Rules vs Principles ~why principles are better for co-living
PHIL — JAN 18. 2023
Netflix’s expense policy is one line: “Act in Netflix’s Best Interest.”
Some employees think it’s too vague. One can ask, What exactly does Netflix’s best interest mean? How will we know?
Netflix’s approach differs from what you find in most companies, where there will be a thick rulebook describing when you can expense something. e.g. “You can expense dinners up to $30 when working past 8pm and $75 with a client, but not the client’s family.”
At my first job, there was a controversy when a new employee expensed a haircut before a high-stakes client meeting (so he could look professional for it) while HR tried to interpret whether this was allowed by the rules. So they created a new rule about haircuts. This is: policy whack-a-mole.
I think Netflix has it right here. Co-living communities should mostly govern themselves via principles rather than rules.
What are some examples of principles?
Do-ocracy is a principle we rely on heavily at Radish and other communities in the Bay Area. The principle? “You can do anything in the best interest of the community, without permission, as long as it’s mostly reversible.” Examples:
- People can buy a new can opener without figuring out the procurement rules.
- They can rearrange the living room furniture without holding a meeting first.
- If you are looking for crystal clear control of every single situation, the do-ocracy principle is not going to provide this.
- Does painting a wall count as reversible if you can paint it back?
- Should I get people’s thoughts before archiving a bunch of Slack channels?
What it does allow is a single principle which can align behavior without the need for a thick rulebook.
This principle applies to what food people can buy. The principle: “We live in a community of abundance and everyone should get what makes them happy.”
Everyone has one food item that others might see as a bit of a splurge, but is important to them. For one person, it’s the fancy cheddar, for another it’s the frozen coffee pods. The Abundance Mentality says everyone gets their thing. That we are happy our friends get their thing (think of it like buying your friend a drink once every couple months) and we have permission to make ourselves happy by getting our thing.
Can people buy lobster every night then? Well, no. Everyone sort of knows when this principle is being applied in bad faith. If they do buy in bad faith, we can have that conversation. In our experience, this doesn’t happen often.
Imagine a nightmarish tome describing ALL actions and choices requiring group approval, how much approval they require, and what the process is needed to get approval.
Study The Rule Book Stock Photo — Download Image Now — Rules, Book, Cut Out — iStock
Such a tome would grow and grow over time as more edge cases are discovered. Eventually you’ll need a person who can help interpret it.
Rulebooks in a world in limited attention
I believe long rulebooks undermine communities. A community governed primarily by rules rather than principles is destined to spend all of its scarce time together crafting, editing, and debating rules. This is not what you want to use your community’s scarce attention and time for!
You should be using time together to strengthen bonds, tackling thorny issues, and creating together. Using scarce gathering time debating whether the guest policy should be 2 days or 4 days and whether that changes when the guest was a former resident isn’t a great use of group time.
Inevitably, once the list of rules get long enough, people will start forgetting them. No one wants to go reference a rulebook in a Google Drive somewhere. If you have more rules than people can remember off the top of their head, it’s a good sign you need to replace them with principles. This is similar to the advice I gave on how to structure co-buying for vacation homes … make it simple enough to fit on a notecard.
How do you enforce principles?
A system of rules will have a set of clearly articulated consequences for breaking the rules, e.g. go above the speed limit and get a $50 speeding ticket.
Let’s go back to the Netflix example. If HR thinks you are flouting the principle of “spend the company’s money wisely” what will they do? First, they will probably talk to you. Then if you continue to flout the principle, they will fire you. Yes, people who habitually violate the community’s principles, should be asked to leave the community.
Who gets to interpret whether that’s the case? Well … the community. What if the community is wrong? Well, tough nuggets. That’s what it means to be governed by a community … the community is going to make subjective judgments in what it interprets to be its own best interest.
Keep modeling the norms yourself
Norms are the cousins of principles. You need visible norms of behavior to reinforce principles. A do-ocracy isn’t a do-ocracy unless there are examples in the culture of people doing. If you want people to do, show them what it means to do. Leaders of a community need to model behavior they want to encourage in others, actions and choices resonant with principles. Otherwise, they will just be words in a Google Doc somewhere.
I agree with everything in this post. However I think you miss a really important facet of well-functioning community: explicit method(s) for conflict mediation.
When people disagree, and conflict breaks out, it is extremely helpful to have very clear guidelines and method for how decisions will get made.
For example, when you’re talking about kicking someone out of their housing situation, it’s very good to provide actual rules with actual numbers, so people know what rights they have.
E.g. “Nobody can be forced out of the community without a 75% vote from all residents of the community, which can be held at any house meeting, as long as everyone’s given 72 hours notice about the intention to hold such a vote.“
Similar guidelines can be written for broader conflicts/disagreements. Ideally, you never have to use these rules! If you don’t have them, conflict can get very messy. Ideally all your community rules can fit on a single piece of paper.
I work at a cooperative and our company bylaws are about 2 pages — and that’s an enforceable legal document! Surely a community house can keep it under 1 page :)
If everyone who lives there agrees to those rules, then they can actually be held to account on them.
Chalking it up to “the community decides” leaves a lot of room for gossip. The most privileged voices tend to actually drive decision-making without being held accountable to it. Schedule a meeting and hold a vote! This gives everyone a guaranteed place for their voice to be heard.
I totally agree long books of rules are useless, principles are very useful day to day. Even voting should be a last resort!
I’ve been disappointed to see principles break down many times. Often the problem is vague thresholds for asking people to leave. I’ve been in environments where conflict aversion resulted in almost no enforcement of principles. Asking someone to leave for anything short of assault was anathema. :(