Innovating by Breaking the Rules

Innovators are rule breakers. We often see how new entrants to a market break the rules. The low cost airlines did this when they challenged the ways in which the major airlines did business. The new players used e-tickets, did away with allocated seating, bypassed travel agents, flew to new, smaller airports, etc.

So, if you want to be innovative, you have to work out how to at least challenge the rules to if they can be effectively broken.

One effective way is to use small teams. Ask them to spend 30 minutes capturing as many rules as possible - both obvious explicit rules and the unwritten, implicit rules - 'the way we do things around here.' What do you always do? What do you never do? What rules apply to hiring, to firing, to people, to finance, to approvals, to customers, to competitors etc. Typically groups find anywhere from 60 to 100 rules.

These rules can the be challenged For each rule you ask the question - 'Can we break this rule for the benefit of the business?' You can use the broken rules as springboards for new ideas.

Say for example you were looking for ways to improve the productivity of a telemarketing department. Here are some of the rules that you might list as applying to the business today:

  1. We use the telephone
  2. We call between 9 a.m. and 12 and 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
  3. We are always polite and professional.
  4. We use a script which has been carefully developed to deliver the right messages.
  5. We reward our agents for the number of leads they generate.
  6. We follow-up each appointment with a confirmation letter and information pack.

Now we break the rules:

  1. We will use other methods of contacting people than the telephone
  2. We will contact people outside normal business hours e.g. early in the morning, at lunch time or in the evening.
  3. We will be rude and unprofessional.
  4. We will let our agents say whatever they want.
  5. We will fine our agents for each lead they get.
  6. We will not send out any confirmations.
How can any of these ideas help us to make the department more effective?

Items 1 to 3 might suggest that we find creative ways to approach our target prospects as they arrive at or leave work. The telemarketing team could dress up as clowns and approach commuters getting off trains with humorous and outrageous messages which solicit responses.

Item 4. might prompt us to think of ways in which we could make our message more interesting and less mechanical.

Item 5: The idea of fines might prompt us to emphasize to potential customers the costs and penalties from not responding.

Finally item 6 might lead to the ideas of confirming appointments through a special website or hand-delivering to customers a package containing an attractive wall calendar with the date and time of our appointment highlighted.

In each case the reversal of the assumption – the breaking of the rule, allows the exploration of a different perspective.


Productivity is my 'bag' ... it is what I know about. I am President of the World Confederation of Productivity Science - and Director of the National Productivity Centre in the UK - go to this site for some good free resources and some (paid for but low price) e-learning on productivity. I also edit the International Journal of Productivity & Performance Management. My views on productivity and on learning (which I think are related) are su...

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