Study: Complex Rules Are Broken More Often Than Simple Ones

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Oct 7, 2019

A recent study outlined in the Harvard Business Review says that the more complex a rule is, the more likely it will be broken, and that organizations that have already broken a rule once are more likely to break it again, in certain circumstances. 

The researchers determined this through looking at a detailed data set of over 80,000 rule observations from 1,011 hygiene inspections of 289 restaurants in Santa Monica, Calif., from 2007 to 2010. Each rule was rated based on both the number of sections in the state code that made up the rule, and its connections—its functional link to other rules in the system so that noncompliance in one leads to noncompliance in another. They found that the more sections the rule occupied, and the more connection there was with other rules, the more likely it was to be broken.

The researchers noted that compliance often comes down to routines. A simple rule is easy to remember and requires only simple routines to comply. But as the rule gets more complex, so too does the routine needed to follow it, which increases potential points of failure. 

As to whether managers learn from these violations, they found that if it involved rules with lots of connections, the answer is "no." Those who violate these types of rules, it was found, were more likely to do so again. On the other hand, if a rule had a lot of components in the state code, managers were less likely to violate it a second time, and were more likely to fix it by the time inspectors returned. The researchers hypothesized that this reflects that managers focus their limited attention on bigger rules that don't have as much need to cross-reference. 

The paper said that managers should design their workplace rules with these findings in mind in order to increase compliance. Specifically, it recommended encouraging middle managers to establish reliable routines around following rules early on to prevent bigger hurdles down the line; in the event that a rule is broken, looking beyond that one rule in order to find the root cause of the violation; and focusing ongoing efforts on managing compliance with more complex rules, as they are most prone to violation.

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