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Breaking (non-existent) rules

Monday, 19 March 2012

I'm not sure whether there's a reason for my sensitivity to this being higher than normal at the moment, or whether for some reason - economic/political uncertainty? - there is simply more of it about, but I keep coming across a certain situation, and it manages to be intriguing, amusing and frustrating at the same time.

Our training courses generally involve training for mid- and senior-level managers, and they are almost exclusively, in one way or another, about change. I'm intrigued by how often, recently, I hear that stuff would be great, but we can't do it or perhaps this would make a massive [positive] difference, but it's not allowed. I even hear this from some senior managers, and it prompts a series of tough, but useful, questions.

How do you know it's not allowed?

One of the great things about being more experienced (or older!) is that we've learnt a lot. But that also can be one of the downsides. We can collect opinions, impressions, rumours and hearsay, and, if we're not careful, let them harden in to fact. One of the easiest challenges to present others, and yourself, with, is to ask the question "how do you know?" It amazes me just how often this simple question will make a supposed fact simply crumble into dust.

Who says it's not allowed?

If the question above has not pulverised the "rule", then we might need a more subtle approach. There is a significant difference between a "rule" developed in a considered fashion over time by an organisation as a whole, versus a "rule" developed by a single (specialist or powerful) individual. Both of those circumstances can create "good" and "bad rules, but by understanding who has driven its creation, we stand a better chance of changing it.

Especially if that person left the organisation years ago...!

Why do they say it's not allowed?

If the rule does exist, and if the person/people who created it are still there and still have authority, the next step is to ask why. Over the weekend, I overheard a classic conversation that illustrates a general failure to do this.

The background: a cafe in a rural market square. A member of staff talking to a friend about her dread of the forthcoming local event, and just how busy it's going to be...

It'll be manic. It's the busiest weekend of the year.

Can't you get more people in to help?

Even with 200 staff we couldn't cope.

Why's it so bad?

Well, it wouldn't be if we only did half the menu, but she [the boss] won't let us.

Why not?

Well, she's not here. She doesn't know how busy it gets.

Brilliant! There's a potential solution to the problem, being blocked by a very simple lack of knowledge. Be honest, how often do you complain about problems being "caused" by others who just "don't understand what it's like". How about telling them?!

What would happen if you did it?

Finally, there is the ultimate step. This might say more about me than anything else, but this my favourite of the above questions, and I'm always reminded of a true, personal story.

Years ago, whilst working for Procter & Gamble, I was living in South East London, based in Weybridge (to the south-west of London), but working around 50% of my time in Dublin. Corporate travel had to be booked through American Express, and they insisted that I drove for 2 hours to Heathrow and got on an expensive BA flight. I soon cracked, and did my own thing - I booked a bulk load of discounted tickets with CityJet from London City Airport, which saved me around 5 hours a day, and saved the company significant money - mileage expenses, parking and plane tickets were massively reduced.

Of course, this was against the rules. But the rules made no sense to me, even after I'd checked them, so I simply broke them. I suffered a minor (and largely symbolic) slap on the wrist, but everyone was far better off once the rule had been broken.


If you think that rules are constraining you, think again. Try the four steps outlined above and see what happens:

Sometimes, and perhaps more often than you think, you should go out on a limb. You might even find that you enjoy the view.

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