Immutable Principles – What would you die in the trenches for?

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Immutable principles are a small set of non-negotiable values. These non-negotiable values create a picture of operational behaviours which can significantly contribute to the development of the kind of culture you want in your organisation. If you have been reading the posts in this blog you would probably be able to make the connection between the idea of immutable principles and the overarching value in Fourth Question Leadership. A commitment to ask the question ‘what is my motivation?’ (What is in my heart?) is an example of an immutable principle. We will look at a few other examples as we continue the journey of looking at immutable principles over the next few posts.

Immutable principles are a small set of non-negotiable values.

To maximise the impact of immutable principles they should be:

  • Clearly defined and understood by every member of the organisation.
  • Considered during the employment process in staff selection and promotional decisions.
  • Part of the normal dialogue around decision making at every level of the organisation.
  • Clearly evident in written policies and procedures.

In his book, “The Rule of Nobody”, Phillip Howard shows how any system which attempts to create a fool proof set of rules and guidelines strips people’s ability to achieve common sense outcomes. Decision making and other organisational behaviours are determined by predetermined policies and procedures. There is little or no freedom for the decision maker to take into consideration the broader context of any specific issue. In other words, there is no room for ‘heart’ to impact on the outcomes.

There are two previous posts about the difference between aspirational and operational values and how to identify and deal with misaligned values. These explore the leadership challenges of learning to identify when the values a leader says are guiding their behaviours and decisions are not consistently evidenced. The development of a set of immutable principles will help leaders in this journey. The inclusion of a set of immutable principles used in decision making will help establish culture.

All great organisations have clear organic policies and procedures. They are organic because they are reviewed while in use and revised if necessary. It is very important that they are organic and not static as the people in your team or organisation will face new situations which may not have been considered when they were first developed.

Policies and procedures are very important. However, it is amazing how often, when things go wrong, the follow up reflection shows the team member involved followed the policy in place – to the letter! The subsequent review of the policy will probably not find anything wrong in the policy either. The policy may well be changed as a result of your review. My guess is, in many cases, the changes will not solve the problem. You cannot legislate heart!

Rule books rob people of the opportunity to do what is right.

In ‘The Rule of Nobody’, Philip K. Howard challenges some of the policies and procedural base of government thinking. In doing so he presents food for thought for organisations of all shapes and sizes. He points out, using many real life examples, how rule books, which seek to eliminate the possibility of mistakes being made, rob people of the capability to do what is right- what makes sense in the situation.

Howard argues detailed rules should be replaced by general principles. General principles allow people to ask, “What’s the right thing to do?” instead of asking “What’s the rule book say?”

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Establishing immutable principles before writing policies and thinking through procedures creates a filter through which policies will be conceived and implemented. They are the scaffolding which creates a significant safety factor for everyone as they work in the team. Immutable principles guide the Ways of Working, the WOW, of organisations and teams.

The dictionary defines the word immutable as: Unchanging through time, unalterable, ageless – Not subject or susceptible to change or variation in form or quality or nature. Alternative words for immutable given in the thesaurus include: Unchanging, fixed, permanent, stable, constant, enduring, abiding, perpetual, inflexible, steadfast, sacrosanct, immovable, ageless, invariable, unalterable, unchangeable, changeless.

Immutable principles are things you are prepared to die in the trenches for. Principles you hold as valuable and completely non-negotiable. This does not, in reality, mean that immutable principles can never be changed. It means there is a process by which they would be changed and no one individual can make a change by themselves. In the organisation I lead the immutable principles were established by the executive leadership team as we looked at the type of organisation we wanted to be. We developed them after the organisation had been in existence for a number of years and many of the immutable principles reflected how we were operating or how we wanted to operate.

As I work with organisations experiencing issues with staff or stakeholders today I start with helping them establish immutable principles. More often than not, once they have established immutable principles for their organisation it becomes clear that the issues they are experiencing have emerged from a failure to align action and decisions to immutable principles.



  • Immutable principles are a small set of non-negotiable values.
  • Many emergent issues in organisations can be traced to not having clearly articulated and shared immutable principles.
  • Ask yourself and your team “How do we want to operate?” and “What are we prepared to die in the trenches for here?”
  • Immutable principles scaffold the WOW in your organisation (the Ways of Working).
  • The scaffolding provided by immutable principles creates a safer work place for team members.

Additional Resources

Five non negotiable elements of a culture

What are your non negotiables?

What are your non negotiables? They play an important part in your contribution.

What’s your organization’s attitude?