Why rules don’t work (and what to use instead)

It’s an appealing illusion that we can control life, ourselves, and others. We try to control things through fixed structures, detailed planning, and the promise of rewards or the threat of reprimands.

But, in reality, this illusion does not, and cannot exist.

Research suggests that when we try to exert control in this way, it does more harm than good and drains a system of its vitality. It simply doesn’t work. This is because human systems are complex, with many unseen and unknown dynamics and connections. Any change can create unintended consequences that can be nearly impossible to predict.

Rules are (made to be) broken

Rules are too narrow to cope in today’s world; they’re too prescriptive. If we rely on an approach of ‘if this happens, then this must happen’ we are going to be disappointed, because our complex, interconnected world cannot fit into neat and tidy boxes.

Rules don’t allow us to deal effectively in a volatile, complex environment in which the impact of decisions and actions are often unintended, unclear or opaque. We just can’t, don’t or won’t see them.

In the Decade of Disruption, leaders must let go of the old ways of being, doing and leadering, because, as the first half of 2020 has proven beyond doubt, we simply cannot control or predict what is to come. And we shouldn’t expect to.

Our world is too volatile and uncertain; trying to desperately grasp onto the legacy ways of doing things in the hope that we can soon get back to the ‘good old days’ is an exercise in futility.

Instead we must:

  • Embrace uncertainty.
  • Embrace the unknown.
  • Embrace the unexpected, the unplanned.

We must even learn to embrace the unwanted, because there are lessons to be learnt there too.

How to lead without rules

So, if we don’t have rules, what can we live by?

Instead of rules, we need to employ heuristics – guiding principles – that give us boundaries and a pathway through which we can become AntiFragile.

A heuristic technique, or a heuristic, is any approach to problem solving or self-discovery that employs a practical method that is not guaranteed to be optimal, perfect, or rational, but is nevertheless sufficient for reaching an immediate, short-term goal. Where finding an optimal solution is impossible or impractical, heuristic methods can be used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution. Heuristics can be mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision. ~Wikipedia

Heuristics provide ‘rules of thumb’ that are imperfect but make things simple and easy to implement. They are flexible and expansive, meet the demands of a complex and changing environment, and reveal a clear pathway forward. You probably use them in your everyday world without even realising it – ‘trial and error’ and ‘educated guess’ are some common examples.

The word ‘heuristic’ is derived from the Greek word meaning “to discover” and that’s relevant, because heuristics help us learn more about ourselves and others. Heuristic guiding principles are practical and they help us solve problems because they simplify things and make them easier to implement.

This is why I developed the ROBUST principles for my book Becoming AntiFragile.

The ROBUST Principles
  1. Recruit the Brain
  2. Operate in Reality
  3. Break the Negative/Build the Positive
  4. Use Intelligent Risk
  5. Seek Collective Wisdom
  6. Tackle the Infinite Game

When we build a house, we start with the foundations. And so it is with the ROBUST framework. The first principle, Recruit the Brain is based on what we know about how the brain works and how this influences everything we think, feel, and do. Understanding the physiological processes and responses in your brain is critical for leading yourself and others effectively.

The next step is to understand the tricks your mind can play on you so you can recognise and stop self-sabotage in its tracks and this is what we explore in Operate in Reality. The next two principles, Break the Negative and Use Intelligent Risk, explore what’s holding you back, what can help you succeed, and how to be a smart innovator in your own life and leadering.

The final two principles, Seek Collective Wisdom and Tackle the Infinite Game, examine why Becoming AntiFragile is not a solo endeavour. We need others to learn, to connect, and to give us a purpose (beyond ego!) for our efforts.

I designed the ROBUST Principles as guiding heuristics that can be applied across a range of contexts in your life, both personal and professional to help you become AntiFragile. They are flexible and expansive, not rigid or prescriptive; they meet the demands of a complex and changing environment and reveal a clear pathway forward.

My book Becoming AntiFragile: Learning to Thrive through Disruption, Challenge and Change lays out the ROBUST principles in detail along with practical ways to leverage them in the Decade of Disruption. 

Want to make the most of your leadership potential and the capacity of your team?

If you or your team are ready for a new way of being, doing and leadering, I offer a range of programs, virtual keynotes and corporate education sessions. Learn more.

Dr Paige Williams

Dr Paige Williams

International Speaker, Author, Mentor


Determined to help leaders move beyond just the need for resilience, Paige provides practical, evidence-based strategies for leaders to become antifragile, lead themselves and their teams to thrive and succeed in the Decade of Disruption.

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