Let’s Kill Some Stupid Rules


So if your team or organization is locked into the 1990s and seems reluctant to move down the  path of creating a vibrant learning organization, it may help to try some things with them that represent some “baby steps” to get them in the habit of influencing their environment for good.

Here is an exercise from Lisa Bodell’s new book Kill the Company.   It is a simple, but powerful one that might surprise you with the power of its outcomes.   The exercise is called “Kill a Stupid Rule.”

(Just from the title, you can imagine how much your people will like it.)  As described in my last article, when your organization is too much anchored by the pressure of getting all today’s tasks done, we often feel overwhelmed.   There is just never enough time in a day.   As a consequence of this pressure, when problems arise, we often feel there is no time to sit down and address their root causes (especially when it requires involvement or other departments that don’t report to you).   And so, we get good at affixing Band-Aids doing “work arounds,” adding new process steps or approval layers, or heaping new procedures on top of our already overflowing plates.   Yes these may solve the new problems and when taken one at a time, don’t seem to add “that much” to our workload.

Over time, however, these do tend to add up, increasing stress, adding cost, and potentially impairing quality or performance. After a while, we don’t even remember where the new rule came from.   It just becomes part of what we do every day – part of our institutional muscle memory.  We have all seen this phenomenon.

So Kill a Stupid Rule can be a great way to empower your people to speak out against some of the things that stand in their way of doing their best for your customers.   It reminds us that sometimes innovation can also be about NOT doing something or eliminating the things that hold us back from doing our best.

Here’s How You Do It 

First invite your team together to participate in a brainstorming session.   When they assemble, break them into triads (groups of three).  (See David Logan discussion about the power of Triads in his book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization.)

Ask them to develop a list of all the stupid rules (whether real or imagined) they feel create barriers that hold them back from better serving the needs of customers.  Suggest that they can list rules that could be “killed” (most likely ones that emanate from within your department, or suggest ways the rule can be improved (if it is not likely a changeable rule).  Our goal here is to get them to focus on suggesting solutions rather than on pointing out problems.  Tell them that as they generate each new idea, please write it on a Post-it note.

After the rules are identified, engage them in a discussion around such questions as:

  • Was it easy or hard to come up with this list of rules to kill or change? Why?
  • Are there some trends or common themes they saw when developing their lists?
  • Which rules do they feel we should be able to kill right now?
  • Were many of the items developed were actually rules, as opposed to processes or operations?  What does this tell us?
  • What is holding us back from killing more rules?
  • How might we approach those rules that involve people who reside outside our department and over whom we have no direct control?

Next, ask the participants to post their notes up on the board containing a 2X2 grid.   The Y axis of the grid should say “Ease of Implementation” (Easy or Hard), and the X axis reads “Impact in the Organization” (High, or Low).

When this step is complete, continue the conversation around these questions:

  • In which quadrant do most of our undesired rules fall?  Why is that?
  • Why haven’t we already stopped the rules that are easy and have high impact?  What’s stopping us?
  • Pick two rules that you feel we should decide to kill today, before we leave this meeting.
  • What are the next two most impactful rules we should do something about that will be harder to accomplish?

It is important to leave the session with them feeling that they were listened to, and that we eliminated at least some rules that were on their list.

Where does this work best?

In my view, this is a great exercise for groups that have not felt they have a lot of control over their work environment, and feel they are not normally listened to.  It is much easier to identify problems than to create new ideas for things that are totally new and have never been done before.    But before you can get them into a space where they are willing to take the risk of speaking out on bolder ideas, they need to trust their manager(s).    One way to build their trust is to ask them their opinion, and then listen to them.   This does not mean you have to do everything they suggest – but you need to do some.

Other Variations

If you feel this exercise worked well, how about trying some of these variants (but only after you have established a pattern of acting on many of the ideas coming from the first session):

  • Kill a Stupid Meeting (but ask if there are other meetings or communications vehicles that we need but don’t now have)
  • Kill a Stupid Metric  (but ask if there are other more important metrics we should track, but don’t)
  • Kill a Stupid Report (again, is their information they need, but don’t have)
  • Kill an Unhealthy Team Behavior, and if you are really brave, how about:
  • Kill an Unhealthy Management Behavior, or
  • Ask your team what other things they feel need to be changed

So there you have it.   Have any stupid rules in your organization?   They may be holding you back more than you think.   Try to kill (or at least improve) one.

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