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Chapter 3 | Doctrine Guidebook

Design Effective Doctrine

You’ll learn how to design doctrine that expresses your goals and value by identifying “forks in the road,” developing principles to direct the choice, and testing and refining the result.

Distinguish between values, goals and doctrine

As you start designing doctrine, it’s critical to understand the difference between values, goals, and doctrine.

  • Values are what’s important to you.
  • Goals are what you want to see in the world.
  • Doctrine is principles that help you make decisions in alignment with your values and goals.

For example, “frugality” is a value, “save money” is a goal, and “spend others’ money like your own” is a decision principle. You don’t need doctrine in a situation where there’s an obvious choice, like an equipment purchase where one product delivers a higher ROI than the alternatives. But when you face two or more choices that are equally consistent with your values and goals, a well-crafted decision principle empowers you to make a wise choice in the moment.  

Tips on designing doctrine

Find elements of doctrine that already exist.

Do you have principles that guide decision-making throughout the organization? Sometimes informal precepts are passed along as part of the culture. Other times they get codified, as Reed Hastings did for Netflix.

Identify areas conducive to doctrine.

Signs that doctrine is needed are where the front line is calling for more authority but managers are afraid to give up control. Or where centralized operations can’t keep up with the amount of information or the range of local conditions.

Involve your broader team.

When the military rewrote its doctrine on counter-insurgency, it brought together a cross-functional team of soldiers, civilians, experts and leaders while gathering feedback from hundreds of front-line. personnel. When IBM rewrote its values, it engaged 50,000 employees around the world.

Focus on principles, not policies.

Doctrine shouldn’t be so specific that it tells people what to do, or so broad that it doesn’t help them make the right decision. What information do you need from them, and what information do they need from you, in order to create rapid, independent and effective action?

Hold a doctrine summit.

One way to bring these pieces together rapidly is to convene a summit of stakeholders as a kind of “constitutional convention.” After all, a constitution is essentially doctrine for democracy, providing the enduring principles by which to govern a nation.
The Agile software movement started with just such a gathering.

Steps for Designing Doctrine

1. Find the fork

2. Develop a principle to direct the choice

3. Test and refine

1. Find the fork

A “fork in the road” is a decision that requires doctrine to make, because either path could be viable. You can imagine reasons to take either one, depending on circumstances, and you can’t know in advance what the circumstances will be.

“Be safe” isn’t doctrine because it’s so vague that there’s no way to base a decision on it, but also because its alternative, “risk death,” isn’t reasonable for most people.

One large company developed doctrine that called for employees to “be all in.” That may seem like a value at first, but you can tell that it’s a decision principle because there’s a viable alternative: “Change incrementally to hedge your bets.” And, in fact, there are situations in which it makes sense to do just that.

If you’re developing doctrine around the value of collaboration, your choice isn’t whether or not to collaborate; it’s how to handle the inevitable disagreements that come up between people who are collaborating.

Similarly, if you’re developing doctrine around the value of innovation, you’ve already chosen to take risks; now you need help deciding which particular risks are worth taking and how much risk to take at any given moment.

2. Develop a principle to direct the choice

This step bridges the gap between your values and goals and the doctrine that helps you achieve them.

For example, let’s say your organization has a value of maintaining focus and agility. To understand how that might translate into doctrine, think of how you would coach a tennis player to stay focused and agile while returning a serve: stay on your toes, keep your eye on the other player, be prepared to let the serve go by, etc.

Here are three ways to turn a goal or value into a decision principle:

  1. Start with an existing value statement and make it more specific. “Be customer-centric” is a good value, but it doesn’t tell you how to make choices that result in customer-centricity. To create guidelines that direct your choices, make it more specific—like “Start from the customer and work backwards” or “Consider competitors but obsess about customers.”
  2. Start with an existing rule or policy that’s too rigid, and loosen it to provide more autonomy based on context. “All processes must be open”
    is a rigid rule. “Default to an open process unless there’s a good reason not to, in which case it’s a closed process is OK” leaves room for judgment at the fork in the road.
  3. Look for places where no policy or rule exists
    to guide decisions, and base doctrine on general values.
    This is how IBM approached the challenge of creating social media guidelines for employees. The fork in the road was “How do we manage the way employees present themselves in public so that it reflects well (or at least not poorly) on
    the company?”

IBM doctrine gives employees autonomy to behave as they wish on social media as long as they stay within the boundaries of the organization’s corporate values. In an example of nested doctrine, the first decision principle of IBM’s social media policy is “Know and follow IBM's Business Conduct Guidelines.”

3. Test and refine

New doctrine is successful if it meets these criteria:

It’s neither too broad nor too specific. It doesn’t lapse into vague value statements that give employees too much autonomy, but it also doesn’t overprescribe what to do to the point of eliminating all flexibility.

It points out available, viable options and leaves the choice between them open. For example, IBM could have created a rule requiring all of its employees to announce their IBM affiliation every time they post anything anywhere online. However, in some situations, that’s neither relevant nor appropriate, so IBM made doctrine that allows employees to decide whether to identify
their employer.  

It’s phrased in a way that is easy to remember and fits your corporate culture. Ideally, decision principles are conversational phrases that people can recall and use in the moment, rather than having to look them up every time they have to make a decision.

IBM’s social media doctrine includes “Be yourself,” “Try to add value,” and “Respect your audience.” Another company turned its value of being ethical into the principle “Would your mother approve?”


Design doctrine

Use this worksheet to guide you through the process of developing doctrine.

You can begin either at the top or the bottom: by taking a value and making it more specific, or by taking a rule and making it more flexible.

Next, identify the situation, the principle, and the desired outcome.


It’s important to understand the difference between values, goals, and doctrine:

  • Values are what’s important to you.
  • Goals are what you want to see in the world.
  • Doctrine is principles that help you make decisions in alignment with your values and goals.

Tips on designing doctrine:

  • Find elements of doctrine that already exist.
  • Identify areas conducive to doctrine.
  • Involve your broader team.
  • Focus on principles, not policies.
  • Hold a doctrine summit.

Steps for designing doctrine:

  1. Find the fork.
  2. Develop a principle to direct the choice.
  3. Test and refine.

Go deeper

Read “How Leaders Can Keep Their Cool in a Crisis” by Mark Bonchek

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