Rules are Bad

“Cool is a rule, but sometimes bad is bad.” — Huey Lewis

In my junior high days of desperately trying to figure out this language thing, the word “bad” started being by many tastemakers (I’m talking to you Michael Jackson) to mean “not bad.” I had no idea why this was happening, but it was a cause of consternation. So Huey Lewis’ rule provided great relief: I could use “cool” for good things and “sucks” for not good things.

Have you ever watched a toddler testing limits, constantly turning back to mom to see where the rule begins? We want rules, but rules are bad (see what I did there?).

Rules are bad (in the sense of not bad) because they give us structure and certainty. When a rule is in place, we can count on others to act a certain way and to understand our intent. Rules give us security. They also take some of the cognitive burden, allowing us to make decisions once and use categories to apply rules to similar decisions.

Rules are bad (in the sense of actually bad) when they are based on whim, or vengeance, or fear, or don’t reflect reality—all desks must be empty at the end of the workday; 10% of employees must be annually judged as incompetent, etc.

Bureaucrats and HR departments and MBAs love rules because they make the world predictable and manageable. When rules are in place, you can make decisions based on a flowchart, machinelike. But the day is fast coming when anything that can be done in a machinelike way will be done by a machine.

The next time you decide to make a rule remember, being replaced by a machine is bad.