By Caroline Savery, Editor/Associate Consultant at Joining Vision and Action

Rules, rules, rules.

Most of us relate to the idea of “rules” with an automatic sense of grudging, borne from childhood. Remember what it felt like growing up, when it seemed like every aspect of your natural behavior was policed by grown-ups, citing rules? “Cross on the green and not in between.” “Sit still and be quiet.” “Don’t stay out after 9.” “Pick up your room if you want to watch a movie.” Sometimes even garnished with the miserable conclusion: “Because I said so, that’s why.”

Where did these rules come from? Why were they so important? What is the purpose of rules? An adult’s intention in enforcing rules often is to protect children from a danger of harm to themselves or others (physically, socially, academically, etc.), and to reinforce positive pro-social behavior. As children, the purpose behind rules might have gone over our heads – we felt only the approval of obeying them or the brunt of breaking them. Their ominous, vague presence, though, undeniably impressed and shaped our young minds. (Check out this excellent blog by Edward Murzio on differentiating between useful and arbitrary rules—beginning with a parable of a child running rampant through an airport.)

Now that we’re the grown-ups … how often are we aware that we get to make the rules?

I encourage us all to pay regular attention to the rules and codes that govern our daily existences. Frequently, we fall into mental habits and ruts by which we automatically follow abstract social “rules” that seem to exist in an unquestionable, omnipotent ether floating over our heads–just like when we were children. We often feel an exaggerated fear of breaking rules, to the point that we might not even consider the benefits of doing so.

How often do you step back and assess the rules to which you ascribe in your daily life? Do you consider the source of the rulewas it passed down by a trusted figure, did it emerge from a painful experience, was it intuited in some way? Do you evaluate if obeying that rule is really working well for you? Do you examine alternatives (e.g., “If I were to stop believing this… or to try something different or opposite… what would happen?”) Do you experiment with the rules in your organization, or your personal life, and study the outcomes?

It was time to play by new rules.

Coming out of college, I subscribed to a common rule, or norm, handed down to me by my elders that “a job is a job, and you need to just go out and get one.” This seemed like a fact of life, no matter my feelings about it. After I discovered the fabulous experience of working in a worker cooperative at age 21, I realized that I could let go of that so-called “rule” for what was important about work. Whereas the rule stressed the total importance of a paycheck, I had experienced a way of working that included a paycheck AND the satisfaction of holistic benefits like contributing to my community, participatory team- and mission-building, and performing meaningful work. Despite the dismally low numbers of worker co-ops in business in the U.S., I knew that it was my path, in part, to discard my parents’ conventions and play by new rules—to go out and spread the worker co-op model, so others might have the positive experiences I had.

Be bold. Question everything.

I recognized that one of the major problems to building more worker co-ops is simply the barrier of belief that such an aspiration for a young worker is feasible, and that such a cooperative model for the workplace is viable. Sometimes, the codes we live by become dogma that keeps us trapped in a rut. We must be bold enough to examine and experiment with the rules we play by, if we want to not just win, but define the kind of game we are playing with our lives.

When is the last time you questioned the rules you obey? Have you asked yourself lately whether those rules are benefitting you or keeping you stuck?

I have found that rules (i.e., socially accepted standards for how something is done) can be changed—tweaked, reconfigured, reworked, adjusted—based on observation of what is working and what isn’t. Especially in these times of bureaucratic fragmenting and ideological gridlock at the federal government level, it is worth remembering, as our nation’s forefathers did, that: When the rules are no longer working for us, we don’t have to blindly abide them, like childrenwe are adults, and we get to change them.

Do you love setting up good rules and healthy systems in your life and organizations? Or would you love to learn how? Check out our upcoming training on project management, where you learn best practices for managing complex projects. You may also be interested in our Social Enterprise Basecamp, where you have an intensive opportunity to craft the design of your organization—from start-up to success!