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 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.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- How to Get a Promotion: the Inside Stuff
- Do you think you're overdue for a promotion? Many of us are, but are you doing all you can to make it
happen? Start with a focus on you.
- Stalking the Elephant in the Room: II
- When everyone is thinking something that no one dares discuss, we say that there is "an elephant
in the room." Free-ranging elephants are expensive and dangerous to both the organization and its
people. Here's Part II of a catalog of indicators that elephants are about.
- Management Debt: II
- As with technical debt, we incur management debt when we make choices that carry with them recurring
costs. How can we quantify management debt?
- Before You Blow the Whistle: II
- When organizations become aware of negligence, miscalculations, failures, wrongdoing, or legal infractions,
they often try to conceal the bad news. People who disagree with the concealment activity sometimes
decide to reveal what the organization is trying to hide. Here's Part II of our catalog of methods used
to suppress the truth.
- Workplace Anti-Patterns
- We find patterns of counter-effective behavior — anti-patterns — in every part of life,
including the workplace. Why? What are their features?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 27: Brainstorming and Speedstorming: II
- Recent research into the effectiveness of brainstorming has raised some questions. Motivated to examine alternatives, I ran into speedstorming. Here's Part II of an exploration of the properties of speedstorming. Available here and by RSS on February 27.
- And on March 6: A Pain Scale for Meetings
- Most meetings could be shorter, less frequent, and more productive than they are. Part of the problem is that we don't realize how much we do to get in our own way. If we track the incidents of dysfunctional activity, we can use the data to spot trends and take corrective action. Available here and by RSS on March 6.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.