Stella Smith: Don't let procedures stifle the initiative of your staff

Well-drilled procedures are vital, but it's the behaviours of people that can make or break an organisation

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

I started volunteering at a local charity late last year, and as part of my induction, received a comprehensive pack of policies and procedures. I’m one of those people who can’t read two pages of flat-pack instructions without getting bored, so reading and digesting 93 pages of procedure is proving to be more than a challenge.

For many charities, though, written procedures still seem to be our preferred mode of communicating how to do things. In the aftermath of every crisis, whether it be a safeguarding disaster or a fundraising catastrophe, senior managers always want to check the procedures to check that we have written down somewhere what should have happened.

I understand that written process is important and provides reassurance, but if we focus on revising and issuing procedures as a way of improving practice, we’re missing the point. After all, it’s people’s behaviours that make or break an organisation, and changing behaviours is much more complex than writing a procedure.

For a start, one of the big problems with written procedures is how quickly they become outdated. With so many changes in technology, social attitudes and regulation, no sooner are the documents developed, agreed and circulated than they are out of date.

But my real bugbear is how we let procedures take centre stage in organisations, so that doing what the book says becomes more important than dealing with the issue in front of you.

I’m not for a moment saying we can do without procedures. Of course we need some prescribed ways of working. When there is an emergency, a well-drilled procedure for evacuating a building can save lives. But when these become our main ways of communicating how to do things, we get lazy management and unresponsive bureaucracies. Procedures are a means to an end and they cannot cover every eventuality. Hours spent writing comprehensive, detailed ways of working is of limited value if you have staff who quietly ignore questionable practices that are not covered by the procedures.

If charities are to respond quickly to the ever-changing demands of the world we’re in, our staff and volunteers need to be resourceful and think on their feet. This is not going to happen until we trust and invest in them and put procedures back into their supporting role. Rather than insisting they always follow rules to the letter, we should invest in skilling up our people, ensuring they understand the first principles of the work. Our staff and volunteers need to be encouraged to question, explore, make shared decisions and hold each other to account. Yes, it requires more work than issuing a procedure and skilled managers who are able to manage and motivate people rather than simply oversee process. But it also creates more robust organisations where every member of staff is valued and can make a real impact and contribution to the cause.

If you want to create something amazing, you have to take some risks. If charities want to create inspiring movements for change, then we’re going to have to put down the user manual and start the more complex work of properly managing our people.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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