adopting principles is kind of useless

Principles purported by proponents are painfully perilous.

March 14, 2023

Adopting principles is kind of useless. They are generally formed as a reflection of a cohort or individual who considers themselves experienced in a context. Typically, principles are collated as a series of statements positioned as fact. Thanks, I appreciate your input and agree with the exact number of statements that feel relevant to my context. Revolutionary.

Rules and Principles are not the same.

Rules provide constraints that we don’t break because of an extrinsic or intrinsic motivation. Such as punishment. Rules also have a tendency to exist in response to context, so they have nuance and, when enforced, they inform behaviour. Organisations are great at building asinine rules, but it’s their specificity and application to context that signals to you which rules need breaking.

By their very nature, rules require cohesion to function. Many of the world’s legal systems wrestle constantly with precedence. Stare decisis, as the kids say, essentially means that a legal decision or ruling made in a higher court is binding and must be followed by lower courts in similar cases. 

Legislation formed by governments is tested by professionals in real and effecting circumstances, allowing the rules to evolve. The output of these tests refine the rules further based on the context of the case and application by the professionals. Few would claim that this kind of legal system is perfect, but it does adapt.

As a quick tangent but relevant tangent. Fellow armchair lawyers will be quick to point out that the precedence or stare decisis, as the kids call it, is a principle of common law. Common law is a set of principles adopted by multiple countries and is the basis of what many experience in a court case. My response:  common law has hundreds of years of testing and has been interpreted or modified by the countries who adopt it. Kyle from accounting presenting his immutable 48 principles of bookkeeping does not have the same pedigree.

There is a direct and quantifiable relationship between breaking a rule and the potential consequences. Company policy is a great example;  anyone who has worked for a blue-chip organisation will likely have encountered a policy, guardrail or rule that fails a cursory amount of critical thinking. Unless you are the benefactor of nepotism or the policy wholesale ignored, the consequence of breaking a rule is tangible. In contrast, principles are often positioned as fundamental truths, immutable and correct, aside from the times they aren’t.

Principles are born from relationships, experience and context.

I was a Scrum Master once and held the Agile Manifesto dear. I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with some of its signatories over the years, and they seem like smart people who mostly share a good intent. They were also people with a specific dynamic responding to challenges at a point in time. There were a lot of elements to that situation that made it unique and representative of a broader concern felt by many. That context is not the same as what we’re facing today.

Optimistically, I think most groups of humans would benefit from the Agile Manifesto professionally and with some exaptation, personally. It’s specific enough to help inform behaviour and doesn’t lock pragmatism away in the basement. Being completely reductive, if I plan to see my parents at lunchtime tomorrow and a tree collapses on the road; responding to change would be a good thing.

The principles are more limited in application, and I’d wager, even without knowing your business, of the 12 available, there will be some that resonate immediately. They will feel like something you need and you might even have some tangible examples already. The others will be a mix of needing some edits to fit the context and some that just don’t apply. This isn’t to say that the principles are bad or incorrect, but the practice of taking them off the shelf most certainly is.

Taking the view outside the agile and software development space, Ogilvy is a pretty well known brand in advertising and marketing. To be successful in that space, you’d expect them to be fairly solid in designing visually appealing media. Design, typography and copywriting all feed into a compelling advertisement. All three of those crafts also have their own set of principles. What’s interesting about the firm’s work is that they deliberately offend some craft oriented principles in most of their work. Even between pages on a single document, they will vary what principles they respect and what ones they ignore.

If we sat down with someone from Ogilvy, they might reveal that there is in fact a healthy respect for principles. In the world of marketing, once you abstract from individual crafts, the company's founder, David Ogilvy, is often sighted for penning principles of marketing. These seven principles, or derivatives of them, are a common reference point for people in the field. That presents a new challenge though, do you treat principles based on hierarchy? This starts to become subjective, a subjective fundamental truth. Instead, you can try to adhere to all principles at all times, this seems a fast way to get very little done.

Enough principle-bashing, time to say something helpful

Principles can be an immutable and correct way of understanding perspective. In my day job (remote:af), a lot of the work we do fundamentally comes down to aligning people and teams. This often includes agreeing on some principles, values, guardrails or any other term the context-owners prefer to use. What is interesting is that regardless of team size, industry, business function or strategic objective, there are some fairly consistent intentions that manifest in similar principles. There will also be some principles of critical importance that would be confusing hieroglyphs in any other company.

Principles as we use them in business are the primordial expression of agreement between people about what is important in a situation. Adopting someone else's principles is kind of useless because they were not founded in your context. They will generate resistance in an organisation in the same way that a human body sends antibodies to a wound. You don’t need to adopt them though, just learn from them.

In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world it’s useful to have measures that support in navigating the grey areas and informing perspective when making decisions. The folly isn’t in having principles, quite the opposite if you want to do something ambitious. The heart of the issue is taking someone else's as your own. So the next time you’re confronted with someone telling you to adopt some principles, at the very least ask yourself what needs to change for them to fit your business.