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Rules Are Great -- But A Blind Adherence To Them Can Stifle Innovation

What if you challenged your own people to find shortcuts and break rules?

02/08/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 02/08/2017 03:58 SAST
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Ricardo Semler once said: 'Rules freeze companies inside a glacier.' Based on his own highly unorthodox and wildly successful company in Brazil, he then observed: 'Innovation lets them ride sleighs over it.' Rules make everything easy to understand. For that reason, leaders love them. But a blind adherence to rules can create its own problems, stifling innovation. Some rules within your organisation are sacrosanct and cannot be tinkered with. Yet others are not. Their transgression presents could present you with strategic opportunity. So what merit do we gain in breaking our own rules?

Why rules are there in the first place

In any organisation, we need our people to avoid doing things that are bad for our business while encouraging them to do things that are good for it. Rules exist because they are one way to achieve that. But they are only one way, and they are not necessarily the best.

In a best-case-scenario, we want methods to prompt brilliance, rather than merely rules that prevent idiocy. We need ways to enculture and institutionalise excellence, rather than just erecting roadblocks against sabotage. Ultimately, we want a fluid, intelligent, self-governing organism that sees the sense in doing things brilliantly and doesn't need the complexity of excess management and guidelines in order to prevent it from doing things badly. We need a group with the capacity for constant evolution in the face of disruption. We need a high-performance culture.

But doesn't 'time-and-motion' create the greatest efficiency?

Time-and-motion studies were invented by combining the time-study work of Frederick Winslow Taylor with the motion studies of Frank and Lillian Gilbreth. The idea was that if a system of production was studied and its various processes understood, it would be possible to determine the physically and mechanically most-efficient way of carrying out the process.

But does that genuinely represent the greatest possible speed? The answer is no because our starting point was an assumption. Specifically: 'This is the way a thing is done –- now let's speed it up.' We have merely achieved optimised mechanical speed, following one possible route for doing a thing. But brilliant human ideas can introduce completely different ways of doing things –- entirely new innovations –- which can be exponentially faster than a merely optimised mechanical system. They might remove entire steps, or find fundamentally better and faster ways to get equivalent results.

Think of time-and-motion as the person who spends years perfecting his swimming technique in order to get across a lake as quickly as possible. The innovative alternative is the person who looks at the lake and concludes, 'I'll just use that bridge instead' or 'I'll just hire a speedboat'. You can optimise to your heart's content and still be radically outperformed by a new innovation. But new innovations do not flourish in high-rules societies. They flourish where people are empowered and encouraged to try new things.

Business success is actually nothing like a well-oiled clock. Nor is it quite like a game of chess.

A simple test: Does your business run like clockwork?

Many managers believe that business should aim for a state of perfection and, in so doing, become like a well-oiled clock. Their heart's desire is that once it achieves this state of perfection, everyone should just comply and there should be no further changes. But business success is actually nothing like a well-oiled clock. Nor is it quite like a game of chess. The beauty of chess is its absolute adherence to its own internal rules. As a closed system, it can be perfectly played within the absolutes of its own logic.

In a game of chess, you are never blindsided by an environmental disaster. While moving your queen in a diagonal motion, you do not have to contend with terrorism, and as you line up your castle to take your opponent's bishop, it is extremely rare that two kids with an app in Tokyo will take out your king and undo years of hard work.

There are at least four reasons why your business is not like a game of chess:

  1. There are external changes in a scenario, which can disrupt the internal workings of your business.
  2. Your final outcome is not binary. It is never as simple as a yes-or-no victory or defeat. Instead of merely losing pieces, you enjoy the possibility of growth and reinvention due to innovation.
  3. Obedience to your own rules earns you nothing. Also, you will not be penalised or disqualified from the game, when you move in new and unusual ways. If the new and unusual ways are clever, you will be rewarded.
  4. Winning can be interpreted in different ways. It's not as simple as 'me against my competitor'. Elon Musk gave away the technology underpinning his Tesla cars, freely in open platforms, in order to create competitors. Why? Because the more popular the electric-car concept becomes, the more the total infrastructure will grow, lifting Tesla along with it. Business is not as simple as 'If you win, I lose' and vice versa.

So a perfect adherence to an optimised system may seem like a good idea. But it's only a good idea until a better idea comes along. And if your competition gets there first, you may be in trouble.

What if you challenged your own people to find shortcuts, to break rules, to discover simpler, faster ways of getting things done? Not every suggestion will be viable. But just one or two of the unorthodox ideas that challenge 'the way things have always been done,' could offer you a quantum leap ahead of your competition. After all, they're your rules. Go ahead and break them!