Rules vs. Guidelines – MBA Learnings

One of the more powerful ideas I’ve learnt in my ‘Values Based Leadership’ class is understanding the power of using rules vs. guidelines in setting culture.

Culture is by far the most powerful change tool that exists. If you really want to change behavior, it is the culture you should turn to. The culture is the mixture of norms and rituals that act as the default behavior in every group or organization. There are rule-based cultures and guideline-based cultures. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. And, to analyze the difference, I thought I’d examine how I’ve approached designing my own culture.

There are many ways to think about designing culture. I think of culture as a set of habits that we incentivize, one way or another. The basic habits I’ve been working to develop have been as simple as – sleep 8 hours, eat healthy, exercise 5 times a week, and meditate. This journey alone has taken the best part of the last 4 years and I am still not done. The first habit I sought to fix was sleeping 8 hours. And, my first instinct was to design a rule based system. When the 8 hour rule didn’t work, I mandated a 530am compulsory wake up as a way to encourage myself to sleep at 930pm. This didn’t work well either as I ended up sleeping late and going into work sleep deprived. I had a few similar experiences with attempting to exercise and meditate. These experiences taught me a couple of valuable lessons about rule-based systems. There is no doubt they are great when you just get started as they make you feel like you accomplished something. But, they work on the carrot-and-stick idea of motivation. And, as modern research has demonstrated, ideas of autonomy, mastery, and purpose motivate us a lot more than the carrot-and-stick model.

So, my next series of attempts were using guidelines. No punishments involved here. The first guideline was to attempt to sleep 8 hours every day. 1 year into that, I did that most of the time. Eating healthy was much easier and I didn’t have to try hard. Exercise was a real beast and I started in earnest in January 2013. Since then, I have averaged exercising ~5 times a week (typically a mix of 3-4 times in the gym and football in good weather). Meditation was much harder. After a rules based attempt in mid 2013, I gave meditation up. However, when I worked on my “tracking my purpose” last year, meditation was an important part of what I considered my ideal personal culture. But, as I swear by guidelines these days, I didn’t attempt to force it. As I tracked my progress every week, I just resigned myself to putting in a 0 as my meditation count for the week. And, after 6 straight months of putting in zeros, I abruptly decided to start meditating as soon as I woke up on Monday last week. I logged into my Headspace app and got started again. I’ve been meditating every weekday since.

What changed? I think the fact that I expected meditation to be a part of my personal culture meant I had an subconscious reminder every week. Next, the fact that I didn’t force it meant that it happened out of intrinsic motivation. And, now that it is there, I have no intention of letting it slip. And, even if it does, that’s okay. I’m sleeping, eating, exercising and meditating because I want to. That’s just how I like leading my life. (“This is how we do things here” – is the all powerful statement of culture)

It is that realization that makes a guideline-based culture incredibly powerful. In some ways, the guiding principle of a guideline-based culture is – “I trust you to do the right thing in the long term. And, if you don’t, be kind to yourself and come back and fix it tomorrow”

It is as empowering as it gets.

PS: The MBA Learnings series is an example of a guideline. It is 1 per week. I aim to do it on Wednesdays. But, the one per week guideline is much more important than the Wednesday rule idea.