We don’t play by stupid rules

I had the opportunity to speak about the work we’re doing at this year’s Gartner Symposium event in Australia. One of the things I talked about that seemed to resonate with people was how we’re trying to build an innovative culture and one initiative in particular — ‘We don’t play by stupid rules’. There was even an article written about it on www.cio.com.au.

Lots of people were keen to stop playing by stupid rules in their organisations, but I also had a few people ask if it was ‘just about reducing red tape’, which kind of misses the point (although I did make a comparison to traditional red tape reduction initiatives, so it’s probably my fault). Red tape is a symptom — not the root problem — if it wasn’t then it wouldn’t keep coming back after it had been removed. ‘We don’t play by stupid rules’ is about continually finding new and better ways to do things. This cuts red tape but it also promotes creative thinking, challenging the status quo and delivering on new ideas — all things important to an innovative culture.

Organisations often try to reduce red tape or generate new ideas through campaigns—they establish a process for submitting an idea (with a deadline), these are then reviewed and the top one or two are implemented with the support of the executive. These campaigns aren’t a bad thing — especially if they see some big ideas implemented — but they don’t create a culture of innovation for a number of reasons:

  • Fixed timeframe — this makes it seem like red tape reduction/ideas generation is something that only needs to be addressed during these times
  • Process heavy — participating involves red tape, which discourages people and makes it seem like permission is needed to reduce red tape or implement a new idea
  • Lack of ownership — the person who has the idea often doesn’t get to implement it
  • Messaging — people can have trouble identifying their own ideas. How often do you actually hear people having conversations about ‘red tape’ or their new ‘innovation’? It doesn’t happen, but how often have you or someone you work with made a comment about something that was ‘stupid’, ‘annoying’, ‘a waste of time’, or ‘why don’t we just …’

We wanted to do something different — we wanted to create a culture where everybody was actively involved in continuously identifying new and better ways of working. So, instead of a process, we created a movement. We didn’t do it as a formal initiative or a top-down directive. In fact, it started in a very low-key way. During a branch meeting I announced that I was no longer going to play by stupid rules, that I was going to start making the organisation better one stupid rule at a time and I invited everyone to join me. We had a simple pledge, which a number of people said with me in that first meeting:

I will challenge myself and others to identify stupid rules wherever they exist. If a stupid rule is:

  • A standard practice — I will set a new standard.
  • A policy — I will work with the policy owner to get it changed.

If all else fails — I will comply in the least stupid way possible.

From that first meeting, we started tackling stupid rules. As well as improving a number of our own ways of working, we made changes to property booking processes, cloud-approval processes, change control processes, and legal processes (among others).

One early success was challenging a rule that a whole floor of high demand meeting rooms in our building could only be booked via our Property team. The original process was that people had to log booking requests with Property, which booked the meeting room on their behalf. As well as being cumbersome, it also meant that if a meeting was cancelled or changed, someone had to notify the Property team to modify the booking. This didn’t always happen, resulting in empty rooms. By talking to Property, the process was changed to allow people to book these rooms directly according to some practical guidelines. We’ve now saved time for everyone involved and decreased the booked but unused meeting rooms.

Soon people from other parts of the organisation heard about our initiative and became interested. I gave presentations to other divisions and we shared the pledge. In less than six months, it had spread across a number of divisions and the Executive Board demonstrated their support by taking the pledge.

‘We don’t play by stupid rules’ has become part of our language and behaviour. Just about every week I’ll hear someone talking to a colleague about a ‘stupid rule’ and how to change it. It isn’t a silver bullet for creating innovation, but we’ve found it to be a good start.

First version of the We Don’t Play By Stupid Rules sign up sheet

Guidance for starting ‘We don’t play by stupid rules’ in your organisation

  • Don’t force it — personal accountability is important
    You can lead by example, but you can’t force people to make cultural changes. By allowing people the choice to participate, you are encouraging them to take ownership for making changes happen.
  • Don’t be tempted to give it a sensible name
    ‘Try to always think of better ways to work and implement them’ would be a much more accurate and descriptive name for the initiative, but it is very boring. There is a certain thrill to challenging stupid rules that helps get people involved and to remember it.
  • Not all rules are stupid
    Some rules are very important and need to be followed. Others only seem stupid until you find out a bit more about why they exist.
  • Stupid rules aren’t created by stupid people
    Rules often have good intent and sometimes good rules become stupid over time — this isn’t about blame, but about open conversations and continuous improvement. If rules aren’t challenged courteously then other areas of the organisation won’t want to get involved.
  • Your own rules are just as likely to be stupid as anyone else’s
    Don’t forget to apply the same scrutiny to your own team’s rules as you do to all the rules imposed on you externally.
  • Focus on behaviours — results will come
    Early on people will be a bit nervous about changing things that have ‘always been done that way’ and are likely to only make small changes. These should be encouraged and celebrated to reinforce the behaviour.

Try it. Start small, make changes happen and observe the impact on the culture of your organisation. If nothing else, it will help identify champions that you can work with on future movements.