Putting Rules in Their Place

To live a civilized life, we need rules, but when do rules start working against us instead of for us?  I think it is when they morph into something that satisfies the few while serving to control and stifle the ideas, ambitions and progress of the many.

Witness the British Government in 1964.  This was a time when, musically, the British invasion was happening everywhere… except inBritain where the government there placed a ban on Rock ‘n Roll music.  In fact, British rock and pop broadcasters were allowed only two hours of airtime per week, despite a growing demand for it from the public at large.

Here, from the movie, Pirate Radio is an idea (although somewhat exaggerated) of the government attitude of the time on this subject.

Your organization may not look very much like that. But as its leader, or one of its leaders, you will also have rules. Some will have preceded you.  Some you will make yourself.  Some you will develop with others.  And some will be imposed upon you. Whatever their genesis, these rules were at one time or another put in place for a reason.  In my experience though, it is often the case that the reason disappears long before the rule that was developed to address it.  As a result, governments and organizations alike accumulate rules that no longer serve any useful purpose.  An example of this comes from the Province of Alberta where the law still states “businesses must provide rails for tying up horses”.

The point is, that while rules must be respected, they should never be viewed as sacrosanct.  As such, they are fair game for challenge.

The process of putting rules under scrutiny does not necessarily have to be a big undertaking.  It could be simply a matter of developing a habit of examining them through different lenses, like these three, to confirm their continued effectiveness:

 Relevance in the current environment

If the rule in question seems more to hinder than contribute to your progress, it may be time to give it closer examination. Why was it made in the first place?  Do those conditions currently exist? What purpose might it continue to serve? If you abolish it, what are the risk factors associated with doing so? How will it affect other areas, or people, in your organization?

Alignment with organizational purpose, and values

In my mind, rules must fit with purpose and values, not the other way around.

For example, in Florida recently, a young lifeguard was fired for going outside the bounds of his designated area to save a drowning man.  The company’s argument for firing him was that he disobeyed a rule and they were concerned about being exposed to litigation.

It seems to me that the organization’s purpose was essentially to keep people safe from drowning. In fact, as it is a private lifeguarding company, keeping people safe from drowning is its whole reason for being.  But, had this particular lifeguard obeyed the rule and stayed within his designated area, a man might very well have lost his life.  So, while there may still be a place for this rule, in order to fit with the organizational purpose, it requires examination and change for alignment.

Accuracy of assumptions

Sometimes rules are made based on false assumptions so it’s always a good idea when examining a rule to consider the beliefs on which it is based.  Simply asking, ‘by enforcing this rule, what might we be assuming?’ could trigger a useful discussion about its continued place in the organization.


So here’s the bottom line.  Rules have their place but they form only part of the framework that allows people the opportunity to do their best work.  Outdated, irrelevant, self-serving rules can get in the way. If you are a leader, you can’t afford to let that happen.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Please Note: The clip from the movie “Pirate Radio” is not used for commercial purposes or financial gain.  It is respectfully borrowed  for illustration purposes only and not intended to infringe on copyright.



Filed under Leadership, Leading Change, Management, Organizational Effectiveness

18 responses to “Putting Rules in Their Place

  1. Nice post Gwyn. As an early leader I was too rigid regarding following the rules and learned the hard way. I learn to value people over rules, creativity over rules, and progress over rules.

    I just finished reading Sir Richard Branson’s book, “Screw Business as Usual,” which is entirely about your point. Especially regarding, Alignment with organizational purpose, and values.


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Dan ~ Thanks for sharing your approach to rules as it evolved. I think a great many of us start out strictly adhering to the rules laid out for us because we believe them to be right and are anxious to avoid mistakes. Experience usually reveals that rules, along with everything else must be subject to rigorous examination before being blindly accepted as appropriate or applicable. I think this is where the strength of a leader’s character is also revealed. Do I do the easy thing…or the right thing? Does this rule serve others…or does it serve me?
      Thanks for giving rise to more thoughts on this, and for coming by!

  2. Alex Jones

    A hugely influential TED video on me addressed the issue of rules, incentives and practical wisdom:

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Alex ~ Thanks for sharing Barry Schartz’s talk. I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement and especially love Aristotle’s definition of practical wisdom that being; ” The moral will to do the right thing and the skill to figure out what the right thing is”. Rules can never be a substitute for that.
      Thank you for adding so much value to this post through Barry’s words.

  3. Great post, Gwyn! My pet-peeve is when leaders make a new rule in order to avoid having a difficult conversation with the one person who the new rule is being created for. I guess that fits with your great question of “what might we be assuming.” Often people are assuming that the person won’t change, unless there’s a new rule to annoy everyone!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Jamie ~ Yes, assumptions have a way of sabotaging a lot of things. When it comes to making rules, as well as the reason you state, sometimes we make them because we assume people are not capable of thinking for themselves!

  4. Hi Gwyn,

    I like rules for the gain in speed and consistency they provide. My recipe for success is to couple them with a healthy dose of question-itis. People at every level – most especially those directly impacted by the rule – should feel welcome to ask why the rule exists and question its right to stay. If ever I’m drowning, I hope to be in the presence of a rule breaker like the one you mentioned from Florida!

    Great post.


    • Gwyn Teatro

      Susan ~ Question-itis is a good “affliction” to have, especially when it comes to rules. Many a good question has caused people to look at something they once took for granted with new eyes. Thanks for that. And, I’m with you on the drowning thing 🙂

  5. And, if you don’t mind me also sharing my post on a similar topic. If you’d prefer not I won’t be offended (really): http://sowhatwouldyousay.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/got-procedures-follow-fix-or-ditch-them/

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Jamie ~ The more the merrier! I love your “follow, fix or ditch” idea. It’s simple to remember and makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing it!

  6. Mt. Math

    When i was Secretary to the Executive Committee/Management Committee of a multi-billion dollar company, I’ll never fgorget the Executive Chairman of the Board & CEO (there was a separate President & COO) saying ,
    “no one will ever get ahead in this company unless they occasionally exceed their delegated authority.” Meaning when the situation demands it.

    It also reminds me of the oft-quoted chestnut that “it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission (and be denied).”

    My most successful career high points where when an emergency called for decisive acation and i did what needed to be done, without any reference to higher authorities or my personal level of authority.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hello!~ That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing it. And, I suspect that those moments when you took decisive action based on what you felt was the right thing to do were very empowering. Rules should not be made to control us but to serve us. Thank you for taking to the time comment 🙂

  7. Hi Gwen
    Great stuff. I haven’t seen the movie but I did live through the period. We used to drive out to the coast and flash our headlights to Caroline – the ship broadcasting the greatest of the pirate stations. We would flash requests. Youth won out in the end because the BBC started a channel still going today playing the “latest sounds”. Most of the the DJs on Radio Caroline migrated to the new Radio One. Even today they have shows on BBC Radio 2, playing music from the 60s on. This is not untypical of we British – we don’t have revolutions these days, we just quietly absorb the opposition – there is a lesson in that.
    Having said all that – your point is spot-on – rules should free us to apply our own moral compass.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Wendy ~ What a great story! And, it illustrates to me that when a rule doesn’t make sense, the creativity inherent in us all gets to work and eventually finds a way around it, or through it. I think we (the collective ‘we’) would do well to remind ourselves just how much time and energy is required when a rule becomes an obstacle to get around. It might just be better to put them under routine scrutiny using Jamie’s “follow, fix or ditch” application.
      Thanks for sharing your first hand experience with the pirate radio era. I spent my teenage years in Canada where there were no bans…much to my parents chagrin 🙂

  8. Hi Gwyn – so sorry about your name. My friend, Gwen, lost her husband earlier this year which means she is on the mind quite a lot, She is a lovely person but I’m still sorry I confused you.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      I’m sorry for your friend’s loss, Wendy. That’s a tough one. As for the name, many a person has called me ‘Gwen’. That was my mother’s name and people were forever calling me by the wrong name. Not to worry. As they (whoever ‘they’ are) say “just don’t call me late for lunch” 🙂

  9. Pingback: Putting Rules in Their Place | digitalNow | Scoop.it

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