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Rule Books: A Secret Ingredient for Scaling Companies

calvinball cartoonEvery game has rules – except for Calvinball – so I would bet that most people have at least leafed through a rule book. Game rule books attempt two things: teach you how to play AND serve as a reference during play. Businesses need rule books, too, to support a large number of internal and external business practices and processes.  Creating good rules and rule books can make the difference between a well-run and growing company that can scale and one that struggles to stay afloat.

Business Rule Books

calvinball cartoonWhen you’re a start-up, everyone works with everyone. It’s all for one and one for all, so there is no apparent need for a rule book. But as you grow, the founders and others with deep knowledge of your products and processes will not always be available. At this point, rule books become critical. They cannot wholly substitute for access to a veteran employee, but they can supplement them, filling in the gaps and helping new employees get started.

Here are some examples of the types of rule books that most growing companies need:

  • Coding Style Guide: Frequently, new developers assume the maintenance and enhancement of a previous developer’s code.  A rule book on how to format lines, name and case variables, and other aspects of development makes it easier for all members of the team to analyze and refactor all code.  Productivity improves, deadlines are more likely to be met, and the application will perform better going forward.
  • Branding and Identity Style Guides: Your company must present a consistent face to the public, so a rule book dictating typography, colors, and logo use is essential. This has the added advantage of allowing employees to spend time creating the actual content as opposed to formatting content and making up inconsistent rules for the use of Oxford commas.
  • HOWTO and Implementation Guides: Businesses need to teach their new customers how to use the products they just bought. HOWTO and implementation guides, like Apple’s Mastered for iTunes, walk you through the process necessary to produce for or consume a new product.
  • The Employee Handbook:  Most companies begin to think about creating an Employee Handbook when they pass 50 employees, and it becomes clear that there needs to be a single set of rules for all employees.  The Employee Handbook becomes the Bible for daily operations.  It explains a wide range of policies, including vacation and sick leave, drug and alcohol use, sexual harassment, education benefits, and employee benefits.

Rules for a Good Business Rule Book

There are steps that companies can take to ensure that they create good rule books for their key business practices and processes:

  1. Keep rule books as short as possible

    The fewer steps, concepts, or even words an employee has to absorb, the easier the rule book will be to follow. As you create the rule book, justify everything you’re putting into it. If you don’t need a rule, consider removing it.  Note. however, that you need enough rules and supporting content for a practice or process to be easily and consistently followed.

  2. Use consistent terminology

    Every term you use in the rules should have only one definition, and that definition needs to be completely understandable.  If necessary, you should provide specific examples to support the definition.  It’s the equivalent of spelling a word and then using it in a sentence to prove that you understand the meaning.

  3. Use words AND pictures

    Employees learn in different ways.  Some absorb information by reading.  Others don’t want to spend the time to read the rules but will instantly absorb the contents of a picture or flow chart.  Therefore, when you write a rule book, include both while being as concise as possible.

  4. More than one type of rule book for the same process

    Sometimes you need multiple rule books.  One rule book is the tutorial for the process, and the other is a reference guide that goes into more detail on specific parts of the process.  You need to ensure that the two two rule books are consistent and complementary.

  5. Rule books are essential, not optional, to grow and scale your business and must keep up with the changes in your business, products, and markets

    Lastly, remember this:  Rule books are widespread and essential in business.  In most companies with more than 50 people, rule books govern the operation of every department on the org chart.  Rule books drive the development of good and consistent software code.  They drive the efficient implementation of products.  They enable high quality support for hundreds or thousands of customers, and they are essential to effective management of employees and company finances.  Without rule books, it’s impossible to have a well-run, growing company. Note, however, that rule books are not immutable.  Markets, products, and customer needs change frequently and the processes and practices covered in rule books have to change as a result.  You need to re-examine and update your rule books frequently to make sure that they match up with the company you’re trying to build.

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