This post is a refreshed version of one I wrote in 2010. While I’m not among those who believe rules are made to be broken, I do think some of us have a nasty habit of clinging to them long after they have passed their “sell by” date. So here is my perspective on rules, along with a couple of things to think about before deciding to break them.
I think we can agree that one of the key attributes for successful leaders today is the ability to adapt quickly to new situations. We may also agree that in order for society to function in a reasonably harmonious way, there must be rules.
And there are all kinds of them.
In general, rules are put in place to ensure personal safety and to keep things in balance. They are also imposed to provide structure in organizational settings that support the work and build a broad framework within which individuals are free to operate and contribute.
Some people are of the opinion that rules are made to be broken. In fact, they are so convinced of this, they see no point in learning them in the first place. The resulting behaviour from this laissez-faire approach is a kind of chaos that tends to serve no one in the end. It lacks maturity and I hazard to say, increases, rather than diminishes, the need for more rules.
But sometimes rules really do only serve to get in the way.
In a world where improvisation is key to success, yesterday’s rules can be today’s impediment. Old rules often slow the flow of progress, sometimes down to a trickle. They stifle creativity and innovation. And they create roadblocks to the implementation of needed change. From this perspective, I think it safe to say that the work of leadership includes breaking rules.
But before we go off and begin declaring war on rules, I think we need a few, um, rules, to ensure that the breaking process provides as great an opportunity for a positive result as possible.
To start with, I can think of two rules that work for me:
First, before eliminating or dismissing existing rules, seek to understand why they were made in the first place.
It is pretty easy to make assumptions about why rules were made but before completely eliminating them, I think it wise to question their initial purpose. If that purpose is no longer relevant, then throwing them out is probably a good thing.
And second, be prepared to accept the consequences that may come from circumventing or defying rules
There is always the chance that circumventing a rule can cause grief for someone else, somewhere else in the organization or outside it. Breaking an established rule usually comes with a measure of risk. As they often say in retail stores about handling merchandise, “ If you break it you own it”. Owning our choice to break rules in service of facilitating change is, I think, part of being a responsible leader
So, having said all of that, I have a confession to make. I am an inveterate rule follower. It was ingrained in me as a child to be good… to follow the rules. And yet, in my growing, (ahem), maturity I really see the need to continually question rules that make no sense to me. After all, most rules are conceived and administered by people. And most will come to a place where they are no longer useful or relevant to our lives or businesses.
If we are to encourage the innovators of our time we must also accept that rules should be subject to rigorous question and challenge. Settling for something because that’s the rule or that’s the way it is, is simply not good enough. If we doubt it, we just have to reflect on the accomplishments of people like Nelson Mandela, Dr Emily Stowe, Rosa Parks and people like Richard Branson and Anita Roddick, each of whom defied convention, broke rules and challenged the status quo, sometimes at great personal cost.
Rules are meant to serve us, not the other way around. And so, if we are to adapt to new and changing circumstances quickly we must also have the courage to break a few rules along the way.
That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?