Bob Lieberman's Blog

Commentary and Tools For Empowering Change

Reinterpreting The Rules

Almost by definition, a challenging leadership situation requires a breakthrough. The trick, of course, is to make that breakthrough happen. If you have the nerve, here's a way to do it.

I can illustrate best by telling the following story.

When I lived in San Francisco I was invited to a “sunglasses” party, and I was eager to go. The host was one potential new friend, and the party would be an opportunity to meet others. It could also be a whole lot of fun. But I hated sunglasses, because you can’t make eye contact when you wear them. How could I have fun at a party without eye contact? 

I decided I couldn't, so I rebelled instead. I cut two yellow "sun" shapes out of construction paper, cut an eye hole in each one, taped them to my regular glasses, and went to the party wearing “sun” glasses. 

Boy did I have a good time! Everyone else was starved for eye contact. They only wanted to talk with me, the bright face among all the dark glasses. I was the center of attention all night, never stopped smiling and laughing, and it was truly one for the books. 

Did I follow the rules? Yes, but. Were my sunglasses what the host had in mind? No! Did the host take me aside and reprimand me? No! Was it a great party? Yes! 

This story illustrates the fact that a rule is nothing more than someone’s attempt to guarantee uniformity of behavior. At the party, the reason was thematic. In the workplace it is more likely to be safety, propriety, comfort, appearance, efficiency, or any number of other legitimate desirable qualities. The thinking behind a rule may be sound, but then again it may not be. What’s important to realize is that a rule’s only purpose in life is to produce a desired result – it is a strategy.

Rules also have life cycles. Once upon a time, a given rule did not exist. Then it was proposed, possibly among competing alternatives. Finally, after due consideration (one hopes) it was imposed. It originated in the past, and its value wears out over time, because:
  • Conditions that used to exist may no longer exist
  • Objectives that made sense once may no longer do so
  • Strategy that was effective once may no longer be so 
In other words, things change.

As we all know, social systems (your company culture) and psychological systems (individual beliefs) resist change. So “pushing the river”, as my friend Ernie Hyde used to call it, simply doesn't work. Reinterpreting the rules is a powerful alternative technique for achieving breakthroughs because it doesn't "push" at all – you fly in under the radar.

Wearing “sun” glasses at my host’s party was a bold act. When compared with the party's rules, it was defensible only by a wise-guy. In fact, the only good thing you can say about it is that it worked! Fortunately, it really is true that nothing succeeds like success.

So when you encounter a leadership situation requiring a breakthrough, and you find a rule blocking your path, don’t give up. Imagine the original purpose of the rule, find your inner wise-guy, and reinterpret the rule creatively, keeping its original purpose in mind.

You may ruffle some feathers. But if the party is fun, in the end nobody will really care.