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The Spark Blog

An occasional series of thoughts and reflections on the role of narrative in organizational change, branding and knowledge work

the dichotomy of rules and innovation

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Alicia Pickering reflects on past words of wisdom. 

On receiving my Freedom of the City of London, I was presented with a copy of Rules for the Conduct of Life. This slim volume was drafted (it is thought) by Sir John Barnard who was Lord Mayor from 1737-1738.  The book is of its day – for example, it relies heavily on the Bible to reinforce its points – but aspects of it still resonate. Indeed, the book has recently been republished to coincide with a series of lectures given at St Lawrence Jewry since, as Canon David Parrot, the Guild Vicar, said:

Despite its age, it is as relevant today as any book on leadership and business management.  

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Indeed Rule X: ‘Take care to fix right principles well in your mind: for want of which men are often inconsistent and unsteady in their actions, and uneasy to themselves and others’ could be interpreted as a call to having a decent corporate culture and describes the impact of not having one rather succinctly.

Rules are important. Recent scandals in some City and other institutions demonstrate this clearly. But what is interesting is that many of the institutions involved in scandals did not lack rules – rather some of the workforce clearly felt that they did not need to abide by them. Rules by themselves are of little value – the value of the rules comes from adherence to them. This, of course, prompts the question – what makes people abide by rules or ignore them?

I have worked for considerable periods within the public sector, and during these times,I have observed civil servants asses, digest, observe and apply rules of mind-bending complexity. I cannot recall an instance of someone deliberately seeking to ignore a rule – this was just not part of the working norm. Conversely, Salz referred to an opposite behaviour amongst some Barclays staff in their assertive, even aggressive, interactions with the Regulator[1]. This was not regarded within Barclays as wrong or unusual – indeed:

The Barclays Board and senior management have rightly emphasised the importance they put on compliance with regulations and in regulatory relationships. (Salz Review para 7.2).

Is this because people who join the civil service are naturally (in some way) rules followers and those who work in the better paid jobs in a bank are not?

An added complexity is that following rules implies a lack of challenge, an acceptance of a status quo. This is not necessarily a goodness: innovation and change require challenge. A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report ‘The Challenge of Speed: Driving Slow in the Fast Lane’ describes an imperative for increased rates of innovation amongst European companies and the importance of challenge as part of this process. That ‘challenge’ presumably implies pushing boundaries and questioning many – even every – aspect of doing business. It does not imply ‘doing things by the rule book’. 

Navigating a course so that people challenge enough of the right things but stick to the rules which must be stuck to would be some kind of Nirvana. Although, of course, deciding what must be stuck to and what can be challenged is a whole other debate. I do have a sense, though, that taking good care to fix right principles well in your mind might be a good starting point.

PS If you do not happen to be have Freedom of the City of London, copies of Rules for the Conduct of Life are available from the St Lawrence Jewry Office.

[1] See Salz Review, Section 7 esp 7.2, 7.8, 7.10

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