When Breaking the Rules Is Your Best Chance

Kelle Olwyler

Pick up a magazine, a book, or a newspaper and read about any highly successful person, no matter their field.  To attain the kind of success that makes them newsworthy and notable in the world, they have had to do two things:  1) learn and understand the rules in their field, so that 2) they could know which ones to break to be able to get ahead.

And therein lies the paradox:  you have to be able to do both in order to be truly successful.  Rules are made to bring order and to gain conformity in an area that might otherwise be chaotic.  Breaking the right rules is about innovation, creation, and finding new paradigms. The trick is in knowing which rules to break and which ones not to.

Consider “innovation,” typically associated with R & D.  Innovation has become its own model, a contrast to “following-the-rules.”  Innovation is about going where no one has gone before while still using sound scientific principles to get there.  In the process, a completely new idea may come about that does not fit any current rules.  Darwin, Thomas Jefferson and Einstein were all rule-breakers.

Look at the history of art.  Truly famous artists—Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Picasso, Henri Cartier Bresson, Gertrude Stein or Kurt Vonnegut --are those who broke with the rules of their time and created a genre all their own.

Think of the most successful sales people you know.  They all learned the traditional, prescribed rules of sales, then went out and broke them.  When you ask them to tell you the secrets of how to be like them—top salesperson of the year, year after year –they smile, say they had good training and how important it is to provide truly good service.  They don’t tell you that they discovered which rules to break that leaped them out of the ordinary into the extraordinary, and in truth, they might not even know themselves.

To begin to prepare yourself for breaking the rules, start by consciously looking for rule breakers:

-When the magazine Fast Company was first published, it broke the rules how magazines looked and read.  They came out with a new style of font, design, artwork, and presentation that had not been used before.  They gave away a year’s subscription to thousands of professionals, and became a huge success, almost overnight.  Particularly noteworthy is that within 6 months, other magazines began copying the magazine’s format and style.  Fast Company broke the rules, and it paid off.

-Juanita Brown and Nancy Margolis broke the rules of group communication when they developed the concept of “The World Café.”   The traditional rules for making change were for key leaders to get together, discuss and debate, come to conclusions, reach solutions, and then tell the rest of the community or company their decisions.  World Café turns that concept on its head and brings all people involved together to access the wisdom and intelligence inherent in groups both small and large. Café Conversations are one way that communities, businesses, governments, and people from all walks of life can create a common purpose, share knowledge, make more intelligent decisions, and create life-affirming futures.  World Cafes are held in major corporations, in global associations, and in a variety of communities of all sizes, all over the world.  Juanita and Nancy broke the rules and found a world craving a different way of communicating through the change process.

-Performance appraisals used to consist of a supervisor evaluating an employee, then discussing the evaluation and making suggestions for improvement to the worker.  Supervisor training included the standard “performance appraisal” method consisting of the do’s and don’ts of appraising (the rules).  In came the “360 feedback appraisal,” at first considered heretical because it broke all the known rules for appraising employees.  This form of appraisal went beyond the boundaries of supervisor/employee, and asked peers, direct reports and supervisors to evaluate an individual.  Though initial objections to this style of feedback were numerous, today, many medium to large sized companies use some version of the 360 to support their appraisal process.

-One of the most famous cases of “breaking the rules,” is the Japanese auto industry in the 1970’s reinventing what was acceptable and desirable in automobile design.  They turned the U.S. auto industry on its head, breaking the prescribed and accepted rules that stated you couldn’t have a cheap high performance car; that Americans would not buy smaller cars; that you could not have a small car that was also a luxury car; that there was no market for autos that had better fuel economy.  Japan proved the rules of the American auto industry wrong, and for 20 years, the U.S. played  a painful “catch up” game.  Today, once again, the U.S auto industry is playing catch-up to foreign makers who have been addressing fuel and emission efficiency for years.  Now, finally they have a U.S market crying for help as the U.S. auto industry is once again—as a result of its short-sightedness and inability to break its own rules--in turmoil.

Why doesn’t successful rule breaking occur more often?  In simple terms, rule-based activity is where procedures are consciously controlled by a rule; knowledge-based activities occur in unfamiliar domains, when rules or procedures cannot be recalled.  Educating yourself by inquiring into where knowledge-based activity can be applied to a rule-based environment can provide you the sling-shot maneuver needed to send you over the top and into becoming an out-of-the-ordinary success.

Whether you are a chef, an entrepreneur or an engineer in a biotech company; the host of a radio show, a management consultant or a doctor, it is through discovering which rules to break that you will become better than average and make yourself noted in your field.

So ask yourself, “Which rule can I break today?” and begin your journey to becoming extraordinary.

Kelle Olwyler, co-author of Paradoxical Thinking
Copyright 2010, author retains ownership. All Rights Reserved.

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