title:What Rules Are You Making Up?

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author:Michael Bungay Stanier
date_saved:2007-07-25 12:30:19

Some years ago, I worked for a company that helped create new products. My job title was “inventor” and part of the process was running sessions that would generate hundreds and hundreds of ideas as solutions to a particular challenge. (The key insight here being that the only way to have a good idea is to have lots of mediocre ideas. Yes, it’s a numbers game).

One of the best “games” I knew to come up with ideas was to list all the “rules” about what could and could not be done with that challenge. This in itself is a powerful process, because for the most part these rules are rarely made explicit. They’re just the unquestioned “way things are done”.

Here are some of the primary rules that I see people create:

“This is urgent”
“It always takes this long to do this task”
“This is the deadline, and it can’t be changed”

“Only I can complete this task”
“To be a good [insert role: mother, manager, leader, acrobat, etc] I must…”

“I can’t approach that person”
“I’m not allowed to ask for help”

“Something like this must cost this amount”
“The price is fixed”

“These are the steps you must go through to complete this task.”
“This is what it means to be successful.”
“This must be done in person.”
“It’s considered rude if…”

What do you do with all these rules? I like the former Commander of the USS Benfold, Mike Abrashoff’s, suggestion, “If a rule doesn’t make sense, break it. If a rule does make sense, break it carefully.”

Something to Practice
• Think of a challenge you’re facing right now, something you’d like to get unstuck on.
• Review the list of rules above and work out what you’ve made up about your challenge.
• Pick three rules you’d like to break
• Break one of them

Want to Learn More? Here are Some Useful Resources

It’s Your Ship by Mike Abrashoff: Abrashoff was one of the most effective Commanders in the US Navy in recent history, and this book recounts the successes and failures of his progressive leadership style.

Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee W. Hock: Hock was the founder of Visa, and this book tells this story as well as being the start of re-imagining what and how organizations could be in the future.


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