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Policies are policies, are policies (or are they?)

Not all policies are created equal. The rules we live, work, and play under impact our behaviours and our organization’s state of health. When I talk about policy manuals and policy writing, I almost always return to my training in appreciative inquiry (AI). One of the guiding beliefs in appreciative inquiry is that organizations move in the direction of what they study. The way we frame rules, decisions, and key documents shapes how we think about them.

The types of rules we make influence how we evaluate our programs, staff, and volunteers. These rules shape behaviour and the individuals involved tend to behave in a way that satisfies the policies requirements rather than build towards the organizations aspirations.

Here is an example:

Sick days – Why do we allow them and how many should we have?

If staff have too few days they may choose to save them for a rainy day. As a result, they come in to work when they have a cold or flu, kindly sharing it with the office.

Workplaces with adequate sick days that do not allow staff to carry a balance of unused days forward, often experience the “extra holiday time effect” where staff use their sick days as additional holiday days.

Organizations that provide adequate sick days and also allow staff to “bank” their unused time, tend to see staff use fewer sick days. This reduction in sick day usage also holds true in places where staff are allowed to use a portion of their sick days as personal health days. Check out these two articles talking about the policy changes and their effects on the Toronto District School Board:

Toronto District School Board sick days up 22% as teachers no longer allowed to ‘bank’ time – National Post, June 25, 2013.
Teachers’ sick day ‘bonus’ will save boards money, Liz Sandals says – Toronto Star, April 12, 2016.

We try to address these ideas when we take part in appreciative policy writing.

Imagine that your board exists on the following continuum.

On the left of the continuum is reactionary.

Your meetings tend to focus on what happened yesterday, last week, last month, or just since the last meeting.

For example, today you are making a decision (and hopefully a policy) about financial management, specifically about petty cash and who has access. 

Why? Earlier this month your new treasurer noticed that the petty cash financials do not balance. You have no idea why the numbers don’t align but you pass a motion about managing your petty cash to prevent theft. 

The policy is strict, very prescriptive, and limits the use of petty cash. In some ways it makes some of your financial transactions difficult but your petty cash is “safe.”

On the right is visionary. 

Your meetings are focused on the future. Where does the organization want to be in 5 years? 

What kind of staff will help you get there? How do you hire, recruit, and train the kind of staff that will put the organization and its mission first? 

How do we recruit and build staff that will come to the leadership, board, and the organization for help if they enter a personal crisis? 

Finally, what kind of policies will get you there?

The board creates a collection of policies addressing recruitment, staff support, and financial management. They are more open, adaptive, and forward focused. Micromanaging the petty cash isn’t an issue because you have created policies that influence the petty cash behaviour at a higher level.

On the left, we write policies in response to what is going on and happening around us. On the right, we write policies to help shape us into what we wish to become.

The trick to appreciative policy writing is learning how to step back from the issues at hand and have constructive and exploratory conversations about where we want to go and how we shape our organization to get there. Having a strong Vision, mission, and guiding values framework to guide the board through the process is fundamental.

More on that later.