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The 2 Key Ingredients for Guidelines That Work


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 HBR.org 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)