Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ignore The Rules

Children are naturally creative.  Not just a little creative, but remarkable, earth-shattering little engines of innovation.  So what happens on the way to adulthood?

Rules happen.

By the time we emerge from high school, we know tons of  things we cannot do.  We have been taught limits.  Things just get worse in college, and by graduate school we're lucky if we can find a tiny bit of our creativity still operational.

Rules are just a snapshot of our assumptions at a given point in time.  They critical error we make as innovators is to forget that rules came from assumptions -- and that assumptions can be flawed.

A simple example of a rule based on a flawed assumption is the tomato.  One of the earliest tomato cultivators in England came to believe that the tomato was poisonous.  This assumption was (as we know now) quite wrong.  However, people simply learned the rule "tomatoes will kill you".  It wasn't until the underlying assumption was challenged that the rule was repealed.

An easy visual demonstration makes the point as well:  Imagine that you are in California enjoying a video conference coaching session with me.  I put my hand straight out, and I'm holding a rock.  I ask you "please point in the direction that this rock will fall when I let it go."  You are probably imagining pointing at the ground.  Now I say "oh, did I mention that I'm in Moscow at the moment?"  You are pointing straight down, but I am on the other side of the planet -- which means that your finger is pointing in the direction of the sky in Moscow.  The "rule" that things fall down relies on the underlying assumption that our orientation relative to the earth's gravity well is the same.

A more complex example is the failure of Newton's "laws" in light of relativity and quantum mechanics.  Each of Newton's three "laws" were built on flawed assumptions.  As a result, Newton's "laws" are really Newton's "accurate under most circumstances" formulas.

The take-away here is that rules are an incredibly useful way to teach somebody how we think something works, but an incredibly harmful way to impede progress. Humans have been wrong.  A lot.  About a lot of things.  Once we enshrine flawed assumptions in the veneer of "law", we make it far harder to admit we were wrong.  It is easy to challenge assumptions, but we are trained never to challenge laws or rules.

When you hear somebody use "rules" worlds, like "law", "rule", "must", "always", etc, do a quick translation, adding the phrase "or so we assume" to the end of each sentence.  Innovation and rules are a poor combination.

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