Two days ago, I wrote about how bureaucratic laws in society can encourage entrepreneurial folks to spend time creatively getting around laws as opposed to finding ways to create value for society.
In a similar way, organizations can create policies and norms that encourage entrepreneurial employees to use their creativity, ingenuity and opportunity-focused minds to find ways to avoid annoying, bureaucratic work as opposed to finding ways to satisfy customer desires.
I have a self-indicting story to illustrate the point. In our offices, we have no light switches. Instead, we have motion-sensors connected to the overhead lights. You leave your office, and five minutes later the lights automatically click off.
I used to manage a great guy named Brent. Brent, you see, was a very even-keeled fellow who would spend hours reading a book (for work) at his desk, nearly motionless. This is fine, except that every five minutes and ~click~ the lights would go out. B-unit (as I would call him) would stop reading, flail his arms until the lights went on, and then would go back to Hayek or Mises or whomever.
One day I asked him, "Brent, is that annoying?" He responded in the affirmative, and I spent over 30 minutes one Wednesday trying to jerry-rig a system of tape, wire, dangling filament and paper that would 'trip' the lights as air from the vents twirled a piece of tissue hanging in front of the sensor. [I reasoned that if the constant interruptions slowed his work flow over the course of a year, 30 minutes of my time would be worth it.]
So here, we have a well-meaning policy about lights and energy usage. What do I do? Instead of spending 30 minutes writing lesson plans or working on other projects, I spend 30 minutes cutting out tissue paper.
Now, frankly, the likelihood of me doing anything remotely productive in any 30-minute period is slight, BUT you could imagine that most employees are smart and entrepreneurial, and could otherwise be productive during that time. You would want them focused on their value-creating projects as much as possible, and not dealing with bureaucratic minutiae of modern office life.
Am I unfairly picking on an office policy that--when you look at the big picture--probably makes sense? Potentially. But, it offers us a good reminder: to paraphrase Mr. Koch, we should evaluate our policies frequently. Do they urge us to be productive and entrepreneurial, or do they urge us to follow commands and 'wait for someone to tell me what to do'?
Do any examples of unintended consequences come to mind from your work experience or stories you've heard?