Entrepreneurs: making peace with rules
25th November 2013
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Asking “What’s the point?” isn’t just for stroppy school-children. Considering the purpose of our activities can teach us a great deal, and it might just end up changing everything.  

Rules as a force for inertia

I’ve heard the word ‘reasonable’ used a lot this week. The etymology is simple: able to reason.

It seems like the bigger a company becomes, the less able to reason its workers often become.

I can’t believe any company sets out to try to create an uncooperative workforce. It must be a consequence of introducing rules and policies to try to guarantee a consistent service.

But I think it’s worth going back to ask: Are rules there to help, or to hold us back?

Too many people use rules to avoid thinking about what they do and why, or as excuses to avoid doing things differently. In shops you usually hear this in “I’m not allowed.” My usual response to this line is to be polite, but to resolve not do business there anymore, because of small-thinking policy and staff who accept such a culture.

But what if rules were there to enable rather than to restrict? Seth Godin, one of my corporate heroes, tells how he put someone on disciplinary warning and eventually fired someone for not making mistakes. If someone isn't thinking enough to get something wrong, then are they really contributing? 


Finding our way within rules

From my experience most of us learn not to be anarchists, but to find our own way within the structures we’ve signed up to. Our cooperative relationship with rules can take three shapes:

  1. Follow the rules perfectly, missing the point completely

  2. Do something meaningful, still working within the rules

  3. Step back from the rules and understand the point

There are probably more, but this is good for a start. And I notice it starts forming while we’re at school –our interaction with the marking and learning system affects what we do in life. Here are three lessons we can learn for work, from what I’ve observed from emerging readers.

Type 1: We follow the rules perfectly, missing the point completely.

At school: One child I know refused to read anything outside of the colour-scheme his teacher had introduced him to. S’s mother put a book about pirates in his hand, and he nearly panicked, crying that it was an orange level book, and that he couldn’t read it until he’d been through pink, green, etc.

At work: We might not be ready to run the company, but that shouldn’t stop us finding out how it happens. Be curious. Read above your level. Lean into what you don’t know, and learn.

Type 2: Do something meaningful, still working within the rules.

At school:  If you give my eldest the right book, you won’t see her for a couple of days while she disappears into her imagination between the covers of her novel. In last year’s class, however, reading for ten minutes every day earned her one house point. Reading for two hours also earned her one house point. She talked about how unfair it was. But we had a great discussion about how the house points missed the point – she could work within their rules, but she was enjoying rewards far better than a certificate: an increased reading ability, the joy of getting lost in a good book, a sense of achievement from finishing it, a facility with writing, deeper knowledge of her subjects, and critical response to conversation and art. No rule or incentive could provide such deep rewards as these.

At work: Do what you enjoy, and do it well. Mastery will follow. The discipline becomes a bi-product of doing work that makes your heart sing.

Type 3: Step back from the rules and understand the point.

At school: I know a very small, fast, eager little boy whose mother describes him as an ‘accomplished reader’ – and the family is very frustrated because their teacher has asked them to go back to picture books. I would find this confusing too, but it makes me wonder what’s on the teacher’s mind. Perhaps, I suggested to my friend, the boy is able to decode the words beautifully – but maybe the teacher wants to hear him articulating the narrative in his own words. Really, truly interacting with the story will show it is meaningful to him, and it’s a sophisticated step toward real literacy. I hope that’s what’s going on, and that the child will rise to this challenge, however irritating it may temporarily be.

Stepping away from rules to understand the meaning behind them, gives us an opportunity to truly interact and add something of ourselves. When we add our meaning, we create something new.  

Entrepreneurs have tried them all

I could be wrong, but I wonder if entrepreneurs move through all three, to arrive at a place where we see so clearly that the work itself is beautiful, and worth taking risks in order to do it well. The entrepreneurs I know have swapped the rigour of corporates’ instructions, for re-creating their industries in the way they know it should work.

Whether it’s having scratches rubbed out of the side of my car, or buying birthday presents from my town’s toy shop, working with someone who has created their own way of doing things, becomes somehow meaningful and purposeful. It's far more important than just a shop local ethic. It’s about investing in the artist who does work that is good and true, which is far more important than any set of rules. 


I'd be fascinated to hear about your experiences in finding a better way within rules. Come and join me at my open coffee morning 6 December, or get in touch in any of the usual ways. I'd love to hear your stories. 

About the Author

Tracy Kenny

Member since: 23rd September 2013

I’m Director and Shop Manager of Kett's Books, a social enterprise bookshop in Wymondham, and I write the White Dot Business Writing Blog. Life in the bookshop keeps the business writing advice real.


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