Seriously, rules are for losers. In every business situation I’ve been in, I’ve been with a group that was officially allowed to break the rules. Of course, you’ll bend a few that weren’t exactly approved, but if you aren’t doing work that causes someone to say, “We’re making an exception for you,” then you’re probably doing something wrong.

Note: I’m definitely not talking about anything illegal, unethical, or immoral. Not that I agree with everything that’s legal, ethical, or moral in the eyes of society, but those kinds of changes take generations to change and generally need to change by following those rules (and showing how bad they are in the process – MLK anyone?).

Before business, breaking rules at school

I broke the rules when I was in school. The teacher said write about this, I wrote about that. A professor said a project is formatted/organized/structured his way (usually how everyone else in that field of study does it), I did it my way. And I got away with most of it because my alternatives were usually compelling or intriguing enough to win over others (actually, one of the best things to understand about teachers is that they’re bored to death with what you turn in – they’ve taught your class year after year, and they’ve seen it all, so give them something interesting instead. You’ll at least get a B if you can do that much).

I would butt heads every now and then. It wasn’t to be mean or obnoxious. I wanted to do something interesting and different. Sometimes I’d have to discuss my preferred direction with the teacher, and get myself an exception to the rule. Most times that didn’t happen because teachers just let it slide (until I hit college where professors were a little more set in their ways). Still, I always preferred a B with tons of pen marks from teachers about how much they liked my ideas (although had to mark me down for going too far off course) over getting an A with a well done smiley face.

Moving into business

That was always just how I did things, so I never thought about it too intently. I was happy just being me. Still, I’ve noticed more and more that in business the place to be is in this ‘exception to the rules’ area.

I came back this weekend from London after a week visiting with a client. Two of my colleagues, the president and our London based project guy (my UK counterpart) and three people with the client company, a technical mediator, and two purely business side peepz, were getting business requirements for our next project. We were working out of a conference room at the Institute of Directors not far from Buckingham palace where I got to see the changing of the guards (nice lunch break) and near those two car bombs that were diffused (yikes).

All throughout the meetings, the mediator kept repeating how we were doing things differently from others in the business because what we were doing was exceptional and compelling enough for us to break the rules. He was making sure we knew what it would probably be like next year because we’d eventually have to be reined in (he was on our side, but their IT was putting pressure on him to get us in line with them). We’ve been working with them for three years now, though, and we’re doing our best to remain an exception to their rules.

Risk and reward

How do you get through a week full of meetings, 9-5, and come away enjoying that time? You have to make real progress, and you have to setup a compelling challenge for the following time frame – your reason for being an exception. If you’re doing something compelling, then your time spent in meetings getting the requirements settled will help make it fun. And that helps you break the rules because others will see the benefits that make them willing to take on the extra risk.

You have to understand that rules in business, as in most places, are for safety. They’re setup to minimize risk. However, that’s usually boring, and that’s usually also very bad for business. Boring businesses rarely live long. Innovation is exciting. However, people won’t let you break their rules if they don’t also trust you. Trust helps reduce the margins on risk variables. Being a friendly, open, and honest person helps build this trust, and producing the outcomes expected (or even better beating expectations) only adds to that.

Elsewhere and beyond

This isn’t something I’ve only noticed with recent clients, though. When I was working at Citigroup, I was working for a department that was allowed to break the rules. We had a compelling product, and that allowed us enough room to bend and break rules that others had to follow. The challenge here, though, is that most people feel that you eventually need to be roped back in line. Sometimes rightly so, some rules are generally good. Other times, you either need to remain so compelling that you can continues making up your own rules, or you have to destroy the rules for everyone else. Both are hard prospects, especially the large a company gets (because people in large companies either forget why a rule was made or never knew in the first place and find it easier to not question and re-evaluate).

I’m sure there are people who would moan and groan about this. Some people will probably say they hate dealing people like me – thorn in their side, making extra work for them kind of thing. Those are usually the wrong people to deal with. Let them be tied up on useless processes if they so choose (although, be aware they can also make your job a pain if they’re high enough, so always be a nice person – no assholes, especially when you’re going against traffic). In the end, you either find the right allies, or you move on. Life’s too exciting to get stuck in the mud (unless you’re having a mud wrestling content, in which case, don’t get pinned, but have fun getting dirty). Exciting, compelling, innovative things usually don’t fit well into established rules. Good businesses are disruptive like the internet has been to society. Break the rules, make up your own, and have fun doing it.