In an interview with Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke University, basketball coach, the host asked him about player discipline and how he enforces rules. Coach K’s response was immediate. He ‘doesn’t like rules.’ He prefers standards. Rules, he explained, ‘only give you one of two options, you either obey the rules or you disobey the rules.’
Rules don’t allow for individualization or opportunities for leadership. Standards, however, can take into account styles, abilities, and circumstances. Standards give people something to which they can aspire. It creates the opportunity to determine how someone will achieve a standard rather than dictating the method by rule.
In our family, we could set a rule that our children wash the dishes and wipe down the counters every single night. Or we could set a standard of maintaining a clean kitchen. The latter allows them to figure out how to maintain that standard.
Having a rule to do something every night could put us all in a difficult situation. When they have a lot of homework or come home late from a family event, they may need to just go to bed. As parents, we either allow them to break the rule or they go to school exhausted. Or they are in a position of having to break the rule to get some much-needed sleep.
However, if there’s a standard of a clean kitchen, the way that they do that might be different. They could rinse their plates immediately after they’ve used them or wipe down the counter after they prepare a snack. They have to figure out ways to live up to the standard of a clean kitchen.
Delivering A Standard
We all strive for good customer service in our business. Having a standard for this allows each member of your team some autonomy. Having a rule that states your company will always respond within 10 minutes, puts you in a very difficult situation. One minute over and you break the rule. Customers get agitated.
If your responses are respectful and helpful, that meets a standard. It leaves people with a better impression. The exact time of your response doesn’t matter as much. Customers will be more forgiving when they know you will always be helpful.
Effort as a Result
When I was younger, we had two types of grades in school, a letter grade and a numerical grade which rated our effort. My parents did not care about the letter grade as much as they did the effort grade. That was the standard. My best effort.
The challenge and opportunity for me was to figure out how to meet that standard. They could have established a rule about doing my homework every single night. Instead, by having the standard that I put in my best effort, it allowed for nuance. It forced me to learn how to manage situations. If I were to miss an assignment there is a natural consequence of a lower grade. But, if I go in to talk with the teacher right away to explain the circumstance. If I work to make it up, that is effort. I may still get a lower grade. But I would argue the lesson learned from navigating that is more valuable than simply following a nightly homework rule.
Don’t get me wrong, I think rules are important. In fact, I think they can help us to maintain the standards that are set. But I find greater value in living up to standards and finding ways to demonstrate them, than I do in following every little rule.