Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

April 18, 2024


Andrew Bergen

Non-Compliance Isn’t Scary

Years ago, I was working on a team that was using some quality improvement metrics. Every week we would huddle around our board and see if the targets we had set for ourselves were red or green (red meaning we missed the target, green meaning we hit the target). We were green nearly all the time. What a great team, right?

One week, a quality improvement specialist came to our huddle to help us think through how we measured success. She saw all the green on the board. We were sure she’d be impressed. Then she asked, “How long have these measures been green?” Proudly, we replied, “For several months now!”

The next words out of the specialists mouth suprised me. She calmly said, “If you’ve been green that consistently, you haven’t been trying hard enough.” And, after the shock had rippled through the team, she spoke with us that improvement never happens when everyone is getting the results they want all the time. She pushed us to try harder, to set targets that we couldn’t reach – yet. And, by setting those targets beyond our reach, we would have to try harder, and improve.

I see boards and CEOs often in the same boat. They’re proud of achieving compliance with a reasonable interpretation of the policy. Non-compliance is terrifying. I’ve even seen CEOs write interpretations for their monitoring reports based on the data they already have so that they can say they hit the target and are compliant. At that rate, everyone can hit the target.

Rather than being terrified of reporting non-compliance, a healthier approach for an organization is to set a target that first and foremost is a reasonable interpretation of the policy – even if the organization isn’t there yet.

One CEO I worked with was quite adept at this. He expressed to me, “I’m not afraid of being non-compliant. Well, not unless I’m non-compliant on most things, or non-compliant on the same things multiple times in a row. But, for me, being non-compliant means that I just learned something.” This CEO was willing to accept that the best interest of the organization was its ongoing growth and so he determined not to fudge his interpretations to make it look like he always hit the target. If and when he missed, he went back to his executive team, dissected the results and together discussed how they needed to re-strategize in order to get closer to the target for the next reporting period.

This approach is especially important when it comes to Ends policies. Ends, when well written, are results the organization should be producing in the long term. Sometimes 5 or even 10 years away. Of course the organization won’t hit those targets in the first year. If they did, the target wasn’t aggressive enough. For example, a school board that has set an Ends target that 95% of students will read at grade level by the end of Grade Three – and their current results are at 80% – will not make that leap of gaining the extra 15% in one year. It will take strategizing, re-tooling, different curriculum, or a multitude of other approaches likely over several years to reach 95%

A few steps for CEOs to consider as they plan for compliance reporting are:

  • Create the interpretation (i.e., how compliance will be measured) before beginning the work.
  • Embed the interpretation into the work itself. What work processes and strategies should be included that aim at the intended result?
  • Report on non-compliance early and with transparency.
  • Take the time to learn from any non-compliance. What is it teaching you? What can be done differently? Or are you on a progressive track toward compliance in a reasonable time frame?

An acquaintance of mine who works in the human services field often says to her clients (and to me), “Of course you are going to lose sometimes. But for heaven’s sake, don’t lose the lesson!” Non-compliance isn’t scary. It may be your most helpful teacher.



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