Unwritten Rules

  By    Rob Pierry    Chief Technology Officer projekt202

By Rob Pierry
Chief Technology Officer
projekt202

What are the unwritten rules in your organization? The differences between, say, how the expense policy is written versus what is enforced, the ‘open door’ that actually isn’t, the real decision-makers versus what the org chart suggests?

While it feels good to navigate these hidden structures (you’re savvy, you’re in-the-know), imagine how it feels to those on the outside. Especially imagine how it feels for someone who doesn’t even know these rules exist (appeals through the proper channels seemingly randomly ignored, others seemingly getting away with flaunting the written rules).

These unwritten rules sometimes paradoxically emerge from attempts to remove the direct influence of authority on people’s day-to-day lives. We have unlimited PTO (but not that much and not at that time that you want), we don’t have bosses, org charts, or defined job roles (good luck figuring out how to get a raise), we work collaboratively (but always end up choosing what a particular person says).

For this reason, if you are trying to build a collaborative culture, explicitly defined centers of authority with a method of redress are preferable to shadow decision-makers. Jo Freeman covers this more extensively in the context of feminist social and political groups in her essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness.

As we build diverse cultures and companies, we should look to avoid common places where outside perspectives are marginalized or alienated.

In that context, a viable method of redress is rotation of authority and democratic control of leadership. I’m not aware of any companies that have tried to organize internally in this fashion, but it would be an interesting experiment. Valve’s ‘flat’ management structure, for example, has little defined authority and seems to be an example that proves the point I’m making. In a more typical company structure, explicitly defined authority usually includes a way to escalate up the hierarchy (boss’s boss) or appeal through a side channel like HR (though these are fraught with unwritten rules as well). I do find it interesting that the same companies who are convinced that a competing, unregulated, market soup is the optimal condition for the economy at large also tend to run their internal economies via central planning.

Social influence, reputation, and hierarchy aren’t going away. The dynamics within and between groups of people are complex and constantly changing. As we build diverse cultures and companies, we should look to avoid common places where outside perspectives are marginalized or alienated. Relying on unwritten rules, many of which are only known to those with the right economic or social background, further excludes the very viewpoints we are trying to welcome and limits what we collectively are able to accomplish.


projekt202 is the leader in experience-driven software strategy, design and development. We have a unique and established methodology for understanding people in context — we reveal unmet needs — which drives everything we do. This leads to a crisp, clear understanding of the customer, which shapes the design and development of new solutions and experiences. We have the expertise, teams, skills and scale to deliver sophisticated software solutions that improve any and all touchpoints across the user journey.

projekt202 has spent over 15 years bringing to life and to market compelling experiences through our Experience Strategy & InsightUser ExperienceSoftware DevelopmentMarketing & Analytics, and Program Management practices. Our talented team has delivered emotionally-rich and intuitive solutions for global brands and clients such as 7-Eleven, Allstate, Canon, Capital One, Dell, McKesson, Mercedes-Benz Financial Services, Neiman Marcus, Samsung Electronics, Subway and The Container Store, among many others.

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