Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Three Rules for Breaking the Rules

It has become accepted conventional wisdom that you need to “break the rules” to create innovative breakthroughs. This concept resonates very well with the “Rebel Archetype” that pervades American culture. We love the idea of the maverick who challenges authority and not only gets away with it, but shows those old fools that his irresponsible but passionate actions were right.  In fact, in movies from Top Gun to Harry Potter, the heroes break rules more often than they follow them.  While it’s true that the best innovations fundamentally change an accepted belief, blindly breaking rules is not a recipe for success (unless your goal is to wind up in jail).  For guidance, I am presenting without irony, “Three Rules for Breaking the Rules”.

  1. Learn the Rules Before You Break Them
  2. Pick the Rules that Want to Break
  3. Only Break One Rule at a Time

Learn the Rules Before You Break Them

It’s really easy to look at something you’ve seen for the very first time and think “That’s stupid.”  But if you just decide to break convention and do things differently, you’re not really “breaking the rules”, you’re just doing random stuff.  Imagine you’re a high school basketball coach and you get a novice on your team.  If she doesn’t follow any of your rules on how to play positions, then you just have someone running around the court messing things up.  Now imagine that player has worked hard for three years and has become your star point guard. That’s given her insight into how the defensive strategy works, and when she suggests a radical new formation, you really listen. This breaking of the rule is no longer just messing around, it’s an educated decision that can win championships.

People who break the rules often spend years following them first.  It is easy to look at modern art and think “My two year old could do that.” But modern art wasn’t created randomly. Manet and Monet were both classically trained artists and spent years learning “academic art” from sculpture to painting.  It was from this experience, and the development of new techniques beyond the standard syllabus that birthed the most important innovation in art in all history.  

Pick the Rules that Want to Break

Rules were never written in stone.  There is a lifetime to every rule.  As conditions change, certain rules start to become irrelevant and ripe for change.  Instead of picking rules you don’t like and trying to break them by sheer will, it is easier to look for the ripe fruit that is just about ready to fall off the branch.

Find all the rules that an industry is based on.  Then look for the assumptions that underpin them.  These are things like “CapEx is more expensive than operating costs” or “Credit is cheap” or “Scale manufacturing is cheap” or “Local is better”.   Have any of these changed, or are any of these about to change?  If so, the rule based on an assumption or rule that is already known to be changing… that’s the rule to break.  

Only Break One Rule at at Time

Rule breaking is risky.  When trying to bring innovative products and services to the world, you’re allowed to change one major preconception at a time.  Focus all your energies on that one paradigm shift.  There will be a lot of resistance from entrenched products and services, and by only changing one thing, you can still leverage the momentum from everything else.  For instance, Apple breaks a lot of rules.  But they do it slowly.  When they launched the iphone, they removed the keyboard.  This was a big step, a real rule-breaker.  They could have also removed USB syncing of the device or decided not to sell through a carrier, but these changes would have added more risk when the keyless phone was already a revolution.  Many users were skeptical of giving up tactile buttons.  Letting them continue to buy through AT&T and sync their music like they’re used to helped them accept this change.

You can also see this impact in Science Fiction.  Most Sci-Fi novels focus on one major conceit (e.g.  “time is money”, “everyone lives through surrogate robots,” “genetically engineered kids”, “Your OS is your girlfriend”).  But to focus on this one conceit and the repercussions, other “societal rules” are often left the same so as not to distract from the core message.  For instance, if you’re reading a book on robots raising your children, then counting time in seconds instead of hours, having unpronounceable names, having a third gender, genetic enhancement of plants, virtual reality escapades, and doing this all on a spaceship can distract the reader if these are not central to the plot.  The writer needs to ground the reader in the familiar to highlight what is different.  In the same way, an innovator needs to wrap a controversial upheaval in the comforts of the known.

The best innovators are rule breakers, but they aren’t irrational mavericks that can’t follow the rules.  They’re hard workers who truly understand the rules of an industry, find a paradigm that is ready to shift, and then focus on building and launching the innovative products and services that will reshape our world.