In 1990, Burger King launched an advertising campaign with the tagline “Sometimes You’ve Just Got to Break the Rules”. It was fairly controversial with parents wondering if BK was trying to teach their kids – of all things – to break rules.
Should I follow the rules?
Throughout my career, I’ve thought about that campaign off and on. I’ve observed that some of the most successful people have been the type that goes against the grain, make their own rules and figure out ways to get things done that are outside of the norm. Ted Turner and Steve Jobs come to mind. Neither of them accepted the traditional rules for how things should be done and ended up making a lot of money along the way.
I’ve always been a bit of a rule follower myself. But I’ve known people that were much more obsessive about rules than I am. I’ve met many who simply want their boss to tell them what to do and they’ll go do it. They may bitch about it the whole time, but deep down inside they wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’re taught to follow the rules
I’ve always found it a bit contradictory that our school system teaches our children for 13 years of primary school and at least 4 more years of secondary school, to essentially follow the rules. They’re taught dress codes, behavioral rules, rules for grammar and spelling, rigid mathematical formulas and rules of the road. Throughout my own education and that of my own kids to date, I’ve found it rare to have a class that teaches students critical thinking and to actually make decisions.
Anyone who breaks the rules is considered a rebel, who must be dealt with decisively. Schools have rigid enforcements for those who break the rules ranging from grade reductions to detentions to expulsion.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that schools allow kids to show up at school in their underwear or receive a driver’s license if they drive 90 miles per hour. And I certainly don’t want kids running out naked on the football field at halftime. There are reasons for many of our rules and laws and I’m grateful that we have them to avoid anarchy – or at least to reduce it. Also, as a result of our litigious society, schools and other organizations have to do their fair share of rule enforcement as a CYA in case things get out of hand.
Strategically breaking the rules
Unfortunately, I think the inclination for rule following is a bit out of hand. By the time we finish 17 years of brainwashing to follow rules, some of us find a job at a forward looking company that encourages us to “think outside of the box” and be creative. They solicit suggestions from employees, but generally only get complaints or lame suggestions at best. Employees have been taught to be followers and just haven’t been trained to be independent thinkers.
There are people who are very comfortable with the attitude of “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it”, while we need people who have the gonads to speak up and say “This is what we should do”.
The responsibility is on corporate leadership to unbrainwash their employees to be entrepreneurial. Strategic leaders should tell their employees the direction they want to go and leave it up to the employees to determine the tactical way to get there. If leadership did that, they would learn two things. First, they would identify which employees are capable of determining the route and which employees need their hands held. Secondly, they may actually get some creative ideas for how to get there that the leaders hadn’t though of.
This was underscored for me a while back when I was getting direction from my boss on a task. When I began asking her how she – and the client – wanted the finished product to look she stopped me abruptly.
“You need to determine how this should look”, she replied.
I realized that I was trying to follow the rules. Tell me what to do and I’ll do it. It’s much easier sometimes. It’s a lot harder to determine all of the different alternatives, consider the pros and cons, and then commit to your decision. It’s a big risk if you decide on the wrong alternative. But it’s a lot more challenging and interesting. You’re also more apt to work harder at making that solution succeed.
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As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.