The New Rules No Longer Apply

rulersIn times of dramatic change — times like these — it’s critical that we reexamine the old rules that define how we work and jettison the ones that no longer serve their purpose. Breaking the old rules sets you on a path toward the new, the dramatic and the different. But what you put in place to replace those old rules can be just as likely to weigh you down as they are to power you forward. Here, I’m talking about the notion of “new rules”.

An Amazon search returns more than 30,000 results among business books alone — there are new rules for marketing and PR, new rules for the “social era”, new rules for retail, green marketing, leadership, management, creating content, and selling. Damn, there are even rules for revolutionaries! I’ve read some of those books. Some of them are truly excellent. Packed with lots of good ideas. And one really, really bad idea:  The idea that an old set of rules should be (sometimes even must be) replaced by some new set of rules.

The problem with new rules is that they quickly become the old rules. What once seemed fresh, bold and maybe even disruptive becomes the new normal, “what’s expected”, the tired old ways “everyone does it”, and sometimes even “the way we’ve always done it” (humans are indeed creatures of habit and institutions have remarkably short memories). With new rules we set that stage for tomorrow’s tried-and-no-longer-quite-so-true standards that have long since outlived their relevance. Old ideas past their prime, but carved in stone and fixed for a seeming eternity. A set of artificial constraints defined not by current market conditions, future opportunities, or next practices — but by past results, routine behaviors, and sometimes even industry-wide standards.

So how is that any different from where you started? It isn’t…

The old rules were once new; and so the new rules will soon enough be old. And they will bind you just the same.

New market conditions call for new ways of doing things, but they certainly don’t call for new rules. New approaches, principles, guidelines, guideposts, frameworks, themes, theories, hypotheses, road maps, mile-markers? I wouldn’t rule any of those out — and this isn’t just a matter of semantics.

Guidelines are merely suggestions. Road maps offer multiple routes between points A and B, while mile-markers simply provide a means by which to measure progress. Hypotheses and theories are tested over time. Approaches, guideposts, principles, frameworks and themes are directional and extensible. None memorialize a set of rock hard mandatories in the same way rules do.

Now, some might say rules were meant to be broken. I’m arguing rules — old rules, new rules, the very idea that your business needs to play by the rules — are by definition broken. Rather than replace the rules, I’d trash the rule book altogether.

But then again, you don’t have to if you don’t want to. There are no rules here.

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