How to (Strategically) Break the Rules

by Sara Gallagher | June 13, 2017

Here’s a loaded question. How well do you follow “best practice?” You know what I mean—the list of rules that consultants, trainers, and experts tell you are critical to success.

“Project Managers should document their risks.”

“Managers should have a development plan in place for all their employees.”

“High achievers should get to work before 6 am.”

As a consultant and trainer myself, I’m very familiar with the “shoulds.” In fact, it’s a huge part of my job to impart them. They’re the fundamentals, and they are a vital part of achieving success. But blind adherence to best practice can also be a career and project killer. Sometimes, strategic rule-breaking is just what you need to move beyond the fundamentals and meet the moment.

Don’t believe me? Here are some things to consider.

  1. Before best practice became “best”, it was someone’s untested experiment.

Best practices are simply innovations that have stood the test of time. Sometimes they are born out of or supported by research, but other times they have simply been validated through collective experience. For this reason, best practices make an excellent foundation or starting point for any process or approach—especially in the absence of experience or firsthand knowledge of your project or organizational environment. They are classic approaches that can generally be relied upon to work.

On the other hand, overreliance on formulaic, cookie-cutter solutions can cause us to be closed off to new ideas and innovations. We lose our beginner’s mind and stop experimenting—or worse, we shut off our brain entirely.

Consider that most of the “best practices” we take for granted today began as an isolated idea or innovation. Need an example? Consider the concept of management. Almost no organization is without some form of management, and yet the concept as we know it today didn’t exist before 1911. In that year, a man by the name of Frederick Winslow Taylor suggested that the scientific method could be applied to businesses to maximize efficiency. He advocated that performing experiments determines things like the optimal room temperature for worker productivity, the right number and length of worker breaks, and the most efficient sequence for the assembly line. At the time, this was radical stuff…certainly not commonly accepted practices. And yet, early adopters of Taylorism had a huge edge over the competition in the years to come.

Key Takeaway: Mature leaders have a deep understanding of best practice, but they treat it as a starting point. They are willing to apply imagination (and a bit of common sense) to adapt, scale, or even scrap it if the moment requires and they remain open to new and experimental approaches.Break the Rules

  1. Best practice isn’t best for everyone.

Best practices are approaches which have been shown to work for most organizations most of the time. As projects and teams become more complex, the likelihood of these tools working with no modifications gets lower. That is why at Persimmon, we tell our class participants that there are three valid responses to anything that they learn in one of our courses: Adopt, Adapt, or Reject. You heard that right—we encourage our participants to reject tools or techniques that won’t be effective for them—even if it’s “best practice!”

Instead of forcing a particular tool or technique, we ask our students to think in terms of outcomes—what are they trying to achieve? And if they choose to reject a tool or technique, what tools will they use to ensure that the outcome is achieved?

One thing I hear a lot from project managers is: “I don’t have time to do a Charter.” Great—I get it. Many of us are lucky just to be assigned to a project at the beginning—and many charters I’ve seen exceed twenty pages!  So the question I ask is, “What are you going to do instead to ensure that everyone understands the project objective, scope, assumptions, risks, and roles? How are you going to set your project up for success?”

It’s amazing the imagination that is applied to solving this problem once the question is framed this way—and the solutions have varied greatly from industry to industry. (One of the best innovations to come from this discussion was the development of a “one-page charter” which we now use frequently at Persimmon to manage internal projects.)

  1. Best practice isn’t enough to stay competitive.

Once a tool or process becomes “best practice,” everybody wants on board, and that means it’s capacity as a competitive differentiator is limited. Best practice is an important key to peak performance, but it’s not a stand-alone strategy. To outplay the competition, you need a fresh perspective, new ideas, and a willingness to take risks.


Are you ready to break the rules?

To perform best, know the rules well enough to break them strategically. Don’t throw everything out the window—at a minimum, follow the 20% that leads to 80% of the benefit. Then engage your mind (and the minds of others) to negotiate the rest. What is essential, what is a “nice to have”, and what will be the first to go under pressure of time and money?  If you deviate from best practice, what will you do instead to ensure the outcome is achieved and stakeholders are satisfied? Think strategically about these questions, and you’ll stay a step ahead of the pack.

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