Precedent as Context, Not an Operating Manual

I made that comment as an aside in an earlier post. This thought also ties in with a couple of Simon’s posts, and another of mine.

This is true for not just legal documents, but for things like legislation, business and government policies, and processes.

The operating manual approach means being a slave to precedent documents, processes or decisions and applying or using them blindly without enough independent thought as to how it fits the current situation.

The context approach means figuring out what the facts are and what result is needed, then using precedent as a guide or checklist to get to the best result for the situation at hand.

“That’s the way we have always done that” can be a dangerous approach, and does not foster innovation, improvement, or the right result.

For example, it was not unheard of for organizations doing privacy audits when privacy laws first appeared to find that they were collecting certain information for no other reason that it was listed on a form.

I’m not suggesting precedent is not valuable – it is indeed valuable as a guideline, an issue list, a place to start, a timesaver, a collection of prior wisdom, and an indication of what might be expected. But that value is negated if the precedent drives the result, rather than the facts and the needs.

“Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.” (quote from W. Somerset Maugham)

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