Simple rules guide behaviors and interactions of members of a CAS. Whether by conscious agreement or by unspoken assent, members of a CAS appear to engage with each other according to a short list of simple rules. One group that we worked with has re-named the simple rules as “seed behaviors” to reflect their generative nature.
Simple rules establish the conditions that give rise to patterns in the system by shaping the conditions. These can be the covert agreements that emerge over time in a system, creating its culture. Often new leaders come into a system and state their intention to change the culture and “create a new world” for the workers, stakeholders, and customers. The problem is that unless intentional steps are taken to uncover and change the existing simple rules that hold those patterns in place, no amount of leadership command will change the system wide patterns. Simple rules can be used retrospectively to understand what shaped the conditions to generate whatever patterns are currently in the system.
On the other hand, simple rules can be used prospectively to shape a desired future. In HSD we believe that groups can identify patterns they want to generate and define simple rules that seem most likely to help them generate those patterns. What is critical in establishing system-wide patterns is that everyone has to use a shared set of simple rules at all levels of decision making and action. This requires a shared understanding of what the rules mean and agreements to use the rules to make decisions.
Effective simple rules:
- are few in number (never more than about 5-9),
- are general statements that apply in any situation,
- are always stated in the positive, and
- start with action verbs.
Simple rules are different from the norms we name for meetings and short-term interactions because they are intended to be more generally applied and not time bound. They are also different from values and beliefs because they are about action. They start with a verb, so they inform action.
The simple rules of human systems dynamics are:
- Teach and learn in every interaction
- Search for the true and the useful
- Give and get value for value
- Attend to the whole, the part, and the greater whole
- Engage in joyful practice
- Share your HSD story
See The Simple Rules Foundation website for more information and examples of simple rules from people in diverse settings.
10 ways to embed simple rules
- Looks like / Doesn’t look like
- What is this for me?
- One a week
- Write it on the wall
- Put them in pictures
- On every agenda
- Question for every meeting – every meeting, the meeting leader comes up with a question about the simple rules, and everyone answers
- Tell the story
- Revisit often
- Don’t call them “Simple Rules”