Exploit successful rule-breaking

Just before Christmas I was discussing with a client how we were going to find new growth opportunities across the business. During the conversation my client suggested we look for and exploit successful rule-breaking rather than just brainstorming new ideas.

I think this is a great idea. As management guru Peter Drucker once wrote management has just two basic roles – marketing and innovation. Rule-breaking is, in essence, innovation in action.

Yet rule-breaking continues to be the exception rather than the rule. There are some good reasons for this, but, as is often the case, these good reasons – the desire for strong brand management, a unifying organisational culture and effective management control – are used as a straitjacket rather than a support system for development.

I believe that in many organisations we need to put push-back on these legitimate aims in order to find a better balance between organisational discipline and relentless rule-breaking. The simple truth is that rule-breaking will already be happening in your business, and may well be leading to better results. So how do you find successful rule-breaking?

The first step for you is to ‘wander the wilds’. Rule-breaking is unlikely to be taking place near to the centre of corporate power – it is too easy for it to be quashed here. It is far more likely to be happening in the ‘wilds’ of the business – either geographically (sales teams) or politically (R&D). For example, Wal-Mart’s greeter was originally developed in a single store by an entrepreneurial store manager. However, once its success was spotted by management the concept was rolled out across the chain to welcome shoppers and deter shoplifters.

In addition to finding and exploiting current examples of successful rule-breaking, you can also do more to cultivate it. Here are four immediate steps you can make.

  1. Set broad, output-based goals. Too many individual performance contracts focus on inputs (sales meetings held) rather than outputs (repeat business). Focus your performance appraisals on the outputs and be as broad as you possibly can. This enables your team to be as creative as possible in delivering the results./li>
  2. Celebrate rule-breaking successes. Holding up entrepreneurs in your business as heroes rather than villains will help others unleash their own creative potential./li>
  3. Broaden the gene pool. By hiring a healthy mix of outsiders, including those from other industries, you are more likely to create an organisation that questions ‘conventional wisdom’ and actively challenges ‘the way we do things round here.’/li>
  4. Set aside “free-time.” Famously, 3M give their researchers up to 20% of their time to work on projects of their own choosing. This has been the source of many of their greatest innovations, including Scotch Tape and Post-It notes.

The bottom line

Exploiting and encouraging rule-breaking seems, on the surface, to be a risky approach to management. After all, the rule-breaking may not work, and your boss’s boss may notice and come down hard on you. The truth, however, is that innovation is the critical driver of organisational success. The much, much bigger risk is that you preserve the status quo and watch your organisation being overtaken by competitors who are more agile, more creative and more able to work with mavericks and rule-breakers.


To find out more contact Stuart by clicking here or call +44-(0)1636-526111.