Breaking Rules

05 March 18

Breaking Rules

The first decade of my working life, I built my own company. I started out without anyone else and step by step moved things forward. I could do what I wanted. Together with the first people I hired, we created a set of value that defined our culture. We created processes and guidelines. As the company grew, people started making rules and procedures. Because we all assume that’s the solution to our problems: create more rules. If someone makes a mistake, create a new rule so he won’t do it again. If we want a group of people to ‘behave’ in a certain way, we create another rule. 

Today, I live in another culture (Indonesia). I also do other work, helping large enterprises become more entrepreneurial. I also help the CEO who runs my first company (Bridge) break the rules that crept into our organization.

The thing that keeps surprising me is why so few people challenge or break rules. I saw a video 2 weeks ago that one of my new colleagues shared. In it, a group of actors sits in a doctor’s waiting room. One girl is a real visitor. Everytime someone is called to enter the doctor’s room, a bell rings. All the actors stand up and sit down again. The girl is impressed and does the same thing. Over time, all the actors are gone and the girl is alone. Now you’d think that she’d think ‘whatever, I won’t get up this time as nobody sees me’. But she doesn’t. She gets up! And new people (real patients) enter the waiting room. Guess what….they all follow what the girl’s doing.

I had heard about a similar research with monkeys, who do exactly the same thing. I asked my sister who’s a psychologist if this stuff in the video is for real. And she told me many such researches have been conducted and they all show the same pattern. My god! Monkeys?! 

Yesterday I was having dinner with an American friend who just started a job in a big insurance company in Singapore. His background is in startups. The biggest company he’s worked in before had 250 employees. The insurance company hired him to help facilitate their agile transformation. So we both thought, great, now you can start new ventures inside a large enterprise. If it were a startup, the first thing he’d do is fire the people with the wrong mindset. Then he’d gather the best people he has left to work in teams to build new products. And he’d start hiring other smart people to speed things up. While discussing, the only thing we could come up with were ‘but, but, but’. I want to fire people, but my boss doesn’t allow that. I want to start new products, but any system we’d create has to be linked to old legacy systems and that doesn’t work. Ah, then you could maybe start a side-venture in which you build those new products….yes, but that’s not allowed by company policy and government regulation.

Isn’t that weird? We try to move our enterprise towards innovation and entrepreneurship. So logically we hire the people who could make that happen: entrepreneurs. But the moment they walk in, they loose all motivation because the rules (and mentality of people) kill their spirit.

Why is it that we create all those rules that stifle innovation and initiative? Click To Tweet

Who likes those rules? How often do you complain about them? And then the million dollar question: how often do you ACT to break them?

Because that’s the only way to create change: break the rules. And we all know this. But because we’re afraid to behave differently from the group, we chose the monkey way and follow the rules. We prefer to be liked by our bosses, so we keep our job, so we don’t challenge his rules. We prefer to have a quiet life in office so we follow instead of break. We love to complain about rules that don’t make sense, but we don’t try to change them. We expect ‘ the other guys’ to do that for us. The leaders in our companies. The people in government.

If we want real change, we need rebels. If we’re committed to creating an agile, entrepreneurial spirit in our enterprises, we need people to break rules. We need innovators. We need entrepreneurs. If we want to stay where we are, we need followers. We need people who stick to our rules, our dress codes, all the documentation we’ve made mandatory. Who do you want to be?

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