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"Cope" Coplien

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist.

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Break the Rules

John F. Kennedy said, “Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.” Or, put another way: To make an omelette, you need to break a few eggs. A good career aims for the greatest good, and sometimes you can't get there by following the paths that others have laid out for you to follow. Let’s talk about breaking the rules.

Before someone accuses me (or Kennedy) of being an anarchist, let me say that most of us should obey most of the rules most of the time. Rules exist to help us run on autopilot most of the time so society can function in a more or less sane way. They keep us from having to spend too much time analyzing every situation. On the other hand, many trade unions in the 20th century knew how to handle labor grievances. One way was to declare a work stoppage. The other was to make sure that all union employees followed all management rules literally, which slowed things down as much as a work stoppage would have.

There is a fascinating relationship between leadership and breaking the rules. There are two views of leadership. The first is the military view: a manager who commands people who have no choice but to obey. The second view is more that of a servant leader and of followers who do have a choice. In the end, everyone does have a choice — even if that choice is as mundane as choosing to suffer the consequences of insubordination.

There are two kinds of servant leaders. One kind leads people through territory that he or she already knows. That’s a job, not a career. Even a teacher who fails to challenge his or her students, teaching only by rote, isn’t really following a teaching career. The other leads people into unknown territory — unknown to the leader. That at least means going outside the rules, and sometimes bending or breaking them. That’s a trailblazing career. Anything else is just a job.

Here, of course, we must be carefully attentive to ethics. A hallmark of maturity is knowing when and when not to break the rules. Rules usually come from reasonable people who have overall harmony at heart. It pays to understand these rules’ deep intent, and to carefully ponder whether breaking the rules may cause damage in a way the rules’ framers intended to avoid. The best indicator is your own moral compass. The second best indicator is knowledge — or perhaps just hope — that breaking a rule is in fact for the greater good.

As a career professional, you must always be prepared to face the consequences of breaking the rules. Expect some pain if either your moral compass or your for-the-greater-good predictor are proven wrong. On the other hand, hope to receive the accolades for a job well done if you’re proven right; hence, the popular management saw that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission. Jerry Weinberg says, “There is no failure — only feedback.”

Managers can help instill that perspective in their organizations. Support your people in breaking the rules now and then. And help the culture to nurture the evolving understanding of rules as they change—because they will. And good professors know that a university is a wonderful "safe" environment for students to practice breaking the rules.

George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Break the rules.

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Intelligent management does not require it's rules to be broken but provides adequate latitude to allow experts to make relevant decisions, and supports them when they are sometimes wrong. A company that relies on it's employees to insubordinate and cheat is asking for trouble.

Posted on 12/7/10 4:04 AM.

I like a lot the quote "there is no failure only feedback"! In fact in an organization I think one of the key things to look for is how it deals with the situation when someone is perceived to have made an error. Is there punishment or derision or is the person encouraged to continue working even at the risk of committing other errors? Once I worked in an organization and I made a mistake, one piece of wire left on a patching panel that costed the company a lot of money to find and repair. My manager told me at that time: "You can work a lifetime and do the best work possible and nobody will remember you, but make one mistake and everybody will remeber that you did it!"

Posted on 12/7/10 4:05 AM.

I don't think his blog should be viewed as "requiring rules to be broken" or "relying on employees to insubordinate and cheat"... In my experience, it is much more having rules as guidelines, but to always keep at the front of the mind that they may not be perfect and there is always room to IMPROVE the guidelines (rules).

In the manufacturing realm, quality is key, and continuous improvement of your quality is what will keep existing customers and bring in new ones. You cannot continually improve your product unless you "break the rules" - do something differently than the guidelines state - change the process - evolve. Sometimes it detracts from quality, but eventually you'll get the improvement right. However upper-management needs to be understanding of the fact that sometimes you need to take a step back in order to eventually get ahead.

Posted on 12/7/10 6:44 AM in reply to Garry Hughes-Fenchel.

I think your comment " the military view: a manager who commands people who have no choice but to obey" reflects a poor understanding of what makes a good military leader. Most if not all officer's and Sr. NCOs I've encountered very much embody the servant-leader, or something like Toyota/Lean's teacher philosophy.

Posted on 12/7/10 2:07 PM.

I realize this comment is late relative to the other ones, but I just saw this piece in IEEE career watch. Frankly, it's pabulum, and a poor reflection not as much on the author, but on the editor. Well beneath what should be the editorial standards of any form of print provided by IEEE.

Posted on 2/23/11 2:19 AM.



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