change programme.

An international family-owned business was trying to become global. The family were pulling back a little and employing some seasoned professional managers from outside to make the organisation more agile and effective. But the new managers found it very hard to shift the working practices. An unwritten rules study revealed that rule 1 was “don’t get on the wrong side of a family member” and rule 2 was “the best way to progress is to do good work that is visible to the family; so make sure you get on their pet projects”.

So all the time the new people were talking, staff were looking beyond them to try and guess what the family wanted. The family had to learn to be much more supportive of their new team and much more careful when they gave an opinion.

Finally, a manufacturing business had a poor safety record and was implementing a programme at each of their units to change the culture. This involved treating every incident, no matter how minor, as potentially serious and taking remedial action. Recognising that this might not fit with the management culture at all the units, they looked into the motivators, enablers and triggers. Everyone had heard about the new focus on safety, but thought that ‘when push comes to shove’ profit was more important. Certainly more important than minor incidents. Managers thought they were responsible for maintaining production, and as long as no-one was badly hurt, that was their focus.

Resistance continued until there was a minor fall at one of the sites during installation of new equipment. The site manager was one of those who got the need for safety and instantly stopped work, conducted an investigation, and then ordered refresher training on safe working at heights for all the operators and engineering staff. This cost money. They were on a tight schedule to get the plant updated, and there was a collective in-drawing of breath as everyone waited to see what the CEO would do. He publicly and enthusiastically thanked the site manager for doing the right thing and reconfirmed that this was what the new safety policy meant.

Making the site manager a hero demonstrated top-level commitment to a new way of working, virtually eliminated the resistance, and allowed the culture to change.

These few examples show the value of understanding the unwritten rules when you start a change programme. The unwritten rules are always there and always powerful. You can’t just crash through them no matter how strong you think you are. You have to work with them and around them.

[1] “The Unwritten Rules of the Game”, Peter Scott-Morgan, McGraw-Hill, 1994, ISBN 0-07-057075-2

Dealing With the ‘Unwritten Rules’
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