Why Should I Follow Your Rules? (The Subsidiarity Principle)

In a previous post (I Follow My Rules, You Follow Yours) I wrote about allowing people to follow different practices, which can be a good thing, while at other times it is necessary for people to follow the same practices. But how do you determine which rules should be followed by which people? You can find an answer in the subsidiarity principle. This is what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. The Oxford English Dictionary defines subsidiarity as the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level. The concept is applicable in the fields of government, political science, cybernetics, and management [emphasis mine].

We are dealing with a hierarchy of authorities, each one with a different scope, and each one monitoring the lower authorities. In every environment the details of the hierarchical structure will be different, but this is a generic picture most of us will recognize:

 

(Note: the actual arrangement of idiots, crooks & monkeys may vary, depending on the environment.)

Following the subsidiarity principle tasks and rules should be the responsibility of individual workers, unless they are not able to perform the tasks effectively, in which case rules need to be established in the next higher level of the hierarchy. This means that I can follow my own rules for writing unit tests, unless the team can prove that it is more effective to establish centralized rules for this at the team level. At the same time it is obvious that sprint planning meetings cannot be done effectively by myself at the individual level, which automatically makes it a task for the team. And then the same pattern repeats itself. The team is able to follow its own rules for sprint planning meetings, unless the next level (middle management) can prove that it is more effective to establish centralized rules for planning meetings at the department level.

It's OK for individual workers and teams to copy each other's ideas and synchronize rules, without direction from a manager. But it's also OK for people to deviate from the norm, and to experiment with new practices. And when a higher level authority steps in to say "You cannot do it that way," the best answer made by the lower level will be "Please explain how applying your higher-level rules will be more effective than applying my lower-level rules." When used this way, the subsidiarity principle allows a free flow of ideas and practices within the boundaries of effectiveness. You can follow your rules, and I can follow mine, until our manager proves that it is more effective to synchronize and agree on the way we work.

Note: The subsidiarity principle assumes that there is some clear goal or mission that we can use to establish the effectiveness of tasks and rules. (And in an ideal world almost all tasks will find a level of sufficient competence before arriving at the higher levels that is the domain of the monkeys, crooks and idiots.)

So, next time a manager tells you which rules to follow, you could answer him by asking the question "Please explain how that is more effective." Don't just assume that your manager is a monkey, crook or idiot. Yes, many of us are, but some of us actually have good reasons for asking you to comply. But also don't just slavishly do as your told. It is fair to be given a decent explanation, so you know how your work fits into a bigger picture. And if your manager has no answer ready, keep pushing until you get it.

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  • http://www.jay.fm Jay Levitt

    There’s a corollary that’s pretty handy in large organizations; never having heard of subsidiarity, I called it the principle of the Least Common Manager.
    Often, as developers, we’re caught in a tug of war between two stakeholders, each of whom has a perfectly valid point. Maybe Customer Service wants to make reactivation simpler, to reduce support costs, while Security wants to make it more onerous, to cut down on fraud. They’re both right. It’s a tradeoff.
    If there’s a tradeoff to make, who better to make it than the manager who values both alternatives? Go up the management chain of both Marketing and Security, find the first executive responsible for both, and let them decide.

  • http://www.blogspot.com Tekka

    I have problems with this concept of subsidiarity, as the average person is stupid and completely untrustworthy. The average person would just as soon destroy you as they would avoid working or being effective in even the most modest capacity. If people or organizations are to be effective. The competent trust worthy people at the top have to lead and direct the masses else nothing gets done. From my perspective this subsidiarity stuff just leads to incompetent unproductive unions and failed socialist states and backwater local governments that can’t do anything right.

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