I don’t believe that ‘rules are made to be broken.’ However I do agree with Emerson that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.” (Notice the important word foolish; it often is left out.) Organizations, large and small, need rules to operate effectively. However, we all know of situations in which someone’s insistence on following a rule rigidly stops us from doing something that needs to be done and that benefits the organization, the staff, and the purpose of the organization. Also situations change and almost always faster than rules do. So what’s a leader to do to help staff members follow the rules and yet not practice that ‘foolish’ consistency?
It seems to me there are two elements necessary for anyone to find that balance – clarity and creativity. It’s important to understand the underlying principle for the existence of the rules in the first place. That clarity will help us make better decisions as we try to apply the rule. For example, some outside organizations want to use university facilities for events. However, state universities have a number of rules for different circumstances that all have the same underlying principle - state property can’t be used for personal gain. When you understand the principle, all of the arcane rules about external groups using campus facilities make a little more sense and can be applied more reasonably. It’s also important to be clear about the purpose of the situation to which we are applying the rule. We might have one idea about the purpose and the person we’re working with might have another idea which can lead to confusion as we try to apply the rules.
Once we have clarity of principle for the rules and purpose for the situation, then creativity comes into play. The rules might prohibit us from having this event on campus as it is currently designed, but perhaps if we found a way to redesign the event, it would fit within the rules. The clarity of principle and purpose allows us ways to find solutions to these kinds of problems.
The leader’s tasks then become making sure organization members understand the underlying principles and creating an environment which supports creativity in applying the rules to varied situations. The environment also needs to be comfortable for individuals to make suggestions about redefining rules to meet those changing circumstances.
Working creatively within the rules really is possible for all of us when we are clear about the principles behind the rules and the purposes for the activities we want to do. Helping organizational members find this clarity and be creative is a critical leadership task. So, where have you creatively (and legitimately) found a way to do something when the rules were working against you?
All the best,