(Some) Rules are meant to be broken

On vacation over the last couple of weeks I spent a lot of time with my own kids teenagers, and had the opportunity to watch a lot of other parents’ interactions with their kids.  The following thought occurred to me while driving home last week:

A big part of a parent’s job is to teach their children the rules of life, to let them know which ones shouldn’t be broken, and to help them understand when and why the rest can and/or should be broken.

As I jotted that quote down in my notebook I recalled some advice on the topic of rules from Leonardo da Vinci, as quoted by Michael Gelb in his book How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Day as part of his introduction (my first) to Mind Maps. After a brief description of Mind Maps, Gelb lays down the rules of Mind Mapping before presenting some exercises.

The rules themselves are important, but what really grabbed me when I first read the book was Gelb’s “justification” for using rules, the aforementioned quote from DaVinci’s Treatise on Painting:

These rules are intended to help you to a free and good judgment: for good judgment 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)

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.  Unfortunately, many people in organizations 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. Part of the problem is that most, if not all, rules are presented as “you cannot / should not break this rule.” The rules aren’t there to help you develop your ‘good reason’, they are there to tell you what to do and how to do it.

You can see this in the way many organizations apply the idea of “best practices”: capture past practices that worked and apply those practices, as is, to future situations that are similar. While this works fine for what I call “information” processes – and is a critical step in helping any organization improve – it is not 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 that past experiences should not be exploited in creating/acquiring new knowledge. Except for the rarest of occasions, most new knowledge created today is derivative of something past. It is important to know what has come before and learn from the successes and failures 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.