Why Semco Decided To Put Down Its Code Of Conduct In Pencil

When organizations scale, processes and rules are their best friends: They help standardize how things should be done so that the business can run without stumbling often. The rules were originally meant to break down complex tasks and make it possible for anyone to get into the thick of things at anytime.

However, people often confuse rules for being rigid routines that cannot be modified once set. But, in reality, rules need to be flexible enough to accommodate evolutions in technology, the market and customer needs.

Rules Set In Stone Breed Autocracy

Although no company explicitly forces employees to follow every rule, there’s an underlying current of coercion when such rules are painted on the office walls. They act like constant reminders to people to never cross the line; to never look beyond what’s already set; and to never experiment, innovate or grow.

Rules and codes of conduct are the foundation of any type of society, the workplace included. However, rules that are placed on a pedestal and made unchallengeable, sow the seeds of autocracy. Large organizations that are several decades old, often tend to be undemocratic places, where rules are sacred and people blindly follow them without ever questioning why they do what they do.

It worked very well in the industrial era because it helped to automate production with very little room for error - as long as the rules were followed to the hilt. However, rules set in stone will no longer hold water in today’s market where changes happen fast and there’s very little time to react. Only those companies that are proactive and agile can hope to survive because their rules can be written, erased and rewritten according to the situation.

Creating Processes That Enable People

Semco’s culture is unique primarily because of its lack of too many processes and organizational rigidity. The company has famously organized itself in informal ways because they understood that it was the best way to maintain themselves as a fast-change environment. In the years between 1990 and 2010, Semco underwent some rapid changes, thanks to an intense period of mergers, acquisitions and joint ventures.

Had Semco been a very structured and process-oriented company, with lots of controls and procedures in place, it would have been quite complicated. In this period, when new businesses were being created, it helped people moving between departments to adapt fast. The processes were created on an ongoing basis, as and when needs were identified.

It’s not that Semco was entirely against processes and rules: They knew processes need to be in place to optimize people’s jobs. But when they do the opposite, where leaders create silly processes that don’t really add any value to the workflow, they stayed away from them.

Write Today. Rewrite Tomorrow.

The way Semco co-created it’s code of conduct is a case in point: During an annual retreat, the whole organization discussed and aligned itself to co-create the code of conduct. Over the course of two days, they came up with seven items, with some overarching concepts and a few bullet points wherever necessary. The new code of conduct was developed with everything that made sense at that point in time to the company. It covered all the important and relevant aspects of working together and by the end of the exercise, every employee signed the new code.

What made it even more special was the fact that the new code was written down in pencil. It was a symbolic message that whatever’s been put down might make sense at the moment, but it doesn’t mean it should be the same forever. Also, if someone wants to challenge any idea in the code of conduct because they’ve come up with something different or want to improve it, they can do so. Eventually, if the rest of the team agrees with them, then they could just erase the particular parts and rewrite them.

Although it was a simple practice, it showed the importance of weeding out irrelevant processes and extreme stakeholder alignment. It put people over processes and sent out a message that rules and controls that hindered people have no place in the organization. It encouraged all levels of employees to question and challenge processes - and, to improve them if needed.

Here’s a glimpse of the Code of Conduct that was written down in pencil:

1. Practice feedback

2. Speak and stimulate others to speak

3. Take initiative

   - Identify problems and seek for solutions
   - Seek knowledge from others and in other areas
   - Seek available information

4. Learn to listen

   - Listen, understand and request clarity

5. Discipline

   - Commit yourself to the team’s deliverables
   - Manage your time
   - Document things

6. Be more generous

   - Be patient
   - Be tolerant

7. Be assertive when communicating key information


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