Work without rules

A friend of mine recently asked what else he could do to get promoted. Feeling defeated after watching a number of talented friends get passed over across various companies, I replied with a sigh, “I no longer know. What used to work doesn’t seem to apply anymore.”

This admission marked a turning point for me. And my feelings of defeat soon morphed into determination, along with a weird sense of optimism.

We want rules.

Our minds need rules. They help us make sense of our environments. And work is disorienting without them. We want to believe rules because they make life simpler. Rules about how to get promoted, how to sell, how to win audiences, how to innovate. And it’s tempting to believe rules, even when we know they make no sense.

It’s tempting, but it can also make us crazy knowing that following, complaining about, or breaking “the rules,” won’t make a bit of difference in our job security or satisfaction. Every innovator, disruptor, creative genius, inventor, and artist knows this.

And so does every mid-level manager.

The rules of work have changed.

More to the point, there aren’t any clear rules. That statement might seem brash. And I could illustrate how this is the case, wasting effort with empty words and explanations. But I don’t want to do that.

Or, I could write the “Top 5 Ways to Get Ahead in a World Without Rules.” That would attract bots and clicks, but… ugh. I really don’t want to do that.

So how do we –wherever we are – innovate, disrupt, collaborate, grow, and deliver great work without a roadmap? I have ideas, lots of ideas.

And I think it’s possible for your good ideas to gain traction. It’s possible to innovate and collaborate, to be successful and a decent human being. I know for sure it’s possible to feel OK in the work you’re currently leading, in the job you already have while looking forward to what’s next.

I didn’t say these are easy. But these things have to be possible because the alternative is pathetic.

In a world without rules, you get to invent your own.

In fact, you must invent your own. But for Pete’s sake, don’t tell anyone.

It’s one thing to be vulnerable with someone you trust. It’s a full body blow to try that with someone who’s not playing by any rules you understand.

So I’m not telling you to come in swinging. You’ll get clobbered and will stop trying. A little stealth is in order. In some cases, a lot of stealth is required. But if we’re honest, we spend a lot of time and energy complaining about the inane and the unfair. Precious, precious, finite energy.

But what if we just didn’t.

What if you could channel that energy in a new direction?

What if you could use that energy to do something more interesting, provocative, productive, uplifting, or fun from the job you have? What’s the worst that could happen? You wind up tired and deflated. In other words, no worse off than you are today.

The point is to start somewhere – anywhere – because no matter what, the uncertainty ahead of us will be a bumpy ride. That’s guaranteed. And we’re already a more than a little bruised. Better to buckle up with our eyes wide open, with strategy, precision, imagination, flexibility, and a sense of humor.

Let’s get started.


Coaching Prompts…

  • How much time and energy could you recoup if you stopped trying to figure out the rules?
  • Where would you focus your energy if you knew you wouldn’t get “in trouble?”
  • What could you accomplish if you didn’t care if you “got in trouble?”
  • How could you make tomorrow more interesting than today?
  • What rules matter most to you?