On the importance of rules

After reading some of the various recent posts concerning Mind Maps® and downloading and using the trial version of MindManager, I went back to the source of my first introduction to Mind Maps®, Michael Gelb‘s book How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day. I was fortunate enough to meet Michael when he was touring for the book when it came out several years ago and hear him speak about the book and his experiences. If you’ve not read this book, I strongly recommend it.

After a brief description of Mind Maps, Michael lays down the rules of Mind Mapping before presenting the exercises. The rules themselves were very familiar to me since I have been playing around with Mind Maps over the last couple of days. What really grabbed me was Michael’s “justification” for using rules, a quote from DaVinci’s Treatise on Painting:

These rules are intended to help you to a free and good judgement: for good judgement proceeds from good understanding, and good understanding comes from reason trained by good rules, and good rules are the children of sound experience, which is the common mother of all the sciences and arts. (emphasis added by me)

Throughout my adult life I’ve had a “glass half full” perspective on rules that somewhat mirrors DaVinci’s sentiments. This comes from the scientist and engineer in me. To paraphrase another great mind, Richard Feynman, it is important to know what has been done before so that you can build from it.

As anyone with children – especially teenagers – knows, though, rules have a very bad reputation. From the kids point of view, rules are evil things meant to repress (oppress?) kids and limit their adventures in life. I see this as a “glass is half empty” perspective on rules.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that many people in organizations I’ve been involved with have this same perspective. Rules in the form of organizational processes, best practices, etc., are all too often ignored – often quite blatantly and proudly. The not invented here syndrome is alive and well. That said, I do not advocate blind following of rules or application of past success (best practices) to any “knowledge” problem.

One aspect of Knowledge Management, process improvement, etc., is the capturing and use of best practices. Much of the writing and practice of best practices, at least that I’m familiar with, and my past experiences with organizations doing work with best practices focuses on the capturing of past practices that worked and the application of those practices, as is, to future situations that are similar. While this works fine for what I call “information” processes – and is, I believe, a critical step in helping any organization improve – I don’t believe that it is appropriate for “knowledge” processes. Or, in terms of DaVinci’s scheme above, the blind use of rules, in the form of best practices, stops short of the goal – good judgement.

This is not to say, however, that past experiences should not be exploited in creating/acquiring new knowledge. Except for the rarest of occasions of thinking “outside the box” (e.g., Newton’s discovery/invention of the calculus and Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity), most new knowledge created today is derivative of something past. It is important to know what has come before and learn from the success and mistakes of others. The rules that come from those past lessons then become the framework for the future, not the fully developed solution to be applied like a generic template to a MS Word or PowerPoint document.