Our lives are filled with rules. They’re necessary to help us live in society, to ensure our health and safety and to make make sure that we all do what we’re supposed to do even when we don’t feel like it. But sometimes, these rules get out of hand and get in the way of doing the right thing, of our productivity and of our enjoyment of life and work.

If you work in an environment that has lots of rules, there is a danger that a focus on compliance to the “small rules” can get in the way of getting the “big stuff” very wrong. This typically happens when the rules become substitutes for people actually thinking or leave no room at all for any form of judgement calls.

An obvious example is the area of customer service – especially call centres. We so often get stuck in a rut when we phone one with an issue, mainly because you can hear the person on the other side going through a script, line by line.

No thinking allowed. No deviation accepted.

There is usually a maze of rules around trying to ensure good customer service. Yet, all too often these same rules are exactly what prevent or get in the way of good customer service and frustrate customers who are normally the best people to tell you what would make them happiest.

Similar rules exist in business, from IT to HR, and even what clothes people are allowed to wear.

If these rules frustrate you or get in the way of you doing a better job, then here are three simple tricks to help you deal with them.

1. Take some time to find out who “owns” the rule.

Almost all rules were put in place for a good reason originally. But maybe that reason is no more. So, do a bit of detective work. If you come across a rule at the office that doesn’t make sense to you, ask “who’s rule is this” of the person who just tried to impose it on you. In other words, will they take ownership of the rule? Can they explain it to you? Or are they simply applying the rule because it exists? If it is not their rule, ask them to point you to the specific person who does “own” the rule, and take your query about the rule to them.

Keep going until you find someone who will defend the rule, and explains its benefits. Very often, you will find that no-one owns the rule. You can then point this out to your boss and respectfully request that the rule is removed. And since no-one owns it, it will be tough for anyone to argue to keep it.

2. Distinguish between “small rules” and “big rules”.

The big rules will be much harder to change and are probably there for good reasons, including regulation, compliance, health and safety, etc. “Small rules” are much easier to change – these are the often petty, irritating rules that govern the way things happen in your office.

Applying the ‘sponsor principle’ above to your small rules might reveal just how many small rules you have that should not be there in the first place! They exist but nobody can remember why they exist or what purpose they serve. Left unattended the small rules tend to proliferate and choke meaningful innovation, experimentation and initiative. They get in the way of the things we know we need to thrive into the future, like agility, initiative, adaptability and curiosity. Get rid of the ‘small rules’!

3. Just break the rule.

Now, be careful with this one. We need to say that you should only do this when appropriate, and when you’ve done your homework to understand the rule. You cannot break a rule that will create a legal liability for your business, or put any part of your business at risk. Many of the worst rules (dumb, stupid, non-value-adding rules) just evolved over time. You can un-evolve them over time by being them, making them irrelevant, or just breaking them.

If the rules are really important, someone will explain them to you and ensure you understand them so you don’t break them again. But don’t just accept all the rules that are given to you. This is the way to kill your business, and kill your love for your job.


Graeme Codrington
[email protected]

Author of today’s tip, Graeme Codrington, is an internationally recognized futurist, specializing in the future of work. He helps organizations understand the forces that will shape our lives in the next ten years, and how we can respond in order to confidently stay ahead of change.

For the past two decades, Graeme has worked with some of the world’s most recognized brands, travelling to over 80 countries in total, and speaking to around 100,000 people every year. He is the author of 5 best-selling books, and on faculty at 5 top global business schools.

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