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The Sociology of SOPs

So I spend a lot of time on standard operating procedures (SOPs) and it occurs to me that they say a lot about workplace culture.

There is a branch of sociology that deals with things like this. It is called "ethnomethodology" or the study of everyday life.

Consider the concept of SOPs in the first place. They are rules. They are more likely to be followed in a rule-driven work environment, naturally. Conversely a work culture that prizes innovation and creativity will be rule-averse.

In an innovative environment the people who occupy the highest status will likely demonstrate that status by flouting the rules. As if to say: "What are you going to do about it, fire me?"

In a creative culture the people who must follow the rules are of a lower class. They are not the designated innovators. For them, rules apply.

Think of an ad agency. How esteemed are the accountants as versus the genius who writes a catchy slogan?

This is why we see Hollywood portrayals of powerful, out-of-control types dumping receipts on their helpers as if to say, "You're the shlepper (Yiddish for lowly helper) -- fix it."

There are other workplace cultures where rules are celebrated. They are everything! People wave around field manuals, routing sheets, approval sheets with pride.

I remember one time getting handwritten edits from the CEO, and we had to follow those edits exactly then mark the item "approved" on the routing slip. What a rush!

The other noteworthy thing about SOPs is that no procedure covers everything. You have to know the difference between formal and informal culture so that work can get done. This can take a lot of time and practice and it's helpful if you can get someone to explain.

Generally SOPs are a key but undervalued and understudied element of corporate culture. Observing these details gives a window into the bigger picture.


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