Tripwire Removal

by Steven M. Smith · 7 comments

I have rules. You have rules. Teams have rules.

Rules trip up both individuals and teams causing unintended consequences.

We learn rules about such things as what we can do, what we can question, and what we can say.

A rule dictates behavior. But when transformed into a guide, it enables you to choose appropriate behavior.

Let’s explore three rules that trip up some teams and how they might be transformed into guides —

Rule 1: We must never force a teammate off the team

I admire your loyalty to your teammates.

Can you always retain a teammate? For instance, what do you do when a teammate is undermining the team’s productivity? (See my post Stop That Mole Now.) As productivity declines, letting this rule dictate behavior may unintentionally cause investors to lose confidence and stop investing.

Can you sometimes force a teammate off the team? If so, when is it appropriate or inappropriate to force someone out? Answering that question will help you explore the boundaries for loyalty so Rule 1 doesn’t limit or destroy the team.

The answers around boundaries can help transform this rule into a guide. Rule 1 might be transformed into a guide like — we can sometimes force a teammate off the team when their behavior is destroying productivity; or when we have insufficient funds; or when their skills no longer fit our mission.

This guide doesn’t force you to retain a teammate in all situations — it offers you choices.

Rule 2: We must always be fully transparent with our clients

I admire your desire to be open and honest.

Can you always be fully transparent to your clients? For example, will you tell a client about missing a milestone because a member of your team is an alcoholic and went on a bender? If I were the client, a disclosure like that would cause me to completely lose confidence in the team. The unintended consequence — you would lose me as a client.

Can you sometimes be fully transparent with a client? If so, when is it appropriate and inappropriate to be fully transparent? Answering that question will help you explore the circumstances where transparency fits as well for your client as it does for you.

For instance, exploration might lead the transformation of Rule 2 into a guide like — we can sometimes be fully transparent with our client when the disclosure helps the client; or when we analyze and accept the risk of our communication; or when our conscious won’t allow any other alternative.

The team now has more choices about how it communicates with clients rather than a dictate.

Rule 3: We must always placate our customers

I admire your desire to please your customer through subscribing to the adage, “The customer is always right.”

Can you always placate the customer? For example, will you let your customer’s business fail so that they can enjoy a temporary period where they think they are right but you know otherwise? I suppose that’s compassionate, but it’s unintended consequence is the loss of any future business.

Can you sometimes placate the customer? If so, when is it appropriate and inappropriate to placate them?

Exploring that question may lead you to transform Rule 3 into a guide like — we can sometimes placate our customers when they are having a crisis; or when we are lost and confused; or when they have gun to our head.

This guide generates some unsavory choices for me. But they are much better in my mind than the behavior the rule demands.

Clear the Tripwires

Rules often make life simpler and better. When they fit, they work well. But things change. When rules stopping fitting the team and where it is now — they often unintentionally limit or destroy the team.

Listen for the telltale words I/we must never… or I/we must always… When you detect they are in play, you’ve discovered a rule. State it precisely and transform it into a guide.

Remove the tripwires that are limiting productivity and threatening your team. Give your team choices rather than dictates.

What rule is your team tripping over? How might it be transformed into a guide?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Becky Robinson July 1, 2010 at 5:53 am

I really like this idea of transforming “rules” into more helpful guidelines. Choices free teams to make productive choices. I think this idea can apply both in the workplace and at home. In raising my three daughters, I like the idea of routines and boundaries but it is important to be flexible within those limits.


Steven M. Smith July 1, 2010 at 7:38 am

Hi Becky, Thank you for the feedback. I agree with you that transforming rules into guides applies at both work and home. I’m pleased that you made the connection with this process and the family. The genesis of this idea came from the work of Virginia Satir, a pioneering family therapist.

From this comment and your other writing, I interpret that you are a wise parent. The world is a better place because of you and people like you.


Nick Zdunic January 6, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Rule 1 resonates with me. On a job in 2012 I was not happy with the performance of one of the team members.

I was searching for a way to improve the situation. I think the biggest problem is that we didn’t swarm to help the guy out more and provide the knowledge transfer and the work was too big as well, i.e. could have been broken up further.

At the time, I approached management for assistance. I was quite disappointed with the response. I was expecting maybe to work with HR to work out a solution – I suggested this. The response was thanks for bringing it do our attention but no solution.

Later on the solution was to allow the guy to move to another team. I saw the mental anguish this caused to the guy (a nice guy) but at the time I felt relieved and then productivity could improve.

Looking back I could have convinced the mgmt and team to allow even more self organisation (we had it already) and allow more swarming behavior. Being in a place where this could be frowned upon we had swarm by permission. I think empowerment as Scrum/Agile suggests would have eased the problem, however this still would have created a filling of some not pulling their weight – but hey you get that orders of magnitude more productivity between team members.

I sense a blog article coming on as there is probably more to say on this topic. For now I leave it somewhat superficial.

Apologies to all involved in this situation – we should try and do better. This means managers being leaders and seeking collaborative solutions and not being the problem solver – that’s part of it.




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