Positioning Rules as Solutions
As you already know, people are more likely to follow your rules after they buy in to the reasons behind them. But you can take it one step further, and provide your “rules” as solutions instead of orders.
Amazon’s Kindle publishing team understands this concept well.
I was preparing the Kindle edition of my recent book, following the production of the softcover edition. The printed book is in full color and uses a rich burgundy to highlight text.
As you may know, some Kindle models are restricted to shades of grey and sepia. If a book is going to be compatible with as many devices as possible, it needs to specify an alternative color for highlighting on monochromatic devices.
Kindle could have handled it badly. They could have shown me a policy that looked like the following:
Had they done that, my reaction probably would’ve been the same as yours: (1) they couldn’t find five uglier colors if they tried, and (2) clearly their designers don't know what they’re doing. I would have felt annoyed and even a bit frustrated. A policy restricting my choice of colors feels random and controlling.
But they didn’t do that. They made me want to use one of those colors through a clever combination of policy and guidance.
They started by stating the following policy:
“When choosing colours for e-books, we conform to W3C recommendations for maintaining a readable contrast ratio between text and background colours.”
Well, of course I can buy into that! I am more than happy to support their decision to conform to W3C recommendations on that subject.
Next, they offered technical guidance on how to determine whether a color fits the bill, in the form of the following formula (R, G, & B refer to the red, green, and blue elements in the six-character RGB code):
Y = (0.2216 * R) + (0.7152 * G) + (0.0722 * B)
Acceptable values of Y range from 102 to 153.
For sure, that's a very technical piece of guidance. Too technical for many designers. No doubt, many people will do what I did: look at it and wonder, “Can’t you just tell me what colors would be acceptable?”
At this point, I’m looking for answers, which they can provide in the form of the following statement:
In other words, the exact same information is being offered to me, but now the statement is helpful, whereas had it been worded as a mandatory policy statement it would have been oppressive.
By first stating the policy in terms that I can buy into, and then posting methods for compliance, they set themselves up beautifully to be able to solve my problem with helpful information.
Moreover, they use the same approach I preach: avoiding the word “must” in policy statements — even mandatory ones, like this one.
Too often I see Intelligent Information Management (IIM) policies that are well-meaning but have same shortcoming: they articulate the policy incorrectly, so it sounds oppressive instead of helpful.
Here’s a simple example: An organization identifies that there’s a risk that new software applications might inadvertently create opportunities for privacy breaches. The policy writers know that the correct tool to mitigate the risk is a Policy Impact Assessment (PIA), so they produce the following policy statement:
Our policy is that all new software applications must undergo a PIA.
The problem with that statement is that the rest of the department sees it as an unwelcome obstacle placed in the path of the development process. With that approach, you have to convince — or threaten — people to buy into the rule.
A more effective approach would be to word the policy in way that makes it easy to buy into, e.g.,
Our policy is that we take steps during the software development process to reduce the risk of privacy breaches.
It would hard for anyone to argue with that one! Once you’ve laid the foundation in a rock-solid way, you can move people easily to the next step by offering guidance on what those steps are. Now, the PIA helps them comply with the policy, and feels helpful instead of dictatorial.
Your IIM policy statements will not invite compliance if they are worded in the “do-this-because-we-say-so-and-we-know-best” tone of voice. Word the policy as a statement we can all buy into, then offer your expertise as guidance for compliance.
About Lewis S. Eisen, B.A., J.D., C.I.P.
Lewis S. Eisen, B.A., J.D., C.I.P., offers an approach to drafting policy that has been adopted by groups at organizations across Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. He is the author of the international bestseller ’How to Write Rules that People Want to Follow: A Guide to Writing Respectful Policies and Directives.’ Contact him for information on running a one-day workshop for your chapter or region.