Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 6, Issue 40;   October 4, 2006: Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules

by

Many outstanding advances are due to those who broke rules to get things done. And some of those who break rules get fired or disciplined. When is rule breaking a useful tactic?
The Fram, Amundsen's ship

Fram, which bore the Amundsen expedition to Antarctica. Photo courtesy ArticIce.org's Hall of Arctic Explorers.

In the race to be the first to the South Pole, the two contenders were Robert Falcon Scott, of the Royal Navy, and Roald Amundsen of Norway. Scott had Royal sponsorship, but Amundsen had to persuade his backers of the commercial possibilities of his expedition.

These were the days before the Panama Canal, and the only shipping routes around the Americas were long and expensive. To make the investment in his expedition attractive, Amundsen told his backers that he was exploring the Arctic, which held much more commercial interest than did the Antarctic.

Just one thing — he was lying.

His true motive was to be the first to reach the South Pole. Amundsen successfully misled everyone. He broke the rules.

Breaking the rules is sometimes the best way — sometimes the only way — to get things done. When we break the rules, and then fail, we can end up in deep yogurt. But when we break the rules and then later succeed, people sometimes overlook the transgression. And sometimes they don't.

When is rule breaking a useful strategy? What rules can we break safely? Here are some tips for breaking the rules.

Old rules can be more breakable
Older rules tend to be more breakable than newer rules. Sometimes the conditions that led to them no longer apply, and sometimes their chief architects have moved on.
Of the older rules, those that are frequently applied tend to be the strongest. The old, dusty ones that lack constituencies tend to be the most breakable.
We don't admit it, but goals count
When we break the rules
and then later succeed,
people sometimes overlook
the transgression
The end doesn't justify the means, but what people care about does matter. If the goal is attractive enough, people tend to look the other way when rules are broken.
Break rules only when you're aiming for a goal people care about and you think your chances of achieving it are good.
Stay within the law
Breaking organizational rules is one thing. Breaking laws is another. Law breaking invites all kinds of consequences, and organizational benefits aren't likely to count for much.
Be knowledgeable enough to stay within the law.
Personal gain is a liability
If you personally gain from your rule breaking, you're asking for trouble. Breaking the rules is much more likely to be acceptable if the organization is the principal beneficiary.
Even better if your boss and the applicable rule enforcement unit are beneficiaries.
Prepare to accept adverse consequences
If you fail, and if you broke rules in the attempt, you might have to pay a price. The price can include organizational discipline, termination, or even "blacklisting" in your profession.
Be certain that you're prepared to endure the consequences if the organization decides to take action.

Most important, rule breaking is a white-knuckle sport. Those who care passionately about achieving the goal have a definite edge. What are you prepared to do? Go to top Top  Next issue: Assumptions and the Johari Window: Part II  Next Issue

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