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Dr. Todd Dewett | Founding member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Dr. Todd Dewett | Founding member, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

I’ll be honest. Rules really bug me. I recognize their importance in life but I do feel their importance is often inflated. As a well-credentialed rule breaker I do recognize and appreciate how the majority of people in life find peace and comfort in rule following.

However, it is also necessary to recognize that progress is almost always precipitated by rule breaking. Innovation of any kind is nearly impossible without breaking some type of rule. Rules about how we relate to people. Rules about how we should behave. Rules about how we should run organizations. Good rules produce quality work on a repeatable basis. They produce safe and reasonable decisions. They also waste time and create too many non-innovative discussions in boring committees.

In short, they are very necessary, until they violate common sense. Until they cause more harm than good. Until they cost much more than the value they add. Until there are better solutions. Then, rules need to die.

Here is the one rule to rule them all – I call it the Innovation Rule: all rules should be considered ideal first references, not final standards. Are there exceptions for certain rules in areas relating to safety? Of course. But the point is that all rules have exceptions and if you don’t respect that, you certainly shouldn’t expect innovation.

Rules provide an essential initial reference point that allows us an orderly way to begin thinking about the current situation… and whether or not the rule really applies. I believe that if we adopt the innovation rule, we’d avoid many silly situations. More importantly, we free up our minds with more space for fresh thinking. Please allow me to make my case by sharing a few fun examples I’ve experienced recently:

I rode my bicycle to the post office to check my mail the other day. I hopped off as I approached the automatic doors. Two men entered in front of me, both carrying large backpacks. I assumed the backpacks were full of things to be mailed. As I pass through the door, a gun-toting security guard stops me abruptly and asks me to leave the bike outside and lock it with one of the e-locks that are there. I was informed that it’s “against the rules” to bring bicycles into the post office for security reasons. Backpacks, no problem. Bicycle, security threat.

Or how about this one. I had a client recently who wanted me to ride into the venue and to the stage on a Harley to deliver my keynote address. I had wanted to do this for years, so I was stoked. Days after they told me we would do it, they called back to inform me we could not use the Harley. Apparently, the hotel manager refused to allow the motorcycle in the building. He said he would consider allowing it as long as the engine was not started. Fire code. During the conversation, the meeting planner learned that for another big keynote the hotel had recently allowed a speaker to bring an alligator into the building for use in his act. Seriously. Alligator, no worries. Harley? Forget it. Rules…

Here’s one of my favorites. Children getting busted for lemonade stands. Elementary school kids around the country have been ticketed and fined for having the audacity to set up shop on their neighborhood street corner to sell lemonade in the summer. That is a violation of many city ordinances pertaining to proper business licensing and safe food practices. Cuff ‘em!

Finally, one that really hits home. We can’t hire that person because they don’t have a college degree. My wife, a senior-level accounting manager super stud, recently relocated from city A to city B. During her job search, most of the employers in city B told her they were blown away by her experience and really wanted to hire her, but couldn’t because she did not have a college degree. We all know college is interesting. Some people use college to become better people. Others are mere idiots with degrees. Why would you say no to proven well-documented experience only because they have no degree? Rules…

The common argument against the innovation rule goes like this: if it’s okay to break rules then everyone will do it constantly and we will live in chaos! That’s possible, but terribly unlikely. It is, however, how bureaucrats think, and they’re wrong. Please stop promoting them.

What we need is an agreed upon method of assessing when it’s okay to violate a rule. Start with the Innovation Rule, then consider these questions:

Does the rule preclude us from acting quickly on a major opportunity creating unacceptable lead times and thus a competitive disadvantage?

Does the rule provide questionable benefit, yet significant costs?

Does the rule mitigate a small possibility of insignificant harm instead of a strong possibility of huge harm?

Is there an easy to identify better way to achieve that which the rule was intended to achieve?

Can anyone honestly explain with a straight face why the rule exists?

My rule of thumb is to quickly talk through these questions. If three or four are true, the rule loses. Move ahead quickly. Be prepared to face a bureaucrat down the line who will demand an apology. Don’t bother trying to explain the Innovation Rule. They won’t get it.

Here’s another idea – if you have to use this process more than three times in one year for one particular rule, the rule should be put to rest. Formally take it off the books. Kill it before it kills you.

The Innovation Rule reminds you to do the obvious: think before you act. It may get you in trouble once in a while, but so what. They don’t remember the people who play it safe.

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