Some rules are important. A surprising number are not. Accumulating like driftwood over time, they can be little more than safety blankets for the terminally bureaucratic, which turns out to be ironic, because within the fearful desire for safety can lie the seeds of failure. Ask Elon Musk, game-changing organisations like his Tesla and Space-X are at the vanguard of a new generation of businesses ditching rules and challenging norms on every front. They are not playing it safe, they are ignoring the old rules, and they are terminally disinterested in the way things have always been done. Instead, these new leaders believe in continual debate and a never-ending 'norm' of innovation.
At the glibbest level, mindless adherence to rules and bureaucracy are merely annoying, the stuff of comedy. At the extremes, rules can cost dearly. In an article titled The $600 Billion Man, the Wall Street Journal chronicled the 'eye-watering' cost of the Obama administration's compliance rules, pointing out that Americans spent $1.9 trillion in 2016, just to comply with federal regulations. Government rules are difficult to change. But there are at least five compelling reasons for reducing and relaxing certain rules within your own organisation.
Some impact directly on the bottom line and can be measured in monetary terms. Others also impact on the bottom line, but inadvertently, for instance, by promoting a culture of innovation, which can be lucrative. In future articles, we will look at which rules are expediently broken, in order to gain a competitive advantage. For now, let's simply ask what the broad advantages are for those courageous enough to challenge existing rules:
Rules entail processes that have to be followed. Each process may take a small amount of time in isolation. But pile rule upon rule and even a simple procedure, like ordering stationery, can become an unreasonably slow process. The slower things happen, the greater the total lethargy.
Sometimes useful things are not allowed to happen at all because a rule flat out prevents them from being done. Other times, a useful idea can't get to market quickly enough. It took Google two years to get all the vetting they needed from Legal and Marketing to release Google+. By then, Facebook had such a critical mass that their product's excellent compliance didn't matter.
When simple acts are slow to do because of the burden of procedures, the willingness to do them drops. People perceive that going above and beyond is too much trouble. They are trained and conditioned to actively reduce their contribution.
3. The burden of frustration
With decreased speed and increased procedures, the word 'no' is heard so often it becomes a form of cultural conditioning. 'No', applied often, trains away initiative and propensity for risk-taking. 'No' starts to become normative. It becomes your organisation's default setting.
The greater the weight of the rules, the more you need people watching people, in order to enforce those rules. In an ideal organisation, where people are trustworthy and operate in a high-trust environment, you require only one person to police each person: themselves. Hierarchy becomes zero-sum and need not accumulate. Utopian? It can be done.
5. Poorer decisions
When power is decentralised, the people at the proverbial coal face can make decisions that are often better suited to their actual environment. They are right there and can see the problems, the nuances and the immediate repercussions. But when the rules state that the decisions must be imported from a geographically separate head office, the decisions cannot possibly take the full picture into account and the quality may suffer. The decisions might also arrive long after the opportunity has passed by.
What we truly need are 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.
The new world of 10x organisations and industry-disrupting entrepreneurs are very strategic about not allowing their own rules to bury them beneath an insupportable burden. How does your organisation measure up today? Certainly, not every rule can be broken. Some are sacrosanct. Others are enforced by a lovely group of people who make a living in law-enforcement.
But as for the archaic rules, the petty regulations, the ever-increasing and never-observed guidelines – how do you currently fare? Could your organisation begin the process of dismantling ridiculous rules and giving human creativity a breath of fresh air? If your heart is in it, you just might buy yourself a modicum of agility. Do it correctly, and you may even position yourself to compete with the highly agile innovators of tomorrow. After all. They're your rules. Break them.