Every organization starts with a vision, carry the creative energies and joy of work in the beginning. People are happy. As things expand organization become ‘stiff’ or inflexible to carry on the spirit of creativity, passion and innovation. People are well paid but stifle inside and cannot pin-point what is ailing the system. Negative energies spread. One can take a patchwork of consultants or new buzzword philosophies to get things back in order but problem appears to be out of grasp. Several legacy brands, organizations and even societies at large, suffer from this. I call it a ‘Rule-School’ phenomenon. Why and how does it happen? Here is a case, illustrated using a school student’s story I came across recently.
A high-school student in India, learns about a science fair where student projects are to be displayed and gets down to making a ‘smart obstacle detection system’ for the blind, using his elementary knowledge of electronics.
95% of students around him are not interested in this project as it would take away the time for studies, especially when all of them are preparing for back-breaking, highly-competitive engineering admission test (JEE) for getting into IITs (premier institute for engineering in India).
Teachers approve the synopsis and enroll him but give a wavering, non-committal support through the project.
The student conducts research around the topic, meets blind people to get some insights, works day and night with zeal for two months, at times keeping aside regular studies.
And then one day he hears that his participation has been CANCELLED by the school as they think the ‘project does not appear worth sending to the fair’.
Reasons given by the teachers :
1. “The principal rejected it”.
2. “Your project is not GLAMOUROUS enough. Last year we had seen BIGGER project models on display”.
3. “We had told you earlier to improve, you didn’t listen. You were just busy with electronics”.
Aggrieved parents want to contact the principal who refuses to meet and sends teachers to meet. When confronted, why a child should not be allowed to at least present the model in the fair and be judged there, rather than by the school, teachers say “we have gone as per the school policy. The judges met and decided that this model is not worth sending to the fair”.
“But the child is heart-broken. He has been at it since many months and worked day and night.”
“He should learn how to face the failure”.
“But he has not failed, he has tried something and even succeeded in finding newer problems like locating the stick for the blind. He made a CLAP sensor module to locate it. What about it”?
“Well, we have gone through everything. And the decision has been taken.”
“Shouldn’t you be rather promoting a child, consumed by the desire to do something new with whatever knowledge he had, rather than pulling him down by talking about ‘glamour’, ‘bigger size of model’ ‘previous year’s pattern’ and ‘we told you so’?”
Here are some known characters in the story which repeat in every organization.
The Rule School: There are many organizations where rule book is the ultimate weapon of mass-destruction of creative thinking. Moment a newbie raises its head with an innovative idea, the rule-book weapon is swung into action to strike it dead.
The Stiff-Neck-Principal: The leader of the organization who is too busy with the chores and unable to see the seeds of innovation, non-linearity and . Successful leader should really be the one who frees himself/herself for nurturing these seeds of change, rather than hiding into the dead-rhythm.
The Save-My-Job teacher: Mid-level managers, who are bound by the wily/lethargic leader/system and cannot take independent judgement in favour of change. Sometimes they do see the logic of the new, but status-quo is too comfortable to let go. Rule-book is their favorite tool to stay clear.
The Creative-Misfit-Student: The innovators and creative thinkers within the organization who are still uncorrupted by the status-quo, who get excited by new ideas, but finds no apparent support in the system; not even by the boss. Inner flame of creativity keeps them going regardless. They end up quitting the ‘Rule-School’ anyways and lead the life of freedom. They are the future of our society. Find them.
The Aware Help-Us Parents: The investors, clients, consultants who can see that growth of the organization is suffering due to the systemic lethargy. They can see the inept principal not doing enough but can do a little apart from pulling the kid out of this school.
Sleepy-School-Management: Board room dictat: Tactical matters are to be handled at junior levels; the board or the school management is supposed to take care of vision and policies. They refuse to even take notice of these ‘small incidents’ that are important indicators of state of affairs. A principal or the managing director are but a manifestation of the will and mandate of the board. Unless they change the thought-line, nothing really will change. Easy to blame, difficult to catch and modify. But the seed does lie with an individual up there. Up the hierarchy it this seed is called a WILL or VISION, downwards it becomes REBEL or REVOLT or sometimes EJECT(unfortunately).
Every organization, over a period turn into a ‘Rule School’. As the organization expands, it needs a structure to keep things in order. Founder’s free spirit needs layers of rules so that things retain the original energy of exploration and creation. Founder leaves the everyday running of the organization to the ‘managers’ who interpret the rule-book as the sacrosanct order of things rather than a reflection of dynamic order and keep on losing the creative-fuel, till the competition or a startup (and an upstart), runs them over. Design Thinking is increasing being seen to break the jinx of Rule-Book and empower everyone in the organization to question.
If you are a leader who wants to change a few things but always face the Rule-School phrase of “here things happen only this way”, then do check out Design Thinking. If you need help further, Turian Labs can help you out :).

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