Rules are rules

Posted on Thu 16 September 2021 in blog • 4 min read

I have a reputation among my colleagues that I am very strict and rigid about the communications rules I follow for myself, and for my team. That reputation is entirely deserved, and I am indeed not particularly flexible in my strong preference for asynchronous, non-interruptive communication methods. I have discussed elsewhere, and at length, what those are and why I have that strong preference. But I haven’t really outlined why I very rarely allow myself, or others if I can help it, to deviate from it.

But Florian, the complaint usually goes, can’t you occasionally make an exception? Sometimes there’s something you could easily do to unblock someone else, if they could only quickly chat you up and ask you to jump in. You’d be in and out of there in no time.

Let’s use an analogy here.

Suppose you’re out of an indispensable food product, say milk or flour or potatoes or eggs. So you make a quick run to the grocery store, and because you don’t live in a country with proper cycling infrastructure and the store is out of walking distance, you drive.

You arrive at the grocery store parking lot, and for some unfathomable reason it’s chock full. Completely packed. Not a single spot available. Except those two spots right near the store entrance that are reserved for wheelchair users, which you are not. You don’t see a single car around with a wheelchair plaque or decal. Not even one.

Now. When you look at the situation, the objectively simplest and most practical solution is for you to park in a wheelchair spot. You know exactly how long it takes you to buy a carton of eggs; you’d be in and out of that place in two minutes. The chance that one car needing a wheelchair spot arrives in exactly that time is minute, and even then there would be another one available. The probability of two wheelchair users arriving in their cars, simultaneously, in those two minutes, is infinitesimal. There is an overwhelming probability that you will vacate the spot again, without it ever being needed by one of its intended users while you were occupying it. So, why not use it?

The answer is that if it’s OK for you to break the rule that that spot is for wheelchair users only, there is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t also be OK for everyone else. You’re not special, the same rules apply to you as to everyone else — so if we were to decide that this rule doesn’t apply to you this very minute, then it also needn’t apply to anyone else under similar circumstances.

And then, promptly, we’re in a situation where everyone flouts the rules, and an actual wheelchair user can no longer do their grocery shopping. That’s why you, if you are not a wheelchair user, shouldn’t park there, and nobody else that isn’t shouldn’t either.

And with interruptive communications — such as pinging someone in a chat when you could send them an email just the same — it’s much the same way: if you needlessly ping me and I acquiesce, drop the thing I’m doing, and focus on your interruption instead, it would be unfair of me to not do the same for somebody else. And I know if everyone does this to me, my work day is purely interrupt driven and that’s awful. The same goes for tolerating interruptive communications towards my team — or, worse, engaging in such interruptive communications myself.

Are there exceptions to this rule?

Ah but of course. Let me take you back to the grocery store. Suppose someone had a heart attack or other major health emergency that struck them down right as they were exiting the store and walking back to their car. Would anyone — including a wheelchair-using motorist that arrived just at that moment to do their shopping — complain if the ambulance parked across both wheelchair accessible spots, if that was the only practical way to get closest to the patient? I hope not. And caring for the patient and stabilising them for the trip to the hospital would surely take longer than your two-minute egg procurement dash that we discussed earlier.

Again, this has a parallel in interruptive communications in a (much less dire) regular work situation: stuff is actually on fire? Or there’s something that for some legitimate reason needs doing right now that only I or someone on my team can do, or is most comfortable with? Ping me in chat, use the back channel, give me a ring on my phone for cryinoutloud, whatever it takes to get my attention. Nobody will hold that against you, least of all me. And in this case that’s a rule that I can also easily apply generally, treating everyone around me fairly and equitably: when stuff is urgent and seriously overrides the priority of what’s currently being worked on, you get to interrupt me or, if necessary anyone on my team. (Though I would prefer that you interrupt me specifically, and I can decide whether we really need to mobilise another person.)

Just don’t abuse that. If you do, you’ll just condition people into taking your sense of “urgent” with a big pinch of salt.

Edit, 2021-09-21:

My colleague Jean-Philippe Evrard has suggested that I refer to another, much more elaborate article on a similar subject: Siderea’s The Asshole Filter. I recommend you give it a read if you’re inclined.