The unlimiting rules of process

Photo by Eliza[beth] Grace


I just finished reading Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. I know it has already become a cliché to like one of Gladwell’s books, especially for someone like me that has Gladwell’s name as one of the bigger tags for this blog. However, I found the book so thought-provoking and compelling that I really do not care if it is a cliché. I am going to devote a  number of posts contemplating some of the issues discussed in the book.

Lately, as those of you who follow this blog know, I wrote about rules in the world of management and even made a  video presentation about it. One of the things I advocate for in my presentation is that if we do use rules, we need to use rules that are unlimiting instead of limiting. Design, by definition is limiting, however, we all know and feel when the design frees us up and helps us achieve things instead of limit us. I wrote in the past about the idea of lack of friction, an idea I borrowed from Bob Sutton’s blog where he wrote:

It is one of those phrases that applies to all sorts of things, great customer experiences where good things happen and your feel no friction, organizational practices that are seamless and painless, and even government services that seem designed to reduce the burden on you.

One of the stories Gladwell tells made think about that. He tells the story of Improv Theater. The whole idea of Improv Theater is that there are no scripts and no rules. People go out on stage and do whatever the audience suggests and whatever the other actors lead them to. Without any rules, wonderful things are created. It seems random and chaotic and utterly irrelevant to business and management but when Gladwell dwells deeper into the theater and the method he finds that there are rules and it is not chaotic.

In fact, the people of the theater spend a lot of time not only training but also giving feedback to each other and dissecting each others’ performances. Because if we do want to rely on human judgment to make common sense decisions and employ practical wisdom, we need them to be able to train and to give them feedback and ample opportunity to reflect on their performance.

But what was even more interesting is the rules themselves. Because it is a great example of what I call a rule about process and not about content. Gladwell explains that one of the most important rules in the Improv Theater business is that of acceptance. The actors must agree to every suggestion, crazy as it may sound, the other actors make. This is the heart of what makes Improv Theater so entreating and compelling (and you have to read the book for examples, I don’t want to ruin it for you). But this is just it. The rule does not try to regulate the content the actors are dealing with or where they take the ideas, it just regulates the process. You have to agree to everything and flow with it. How? That is your judgment to make. This is how Gladwell describes it:

Do you have to be particularly quick-witted or clever or light on your feet to play that scene? Not really. It’s a perfectly straightforward conversation. The humor arises entirely out of how steadfastly the participants adhere to the rule that no suggestion can be denied. If you can create the right framework, all of a sudden, engaging in the kind of fluid, effortless, spur-of-the-moment dialogue that makes good Improv Theater becomes a lot easier…. He created successful spontaneity.

And I ask you – how much of the work you or your employees do is Improv Theater? Is it customer service? Is it sales? Is it teaching or working with the client of standing up in court and talking? There is no script in life. What is people’s reaction to the fact that there is no script? They try to write a script. But when you write a script, you will have the same show every day or you will need to write one every day. That is very hard as the world is changing and you have better things to do. Instead of writing a script (rules about content) why don’t we try to create a rule of accepting (rules about process) and an environment or framework that allows people, with the proper training and reflection ,to shine out there in the stage of life?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: