The 2 Key Ingredients for Guidelines That Work

Last Updated Jul 15, 2011 11:00 AM EDT

Maybe the problem with guidelines comes in their very definition.

Guidelines are suggestions for behavior or practice, not rules, declarations or orders. Guidelines are issued when a rule would be overkill, yet to offer no guidance would result in wildly divergent practices and outcomes. But at the end of the day the message inherent in a guideline is, "You don't have to do it if you don't want to." Let's face it, the Ten Commandments would have not worked as well written as the Ten Guidelines.

Is there a way to make a guideline more powerful? Yes, if it meets two criteria, according to Jason Reiss of Harvard Business School and Rebecca K. Ratner of the Robert H. Smith School of Business.

  1. Make it memorable "at a glance." The US government's new MyPlate food guide, which replaced the food pyramid, works because it is divided up proportionally like a plate of food, according to the authors.
  2. Make it actionable. It should guide behavior at the unit of a typical decision. "The Food Pyramid failed in that sense, because it guided behavior over the whole day. Food decisions are made by the meal, so a plate based guide is more actionable."
Guideline aren't always the best solution, but the authors believe they work particularly well in helping with time planning and in setting expectations for employees who work face-to-face with customers. Read their blog post, Creating Guidelines That Work.

Look at your own organization's guidelines and ask if they are immediately understandable and actionable. If not, you have some more work to do.

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(Image courtesy USDA)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.