Don’t Be a Leader of Stupid Rules

When Alexander II was the Czar of what is now Russia in the mid 1800’s, he looked out of his palace window and observed a soldier guarding an area of the palace lawn that appeared to be little more than empty space. “What is that soldier guarding?” he asked then-Ambassador Otto van Bismarck. Bismarck asked the captain of the guard for a reason for the sentry’s post. He learned only that the soldier was following a long standing order at the palace. It was the 1800’s version of “We’ve always done it that way!”

Vowing to learn the rationale for the guard duty, Bismarck had the soldier asked if he knew why he was standing guard over what appeared to be empty space. The soldier was clueless as to the reason but assured his inquirer he was following precise orders. His superior also did not know why, only that this particular post had always been under strict orders to be guarded around the clock. Undaunted by bureaucratic ignorance, Bismarck finally found an elder soldier who reported what his father, also a palace guard, had told him.

Some 150 years early during the reign of Catherine the Great, the region had a long, hard winter. One morning, looking from the same window from which Alexander II would later peer, Queen Catherine saw the first flower of spring pushing out of the snow covered palace lawn. Wanting to enjoy this lone flower for as long as possible, she posted a guard to protect the flower from being picked.

Unfortunately, the order was never rescinded. So, for many years to follow, soldier after soldier engaged in a round the clock meaningless act in strict obedience to what quickly became a completely absurd policy. No one challenged the policy; they just did what they were told. The flower story is relevant today.

Policies and practices, appropriate at the time of their creation, can assume a permanent life of their own. As circumstances change (which they always will), the “givens” that govern enterprise must be examined and questioned. Without a culture that values boldness and candor, well-meaning front line employees will follow, even defend, the rules that add no value. They will guard flowers that are not there. It takes leaders willing to challenge unhelpful procedures and question valueless rules.

Stupid Rule Clue: Customer Anger

Growing up on a cattle farm provides a chance to see the promise and perils of freedom. For months cows leisurely graze, sleep in the shade and drink water from a nearby pond. In the winter when there is no grass, bales of hay are delivered to their “doorstep.” But, when the time comes for the cows to be transported to market, herding can become a challenge. It starts out rather peaceful; but as cows are steered from the open pasture into small holding pens and then forced to go up a loading chute and onto the truck, it requires low voltage electric prods to convert their resistance into compliance.

What does this cattle herding metaphor have to do with you? If you limit your customers’ freedom with stupid rules, you pay the price with their propensity to respond with greater than normal wrath. They take out their anger on your frontline, ramping up stress and turnover. They assertively trash your reputation. Their social media rantings spotlight your “stupid rules” as they inform hundreds of potential customers to stay clear of your “holding pens and loading shootschutes.” Examine where customers show their angst and ask: “Is this a stupid rule that needs to be exorcised?”

Overcome “Stupid Rule” Blindness

Growing up in the rural Deep South at a time of racial segregation, I witnessed the socially accepted norms of the times—whites and blacks had separate bathrooms, water fountains, schools, and sections in the theatre. No one, black or white, challenged that thought process; it was the way things were. My primary playmates were the African-American children whose parents worked on my dad’s farm; the topic of segregation never came up. I was in late junior high before I realized how inane it all was. Why was it not obvious to me much younger that such practices were completely wrong? How could I have been so socially blind?

The “this is the way it has always been done” rationale is more than a plea for a comfortable status quo; it is a signal that an alternative to practice may not be easily seen. Think of all the assumptions of yesteryear we took for granted. Employees can’t work from home, business casual will lead to low productivity, or the workday is nine to five; the work week forty hours. We can catalog a gazillion current myths that once were accepted truths. It takes leaders who boldly create disruptor patterns aimed at questioning the limitation of “what is” in pursuit of a more progressive “what might be.”

Organize a “service garbage patrol” to spot and report places service is a needless hassle for customers. Start with your customers' first encounter. A restaurant might select the parking lot. If your customers’ experiences with your “parking lot” were a picture of your whole service system, what would it tell them about what you value and your top priorities? What is their ending memory at farewell? Now, focus the service garbage detection spotlight on every other process in search of stupid rules.

TD Bank created a “Kill a Stupid Rule” program; any employee who spotted a rule that kept employees from delighting customers got a fifty-dollar reward. Like TD Bank, make busting customer-restricting bureaucracy more valued than protecting those “sacred cows” long in need of slaughtering. A Board of Customers might provide keen insight into stupid rules that employees take for granted. Create an on-going virtual customer focus group focused on policies, procedures and practices. Take an empathy walk with a key customer through your service processes and beg her or him for candor about the experience.

Leadership has had its history of being characterized by a role of control. Rules create order, policies prevent anarchy, and leaders protect stability. Clearly there are circumstances where rules are crucial to safety, ethics and fairness. This is not a plea for revolt. But, the truth is order and rationality do not need to be added by leaders; they ooze from the seams of every business encounter.

Leadership today is about fostering the illogic of innovation, the irrationality of passion and purpose, and the instability of change. Holding on to stupid rules restrains us from the adventure of advancement. Following the current may give us momentary ease and comfort, but only dead fish swim with the current. In the words of Helen Keller, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is a daring adventure or nothing at all.”