Rules and Rituals

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Matt Richtel investigates the mystery of why laptops and not iPads need to be pulled out of bags for the X-Ray machine at airport security.

From the New York Times

What’s the distinction between the devices? Similar shapes, many similar functions, the tablet is thinner but not by much. Is the iPad a lower security risk? What about the punier laptop-like gadgets, the netbooks and ultrabooks? What about my smartphone?

Richtel contacts the TSA and security experts, but doesn’t really get a good answer. The TSA said that it had its reasons but declined to share them saying that “the agency didn’t want to betray any secrets.” Another security expert called it “security theater”, implying that making passengers go through some inconvenience makes it look like the government is taking their security seriously!

The problem of course is that electronic devices come in all sizes. Rules are best applied to clearly defined categories. Categorization of devices based upon size is just not practical. There has to be an easy way for TSA and passenger to unambiguously agree on the categorization that then leads to the application of the rule “the device comes outside the bag for the X-Ray machine”.

Is it a laptop? (Y/N) is an easy way to categorize. Is it more than 1 cubic foot? (Y/N) will just not work.

The real world presents a lot of ‘continuous functions’. Sometimes you have rules based upon categories like single/married or male/female that are clearly defined (more in some states than in other). But most of the time you categorize by drawing a line on the graph of a continuously varying function like age. You can vote when you are 18. You can drink when you are 21 etc.

What is the right age at which you can vote? Actually age may not have much to do with it. Education, mental maturity may have more to do with it. But those are harder to measure or indisputably agree on. So age is the best proxy.

The voting age does differ from country to country, so obviously there isn’t one right answer. But once it is in place, a rule like the voting age, just digs itself in. It becomes very difficult to change. Status quo itself has inertia. Additionally, there may be vested interests that are pushing at it from both sides. It becomes very difficult to change. Greece’s early retirement age, for instance (55).

Rules like clean categories. If the real world presents continuous functions, rule makers chop up the continuous function to create clean categories. Once these categories are created, they are very difficult to change.

There is another property of rules. You can always add more. They are very much like things carved in stone. You can’t erase them, but you can always add more.

It’s tax season here in the US. The US tax code is a labyrinth of rules and loopholes and rules to close loopholes that is impossible to deal with. Everyone agrees that it is far too complex. But somehow law makers keep adding more deductions, more rules to the tax code.

The most interesting thing about rules is how they eventually become rituals. Rules endure, and outlive the rule makers. On the way, generations of rule makers keep adding more rules, but they never take anything away. One day the rule makers no longer know why the rules exist. But they keep enforcing them. They have become the priests and the rules, rituals.

Here’s a Zen story that hits home

When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.

I recently met the CIO of a leading news media company. He said that over time their Marketing department had added so many “special offers” for their newspaper that they now had 1200 of them in their system. Nobody really understood all of them. But they were afraid to remove them. Why change something that wasn’t broken? Apparently there was a rogue link in some forum which gave readers a free 3 month trial period even if they were current subscribers! But that was a small price to pay.

Businesses, especially big business, has its share of rules and rituals. Some of it is necessary. Some of it isn’t. The cost to business from unnecessary rules is enormous. It slows down progress. It gets in the way of much needed change. It saps the energy of people. They end up spending so much of their passion attacking and defending rules and justifying exceptions, which could be used constructively.

The only way to keep business agile is to constantly subject its rules to the sunlight of logic. Why do we have this rule in place? Did we make this rule when the conditions were different from what they are today? Do we completely understand the costs of this rule and have we weighed them against the benefits? Does anyone even remember why we have this rule?

Like zero based budgeting, we should be talking about zero-based rules.