ON BREAKING RULES
Todd Dewett | January 26, 2018
I was taking a business trip to Hartford when it happened. I ignored the flight attendant’s instructions to put away my laptop. I was sitting in row one by the window, so there was no storage. My only option was to put the laptop in my backpack in the overhead compartment. Instead, I decided to break the rules and keep the machine with me, cleverly hidden from the flight attendant’s view — stuffed in the thin space between my seat and the airplane wall. Sneaky and convenient. Thank you Apple for making paper thin products!
We took off and the plane tilted upwards. It took a second, but I finally thought about my laptop. I reached down in a panic to grab it thinking it was in danger of sliding backwards away from my seat. Too late! It was gone. I looked under the seat and couldn’t see it either. Without thinking, I then committed one of the worst airplane sins imaginable — I unbuckled during takeoff and stood up. I asked the man in the seat behind me if he saw a laptop on the floor. He did not. I felt my heart jump. That machine was my life. Had it fallen through some slot into the belly of the plane below? Had it gone all the way to the back of the plane and hit the bathroom? Was it damaged? Was some stranger now looking at where I had been on the internet?
I broke out in an awful sweat. As I looked around frantically, I saw a man five rows back smiling madly and waving at me. He held up my laptop. Yes! Everyone on the plane now knew I was an idiot, but at least I had my laptop back. I thought my ordeal was over, but as we leveled out after takeoff a flight attendant stopped at my row. Somehow, she found out what I did! She read me the riot act for not following directions and for standing during takeoff. It was more than mildly embarrassing.
I broke the rules and I paid a price. The same goes for innovators. The popular press loves innovators. Actually, they only love one type of innovator — the successful type. What they don’t show you is the innovator who fails, screws up, miscalculates, or otherwise comes up short. They don’t show you reality. In the real world, innovators find ways to break the rules in the name of making something awesome. Sometimes they win and often they lose. Whether you’re talking about a corporate executive or an entrepreneur, it’s the same — innovation requires risk taking and rule breaking. Sometimes you score, other times your laptop shows up five rows back.
The key of course, is learning — as fast as possible, as cheap as possible. If you don’t like taking risks, innovation is not your game. If you don’t like failing and having people look at you funny, innovation is not your game. If breaking rules and getting busted once in a while doesn’t sound like fun, innovation isn’t for you. For the rest of you, here are my favorite tips for rule breakers.
Gain tacit approval. If you know you can’t secure formal approval for something, go for super-secret tacit approval. Some people say that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission. Maybe, but you’ll definitely help yourself by entrusting at least one higher-level co-conspirator with your plan. Not only will they be able to give you needed advice, but if things don’t work as planned and the stuff hits the fan, they will be your advocate to minimize the fall out.
Codify what you learn. Always engage a short post-hoc analysis of whatever it is you and the team just tried — win or lose, but especially when you lose. Take good notes about the people involved and how they helped or hurt, the tactics used that did or did not work, etc. The next time you get the innovation itch, read that list and try not to make the same mistake twice.
Associate with the most successful rule breakers you can find. There is strength in numbers. You don’t look as crazy when you’re part of a gang. Associating with like-minded folks will give you a bigger sounding board, access to a larger network of possible collaborators, and, again, more people speaking positively on your behalf when one of your awesome schemes doesn’t pan out.
Apologize when needed. If you don’t like to apologize when you’ve really stepped in it, innovation isn’t for you. Active change agents — even the best of them — sometimes inadvertently rub someone the wrong way. Hey, all is fair in love and war — and innovation. If you failed to keep someone in the loop, gained use of a resource that wasn’t yours, or bypassed a required committee — be prepared to step up privately and make amends. When you do — mean it! Otherwise you’ll allow trust to erode to the point that moving forward is impossible.
Finally, try again! You have to make this a habit. You don’t become skilled at rule breaking in the service of innovation if you’re only doing it once every five years. At least once a year is much better. Follow the advice above to help you survive, but stay after it and try to turn it into a real skill set.
It’s your choice. If you don’t want to be an innovator, that’s perfectly acceptable. If, however, you wish to chase the dream, keep your eyes open. Don’t believe the hype in the business press. Innovators are rule beakers and they fail as much or more than they succeed. If you go that route, use the advice above and maybe you’ll accomplish something awesome. Or maybe you’ll find yourself standing up during takeoff. Either way, it’s a fun path to follow.