Someone who heard me mention my management concept of “switches and dials” asked me to spell it out. So here it goes.

Switches, of course, are on or off, up or down, black or white. If you manage with switches, you probably like your rules clear-cut and comprehensive. You like your boss to tell you precisely what to do and what not to do, and you pass it down.

I would like to be a switch manager, but I'm not smart enough. Or at least I don't know enough. As Dirty Harry says, “A man's got to know his limitations.”

Knowing my limitations, as well as the limitations of my circumstances, I'm forced to be a dial manager. I manage like I take a shower. I don't get in the shower and flip a switch for the right water temperature. I turn the dials until I get the right mix of hot and cold, and I make adjustments as necessary.

Dials are better suited for the gray areas, for situations or problems where the pros and cons seem rather evenly matched but incompletely known — where uncertainty abounds. Dials are better for delegation and working through others, which is most of the time.

Dials are appropriate when you know the direction or destination but others know the roads, or at least where the maps are.

Years ago, I read that the modern CEO must be comfortable with ambiguity because his or her world doesn't offer clarity or certainty. I must confess: I'm not fully comfortable with the ambiguity, but I am resigned to it.

Turning The Dial

Switches impose all-or-nothing, one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter solutions. But one size rarely fits all. Dials aren't perfect in that regard, but they help.

Hypothetically, suppose I decided we're spending too much on travel. With a dial, I can ask the senior management team to reduce travel in the next few months. They can work with you to raise the travel bar in ways that are appropriate to your circumstances and leave it to you to make the individual calls in the least disruptive way.

The wrong way to do it, in my opinion, would be to convene the senior management committee to write a common set of tougher travel rules for everybody.

The dial way leaves more judgment and responsibility in your hands. The switch way takes it away by writing all the rules so detailed as to cover all the possibilities. That's what they do in Washington, D.C.

Why would anyone even consider the switch approach? Bad rules are rarely made by people with bad intentions. They're usually made by people with good intentions trying to make them comprehensive, uniform, equitable and foolproof. They're afraid their good intentions will get lost in our interpretation and execution, so they try to write them into the rules.

Supporting Preconceived Notions

Let me mention a couple of books I read after I had been thinking in terms of switches and dials for quite a while. I didn't get the concepts from them, but they did give me reassurance that I may not be crazy after all.

One thing I have against most management books is self-assurance. They all have all the answers — never mind that they are different and contradictory answers. Based on my experience, cookie-cutter answers almost never work.

Every situation is unique, mainly because they involve unique people. The latest management fad may be good to know and may even be helpful, but you have to make a lot of it up as you go.

Last year, I ran across a book entitled Management of the Absurd and subtitled “Paradoxes in Leadership.” Author Richard Farson — a psychologist, educator and CEO — gave a clear voice to my previously vague impressions along these lines. As I recall, each chapter in this book describes a paradox based on unintended consequences of management practices or fads.

The chapter closest to my switches and dials message is titled “Effective Managers Are Not in Control.” The overriding paradox is that all management techniques work and none of them works. The author didn't discuss it in these terms, but his was definitely a vote for dials over switches.

He said management expects appreciation for their efforts and to be thanked by the newly liberated. Instead, he said, the opposite usually happens because our efforts can never keep up with the rising expectations they generate.

The more you do, the more you're criticized for not doing more. Our only recourse, he said, is to keep track of the nature of employee complaints. They will continue or even increase, but if you're making progress, the nature of the complaints will change. They will become “higher order” complaints.

Managing The Absurdity

The second book is The Death of Common Sense by Philip Howard, subtitled “How the Law Is Suffocating America.” This book is filled with interesting anecdotes about how our laws — read that “switches” — have gotten so detailed and comprehensive that they lead inevitably to absurd results.

These laws weren't written by bad people, but by good people with good intentions who didn't trust folks like us to apply the laws the way they wanted.

For example, even though she had the support of the mayor and nobody wanted to oppose her, Mother Teresa and the nuns of the Missionaries of Charity were unable to turn an abandoned building they owned into a homeless shelter. After two years of trying, Mother Teresa and the sisters couldn't get around the New York City building code requirement that all rehabs over two stories must have elevators, and their order didn't accept such modern conveniences.

A similar outcome resulted when a group wanted to put portable toilets into crowded areas of New York with no public facilities. The law said if you did that you would have to make them all wheelchair accessible — all of them — all or nothing. Nothing it was. They needed a dial instead of a switch.

In a Wall Street Journal article, the author told the story of the City of San Francisco paying $50,000 to have dead trees removed from Golden Gate Park. When a sawmill owner offered to pay the city $40,000 for the privilege of removing the dead wood, the complications were just too great. They continued with their decision to pay rather than be paid.

One Size Fits All

There are many more such examples of “switch” management — and the author has told me he gets new ones in the mail every day — examples of absurd results that came from good intentions run amok.

Somewhere along the way, lawmakers quit trusting people like us to apply laws and policies with common sense and good judgment. They stopped trusting us to be fair and impartial. They started writing all the possibilities they could think of into the law itself. They believe one-size-fits-all laws are idiot proof.

The rest of us cooperated so we wouldn't get in trouble. People don't usually get fired for absurd outcomes if they follow the book. The process became more important than the result. Rulebooks are switches. And the security of switches, of having some hard-and-fast rules to follow, is seductive.

Dials have fewer unintended consequences. They're more flexible. They help us navigate the gray areas of uncertainty and incomplete information. They help us achieve our organizational goals without micromanaging.

Micromanagers are switch managers. Each switch flipped by those above you diminishes your authority and responsibility. But dials turned from above leave more of the responsibility with you. They may even require you to stick your neck out occasionally.

Successful managers don't always wait for more responsibility to be given. Sometimes they take the initiative and see what happens. But the main reason I prefer dials to switches is that I don't have to be as smart. I don't have to have all the answers.

This article is printed with permission of Bob McTeer, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, one of 12 regional Reserve Banks in the Federal Reserve System. The Dallas Fed serves the 11th Federal Reserve District, which consists of Texas, northern Louisiana and southern New Mexico.

“Switches and Dials” was originally drafted as a talk to employees and then printed in News Lite, a publication of the Dallas Fed.