In this blog I would like to share my experience with rules and values and why we need both. I hear people often talk about values and their importance. But in daily life people often neglect values or simply forget about them. Or we define values but do not use them to validate decisions and actions. Defining values but not living them is the same as not having values at all. This is dangerous because you can’t live on rules alone. Therefore, it is important to understand how rules and values play together. One without the other is not enough to be successful. They are like two sides of a medal. If you try to have one without the other, it won’t work. So, let me tell you why.
A word on rules
We use rules to establish a basic understanding of what we want and don’t want. An example would be when we define the playing field and the basic rules for a game. We make it clear to everyone how we want to play the game. Rules are just perfect for that. Rules should be clear and short statements to precisely define things, if done well. We try to define all the aspects of the issue at hand we think necessary. In the end we come up with a static set of rules to define how e.g. a project should work. We use the rules to guide everyone involved in the process. It is the same approach with laws. We establish rules to protect the individual and address the needs of the community. We use them to define the basis for our societies.
So, we have everything under control, right? But what if things get dynamic? What if the rules do not address every detail? What if there are no rules for certain aspects? The drawback with rules is that they are static. But reality is very dynamic and complex. As a result, we are often not fast enough or not even able to adopt the rules. Furthermore, we typically want to approve rule-sets before they come alive. Think about the process to release a new law. In consequence, we need something else to handle the dynamic aspects within our sets of rules. This also holds true for a business context or life in general.
How Values can help
What are values? Values are things like “Respect”, “Honesty”, “Openness”, “Fairness”, “Charity” or “Courage” to name a few. First of all, values are things we appreciate and share as a community or society. Values also give use guidance on which behavior we desire as a group. And finally, values give us a tool to validate our decisions and actions. This helps us to bridge the gaps every rule set has. It also helps us to validate if our rules are consistent with our desired behavior. If our set of values matches our rules, we become able to address dynamic aspects. Even without rules it is easy to decide if actions are respectful or honest to the members of a community. Most noteworthy this enables us to take the right decision, even when there is no specific rule.
What does that mean in real life? Imagine a trial. Very often things are not black and white. Judges need to decide even if there is no explicit rule for a certain aspect of a case. To do that good judges use a set of values to reach the right decision. Appropriate values may e.g. be “Proportionality”, “Independence” or “Fairness”. By using a good set of values, judges are able to live up to the spirit of the law. That enables judges to interpret the law to take good decisions. This principle applies to every situation where we need guidance to bridge gaps in rule sets. This might be a trial, a project or a game. In short everything that is based on a set of rules.
Bringing it all together
So here is the riddle to solve: What kind of person do you want to be? A person that tries to live the spirit of the rules by living by an appropriate set of rules? Or a person that tries to tweak and bend the rules all the time? In the end the set of rules in question and the values you live will guide that decision. Take Scrum as an example. The framework contains a set of rules. These define the playing field for Scrum. As a framework for all kinds of products Scrum obviously can’t define everything. To move around according to the spirit of Scrum you need the values defined by it. Without the values “Focus”, “Respect”, “Openness”, “Courage” and “Commitment” there is no Scrum. You need them to fill the gaps and details for your product that the Scrum rules don’t cover.
As humans we need the combination of rules and values to form functional groups, communities and societies. A good set of rules is important. It defines the intended way of living and acting together in a group. But to honor the intention of the rules we also need an appropriate value system. Without it there is no guidance to take the right decisions where the rules don’t say enough. You may mechanically follow all the rules by the letter. But without the values all you will get is a hollow zombie not living up to the intended spirit. Therefore, we need the combination of a good set of rules with an appropriate set of values to be successful.
A good example are the values of the South African National Parks. They help to take the right decisions in the complex environment of national parks when the established rules aren’t sufficient.