Meandering between rules and principles

river Morava near Strážnice – Zbyněk Hruboš (

Like many, I try to maintain my fitness by going for a walk every day (and if I have to believe the public opinion, 10,000 steps is the norm!). And when I walk alone I also train my brain muscle by listening to a podcast in the meantime. And yes, along the way, I greet my encountering walkers (after all, you don’t want to appear like a walking zombie). Anyway, for a podcast I often select a topic that has to do with my work. Perhaps compensation behaviour. This time the podcast was about a more technical subject: dApps – decentralised applications, where the backend is distributed as a series of copies over a blockchain. As an online gambler, for example, you would have more certainty about the fact that you, once again, lost from the bank (provable fairness).

964 steps, path reached, starting..

Several experts speak in the podcast, with the hosts not ignoring the fact that they really know what it is about. As a podcast listener you really run into some damage – ‘gosh, these guys know a lot’ (feeling: gosh, I don’t know much). But it’s like walking, just keep going!

But I was triggered by the statement that dApps is not so much technical, but primarily a governance issue. Anyway, when I hear the term governance, I always have to think of Holacracy (a kind of short circuit that has settled in my mind for the time being). Two principles were mentioned that I also recognise in the daily practice of Holacracy; rule-based versus principle-based.

A rules-based approach prescribes in detail or gives a set of rules, how to behave whereas a principle-based approach is more contextual; outcomes and principles are set and the controls, measures, procedures on how to achieve that outcome is left for each organisation to determine.

2,233 steps, straightforward path, little headwind….

If you look at software architecture, the backend is rule-based and the front-end, which is what the user of the software sees and uses, is more principle-based. 

Because the user interface (front-end) must consider context in order to help the end user. In short, to solve problems you need both a rule-based (static, relatively straightforward heuristic) and a principle-based approach (dynamic, less straightforward, value or purpose-driven). The problem of governance at dApps lies among others in the distributed and community-driven back-end; if something goes wrong, for example the rules lead to a ‘wrong’ decision; who is then liable? And is recovery possible? 

4,678 steps, sunburst…

Time and again I am amazed at the extent to which the apparently technical discussions about software can be translated almost one-on-one into social and organisational issues. In itself not surprising when you consider that technology, and more specifically software, is increasingly used to solve social problems.

If you look at decision-making as a rule-based consensus mechanism aimed at promoting throughput and validating that throughput (provable). Then governance determines the context in which that decision-making takes place (fairness) and, not unimportantly, governance should be able to reverse certain things that have been done. For example in those situations where the public interest is harmed. In the real world, compliance doesn’t always deliver the ‘right’ governance (is it fair to all concerned?)

7,135 steps, taking a shortcut…

Holacracy is wrongly understood as a rule-based approach to resolve work-related issues (called: tensions). Perhaps the emphasis on the constitution (rule of law) is to blame for this. But you don’t go out on the road just to obey the traffic rules, but to go somewhere (for example in my case; stay fit). And the rules make it more likely that you will arrive at your destination safe and intact. And yes, sometimes you have to break the rules; jump the lights, drive against the direction of travel, drive faster than allowed, because this serves the purpose of getting somewhere on time. So, it’s more about intent than it is about obey or compliance.

8,631 steps, open field…

I like rules, really I like it a lot! But why? If you look at reality through the glasses of rules, the world seems clearer (less erratic). Maybe you’re familiar with the productivity concept of Getting Things done (GTD). Holacracy is GTD on steroids: upscaling GTD from an individual to an organisational level. The heuristic rules of GTD and the constitutional rules of Holacracy enables you to ‘model’ what’s happening around you (or according to David Allen: turning problems into projects)And from this model onwards you’re more capable to determine what context is relevant (and what can be ignored)

So rules are not so much guidelines for behaviour, but more of a way of looking at reality. But in order to fulfil your purpose effectively, your behaviour must be principle-based. For example, according to the rules you can ignore an opinion of a colleague, but if you show no understanding or some courtesy (‘Thanks for your opinion, I will do nothing with it’) it will impact your relationship with that colleague and you possibly muddle future situations.

9,660 steps, nearly home….

I paused my walk and rewinded (sorry, I’m from the tape-generation) the podcast to that part concerning the governance of dApps. Holacracy can be seen too as a rule-based back-end, distributed across multiple circles (subsystems) and roles (nodes). The governance process could be compared with a blockchain in which every step of the integrated decision making is a smart contract that has to be verified in order to come to a provable fair decision. But that decision will have no real meaning, no positive impact when it isn’t embedded in a principle-based system of trust.

This article is also published on Linkedin

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