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Four questions to make policy stick

Ryan Quinn
Ryan W.Quinn, an assistant professor of business administration at U.Va.'s Darden School of Business, is co-author (with Robert E. Quinn) of Lift: Becoming a Positive Force in Any Situation and the Leading with Lift blog.

Angela Manese-Lee
Angela Manese-Lee, a former business writer with The Roanoke (Va.) Times, is a student at the Darden School.

Since the effects of the U.S. financial crisis began to reverberate down Wall Street and into Main Street, calls for new policies--including increased regulation and corporate vigilance--have been loud and plentiful. Such policy adjustments may be needed. But if our culture, both corporate and social, doesn't change, these policies have little chance of working.

During the dot-com gold rush of the 1990s, for example, the product-design unit of a high-tech firm was challenged to develop a new technology that was to become the centerpiece of the company's strategy. They were given nine months. Yet this group was notoriously bad at meeting deadlines and its engineers spent only a fraction of their time on actual engineering activities.

Leslie Perlow of the Harvard Business School, who was studying the group at the time, gave them a solution: Quiet Time. With the manager, she created a policy preventing employees from interrupting others' work from 8 a.m. until noon three days a week.

The results were miraculous. The group improved daily productivity, launched the product on time and reduced the number of hours worked each day. The engineers were happy and the organization was better off.

Six months later, however, Quiet Time had vanished and all of the old problems returned. Why?

Because culture--the unconscious assumptions, implicit values and automatic responses that define who we are and how we operate--usually finds a way to work around rules and undermine policy that are inconsistent with its assumptions.

The company culture valued and praised individual heroes who did "whatever it took" to get the work done. When Quiet Time eliminated interruptions, it also eliminated crises, which eliminated the need for heroes, an unacceptable development to workers wanting to be valued in this way. They responded by eroding the boundaries of Quiet Time until it disappeared altogether.

The Quiet Time story shares similarities with the 2008 financial crisis. Over time, we have come to eliminate or work around policies which, like Quiet Time, were designed to help or protect us.

For example, to work around insurance regulations, we created credit-default swaps. Why? Because in our culture, we have come to worship "getting ahead" at the expense of values like integrity, restraint, and responsibility--often without realizing we are doing so.

In other words, to be successful, policy change must often be accompanied by cultural change. And cultural change occurs when people model new cultural assumptions consistently and explicitly, inviting and inspiring others to join them.

In the 1700s, John Woolman was upset that many of his fellow Quakers were slave owners. He traveled the colonies, asking his fellow believers searching questions like, "What does it mean to be a moral person?" and "What does it mean to will a human being over to one's children?" The Quakers became the first church to formally denounce and renounce slavery. They accepted this policy rather than work around it or eliminate it because it had grown from within their culture.

By pausing to ask ourselves searching questions, we can discover (a) whether we should try to change a culture, (b) what about a culture should be changed, and (c) what we can do to help change the culture. We recommend four specific questions that we can ask:

• What result do I want to create? (This question helps us to create a positive purpose.)

• What would my story be if I were living up to the values I expect of others? (This question helps us identify and enact our core values.)

• How do others feel about this situation? (This question helps us empathize with others.)

• What are three or four strategies I could use to accomplish my purpose for this situation? (This question helps us become open to learning and feedback.)

These questions, drawn from scientific research and moral philosophy, can be used by government auditors deciding which companies to audit, employees deciding how to spend their companies' money, investment bankers deciding how to use new financial instruments, parents deciding when to buy things for their children, and by any of us.

They can be applied in any situation, but they will change the culture that spurred the financial collapse when we--ordinary citizens as well as investment bankers--use them in situations in which we are deciding whether and how to "get ahead." If we want a culture that values integrity and responsibility as well as competitiveness and ambition, we must each be leaders in creating such a culture. Then, policy becomes easy.

By Ryan Quinn and Angela Manese-Lee

 |  December 18, 2009; 6:50 AM ET |  Category:  Culture Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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