It’s hard to argue with the simple rule:

“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Note that this simple rule establishes a value, a goal (be kind if you want kindness given back to you), however, it does not provide a litany of instructions as to how to achieve the general outcome. There is no “how”. The person using this rule is expected to have the maturity and mastery to figure that part out for themselves. Interestingly, many people have found this simple rule to be a compelling and a valuable rule to live by, despite its simplicity. No one seems to be clamoring for the “Rule Book”.

I recently found and read an interesting book, called, “Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World”, by D. Sull and K. Eisenhardt (Boston: Mariner Books, 2016).

At first, I resisted their approach. But as I began to think more carefully about it, I began to see the power of their argument. I think my initial resistance was that I have often seen overly simplistic “cookbook” approaches applied to many of our complex environmental problems.

It is natural and enticing to think you can solve complex public problems by applying a step-by-step guidance document to multi-faceted, multi-part, and often highly political projects.Guidance documents can include useful tidbits and concepts, however, they can rarely fully address the problem that is in front of you.There are simply too many human and system variables that one cannot begin to understand, much less control.

When the situation you are trying to manage relies on complex human decision-making and the exercise of human willpower (to do something or not do something different), simple rules can apparently be most useful.

What are Simple Rules?

Sull and Eisenhardt define simple rules as follows[1]:

1) There must only be a handful of guidelines applied to a specific activity or decision. Rules are intended to offer a limited amount of guidance, so you don’t need a lot of them. Keeping the number of rules to a handful forces you to focus on what matters most.You might think that capping the number of rules would result in guidelines that are too simplistic, but this is often not the case.

2) Rules are tailored to the situations of the particular people that will use them vs. “one-size fits all” rules that apply to everyone.

3) They are applied to a single, well-defined activity or decision, but should not be overly broad principles that are difficult for the defined user to apply in real life situations.This means that involving the users in the development of the “simple rules” is essential.

4) Rules should give concrete guidance without being overly prescriptive.

This book provides a compelling case for why it often makes sense to resist the urge to control complexity by creating byzantine rules and regulations. Our knee-jerk attempts to control complex conditions often backfires — crushing creativity and innovation, and demoralizing the implementers — whether they are in the public or private sector.

By resisting the urge to control using a top-down model of decision-making, there may be instances where using simple rules can result in much better outcomes.

Simple Rules and Civic Governance

Reading this book led me to think about the 4 Civic Standards that are at the core of the Civic Organizing©/Civic Governance framework that was authored by Peg Michels and Tony Massengale.

These standards lay out 4 “simple rules” for governing in a way that is just, fair, transparent, accountable, and inclusive.These simple rules, if implemented, should support democratic practice, enable active citizenship, hold everyone accountable for producing results, and provide a meaningful, governing role for all involved. These provide basic structure, while providing loads of discretion to those applying them. Beautiful.

Here are the civic standards that are part of the Civic Organizing framework. These standards are easier to apply to issues where the scale is manageable. Using these standards becomes more challenging (though certainly not impossible) at larger scales.

  • Those impacted by a problem should have an opportunity to help define and solve the problem in light of civic principles, and the realities of their situation.
  • All stakeholders are accountable for contributing resources to address the problem (including leadership, knowledge, networks, constituencies, time, funding, etc.).
  • All stakeholders are engaged in decision-making and policy-making that builds their capacity to be active citizens and which contributes to the common good.
  • All stakeholders contribute to the sustainability of outcomes by implementing civic policy making in the places where they have the authority to act.

Time and time again, I have seen examples where these 4 simple rules (standards) are enough to turn a business-as-usual civic process on its head – moving the process from stuck/stymied, to producing much improved outcomes. When given a chance and trusted, when provided some simple rules, it is astonishing how well people can self-govern and make a difference in their corner of the world.

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[1] Sull, Donald and Kathleen Eisenhardt, Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, (Boston: Mariner Books, 2016), pp. 21-23.

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