IT Management

Compliance Options: When to Switch No! to Why?

My Mom used to tell folks we four Thomas kids were all distinctly different from the time we were born. However, we were all the same in one important way: As three-year-olds, our favorite words were “No!” and “Why?”

Inside all of us are three-year-olds who simply don’t like to be told what to do. When someone states that I “have to” do something, I often hear my inner-child popping out that default response of “No!”—even if the adult I am now is nodding yes, agreeing on the outside, and even agreeing (mostly) on the inside. The adult may even be totally convinced that compliance with the request is the best course of action. But the toddler within me just loves to shout “No!”

Admit it. You have an inner toddler, too. Everyone does. And that toddler tends to shout the loudest when we’re faced with a stressful situation. At work, being told there’s a compliance reason for changing our work practices is pretty darn stressful.

After all, there’s a good reason why we do things the way we do. When we pick between options, we’re actually balancing many factors: efficiency, effectiveness, time constraints, resource constraints, tool constraints, and process constraints. We’re weighing our preferred way of doing things against what’s best for our team, for stakeholders involved in cross-functional processes, and for the enterprise. We’re balancing what’s feasible, what’s advisable, and what’s preferable. We do some complicated calculations in our head and then announce that, in our professional opinion, Option 1 is the way to go.

Then somebody who doesn’t have any idea about the calculations we’ve been through replies, “No!” And just like that, we’re supposed to go with Option 2, regardless of how it upsets other factors.

When I consult, I’m often placed in a room with two parties arguing about whether to go with Option 1 or Option 2. Eventually, it’s clear there are really four people in the argument: a pair of adults who have come to different conclusions about a compliance option and a pair of three-year-olds who just love shouting “No!” to each other.

I was the second-oldest Thomas kid, so I was old enough to witness the youngest go through his “No!” stage. I was able to watch my Mom distract my little brother from his “No!” tantrums by getting him to focus on his second-favorite word: “Why?”

So, suppose you’ve just been handed a compliance mandate to do something. You’ve been told there’s only one way to do it, but your experience tells you there should be several options to choose from. You want to adopt one of the alternatives, but the three-year-old across the conference table from you says “No!” What’s your next play? You get them to ask why they should consider another option.

Here’s where you have a chance to demonstrate your knowledge of the business. You, of course, know that every action you take—whether it’s implementing a simple control or running an entire process—is being done to address some information need, which in turn is a direct result of a business need. Chances are, the thing you’re disagreeing about actually serves multiple business needs. Your mental calculations probably included finding the option that would serve the largest number of business needs without thwarting others. You probably were balancing performance needs (efficiency, effectiveness, and making decisions based on data) and conformance needs (compliance, contracts, and standards).

Here’s your chance to draw out the value chain you used to come to the conclusion that you’ve already come to:

If we do A (the favored option), then we’ll accomplish B (the compliance requirement), and also support C (the list of business needs).

However, if we do the other option, yes, we’ll accomplish the compliance requirement, but you will have thwarted the following business needs … .

Then sit back and wait for the “Why?” to come. You know it will. After all, if the person across the table from you is going to be responsible for thwarting a business objective, he or she is going to want to know why. And if they don’t like what they hear, they might just decide your option is best.