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Thursday, 22 October 2015

Breaking rules

We should all follow the rules, right?

Countries have laws, companies policies, societies rules. They all amount to the same thing - an attempt to place some order on chaos.

If the rules are wrong, we work to change them, we don't break them. For if we just ignore them, chaos would reign. No organisation can allow any random person to ignore its rules. This is how civilisation and business was built, right?

Actually, no.

Civilisation was built by people breaking the rules. Women got the vote because people were willing to break the rules of the day. Slavery was abolished because people broke rules.

Maybe we shouldn’t compare the epic struggles for human rights with the stuggles associated with a startup business. That might be going too far. Or is it? There are some similar principles at work - the overriding need for change.

Uber cannot request new rules to support its new form of taxi service. To do so would probably take decades, as a combination of intertia and vested interests work to frustrate any change. No, it sometimes needs to break or skirt-around those rules in order to launch its business in a new city. In so doing, it creates evidence of demand for its service that pressures authorities into making their rules match the new reality. Change doesn't happen by people asking politely, because the polite request is likely to be squashed. To get change you need to create a lot of noise.

It turns out that most rules are put in place by old rich people. I say that provocatively. I don't necessarily mean really rich people, just people who have something to lose. Those with a certain investment in the way things are. That immediately means anyone who’s worked their way into a position of influence - they owe their role in society to the rules within which they've worked. They're probably a bit older than most because you have to work your way through a system to be the custodian of the rules. Rules are hardly ever made by the people at the bottom - the poor, the young, those without influence or eduction. No, rules are made by the old rich people. And there’s a problem with that.

Old rich people are susceptible.

Some of them just can't envisage a world that's different. They’ve spent their lives getting to where they are with a certain mental model. It's not their fault, but they just struggle to see that things could or should be organised differently. They have become set in their ways and are blind to the need for change.

Some of them just don't want to change because it's not in their own interest.

And some of them are perhaps easily influenced. There are a lot of vested interests lobbying to keep things a certain way. A little naivety can make an individual susceptible to the wrong influence. A friendly handshake, a nice meal, a feeling of friendliness - these and other flatteries can influence minds. In contrast, the uncouth protestors, the angry, the disrupters - they're dangerous, not one of us. This is why “political lobbyist” is a job - subtle influence works. It’s especially effective when you have money - for the nice meal, the day at Ascott and the like don’t come cheap.

There's one other thing about the rule setters. They're very good at coaching their successors, in creating a system whereby others achieve a role in the system through effort. Small incentives of prestige ensure there's always a new generation to take over - but one which fundamentally thinks the same way. The status quo can be maintained.

So for those that want to fundamentally change things, it's a tough gig. That's why they often don't play by the rules. For if they did, nothing would happen. Or it would happen at a glacial pace, which is the same thing.

That's why companies like Uber sometimes fly a bit close to the wind. It's why some argue that Google plays it fast and loose with the copyright of newspapers and books. It's why technology companies sometimes get sued - for to build a new product without treading on the toes of any existing providers is sometimes impossible. It's why the phrase “it's better to ask for forgiveness than permission” is a mantra of those wanting to change things.

Change often doesn't happen within the rules. The rules are put there to keep things the way they are. Maybe that's not the explicit objective of those setting them, but it's the inevitable outcome. Old rich people just don't change things quickly or easily.

This is why the rule setters are often outraged to see rule breaking. The outrage is genuine, but sometimes misplaced. For rule breaking is a critical part of change. It has to happen, or things stagnate. It's why some companies lose markets - their system of rules and politics prevents them from recognising the need for change. Blackberry and Nokia, I'm thinking of you.

But of course breaking any and every rule will just get you into trouble and results in chaos. So, a key life skill is learning which rules to break and when. Which ones will be overlooked if the change turns out to be good? This can often be a finely balanced evaluation. Go too far and you're sacked or put in prison. Don't go far enough and nothing changes.

I wonder why our schools and universities don't address this challenge? These institutions seem the embodiment of “the rules are here for a reason” attitude. But I'm not sure that helps in passing on the skill of rule breaking.

After all, were some people not willing to break the rules, women might never have got the vote, slavery not have been banished and we’d be standing in the rain waiting half an hour for a taxi.

So perhaps we should all stop before venting at a rule breaker. Perhaps their form of rule breaking isn't so outrageous if we stop to think about it? Perhaps they're ushering in a form of positive change that can't happen without some rule breaking.

Rather than criticising those who break the rules, maybe we should consider rule breaking as part of a broader system? A system that tolerates some rule breaking in order to remain flexible to change. Exactly which rules we can break is the big life lesson we all need to learn.

By the way, you have watched ‘The Matrix' trilogy, haven't you? For ‘The Matrix’ is the embodiement of a system that survives precisely because it has learnt the need to allow rule breaking.

“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” The Matrix.

I salute the rule breakers, the ones who take the red pill.



  1. Duncan excellent post!

    Have you read Bruce Schneier's "Liars and Outliers: Enabling the Trust That Society Needs to Thrive"? This topic is one of the central themes of the book and I agree that we need to very careful on reverting to the "rules are there for a reason" argument and blind enforcement. The Turing story and my home country, South Africa's emergence from Apartheid are further examples.

    This is one of the reasons why I am very concerned about a society where every one is (digitally) watched all the time. Many use the argument "if you are doing nothing wrong then you shouldn't care if you are being watched". The problem with this is that we are all breaking some rules some of the time - in most cases with no negative impact on society. Building up a history of all our transgressions allows those with access to said history to prosecute us at will. This has the obvious disadvantage that those with access control our lives but the more subtle impact is that considered rule breaking will be greatly discouraged, to the point where we will stagnate as a society.

    Just my tuppence worth. Thanks again for very insightful post.

    1. Thank you for the comments! Excellent thoughts - I agree very much on the bankruptcy of the "if you are doing nothing wrong then you shouldn't care if you are being watched" philosophy. Breaking rules is a positive, healthy and essential part of society - if we clamp down too hard, then we *all* become criminals.