Creating guidelines using reverse engineering

Quite often I have to write down rules or guidelines about what’s considered acceptable for some situation. These might be bullet points in a job advert (characteristics we want candidates to exhibit), acceptable ways of working, or something else.

One problem with these things is that if the list is obvious then it’s not that important to write it down. If our code of conduct is telling people to be polite then there isn’t a great deal of surprising content in there. The non-obvious things have more value, but they are harder to identify. It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking of things that, in the end, are not very interesting, or don’t distinguish ourselves from everyone else.

One technique I find useful here is what we might call “reverse engineering”. The trick is to think of things which are acceptable, and things which aren’t acceptable, and then ask ourselves where the differences lie. With our job advert example we might imagine real people we’ve worked with who would (and wouldn’t) be suitable for the role, and then ask ourselves what the essential qualities are that makes one person ideal and another not. Then we write those down.

Thinking of examples either side of the dividing line gives us greater clarity of where the dividing line might be. And if we want to be more specific in our guidelines then we should choose examples and counter-examples that are closer together.

Photo by ER0L