Systems Need Rule Breakers, Pt II

Photo by Drew Rae on

There is no such thing as the perfect system. No single system can handle every possible situation thrown at it. Relying too heavily on the system, then, can lead to failures or adverse outcomes.

Sports, surgery, business processes, and anything that involves multiple people following particular rules to accomplish a shared goal have systems in place. Spoken or unspoken, those systems need to have some flexibility in them and someone needs to be authorized to make a judgement call to break that rules.

A simple example is a basketball team’s offense. If they execute a particular play time and time again, the setup will become predictable, the defense will adapt, and the play will stop working. The next step would be to have multiple plays that can be ran. The defense can adjust though and shut down those attempts. So how do basketball teams score so many points in a game? By having the flexibility to make a call. The players on the court can run a play, but change their mind half way through if they spot an opportunity. They can break the rules to take advantage of an opening.

Surgeons don’t face the same type of defense as a basketball team, but there are certainly ways a surgery can go wrong. If a surgeon only knows one way to complete the procedure, their inability to adapt in real time will likely have a fatal outcome. Experienced surgeons that can pivot quickly and make decisions on the fly will have a higher success rate than those who can’t. The surgeons that can break the rules by going outside what the plan was are better equipped as doctors.

Similarly, there is no way to set up the perfect system in business. Using a restaurant as an example, their systems are some version of seat a table, get drinks ordered, get food ordered, serve food, bring the bill, clean the table. In between the drinks and food being ordered is when another table can be seated. Ideally, a smooth flow of guests in leads to a smooth flow of food from the kitchen to tables and keeps the pace of the day steady. The arrival rate of guests, the time it takes to make a particular item, and a million other factors can play in though. The system is designed to have everyone play by similar rules, but the unpredictability of guests and potential situations means someone needs to break the rules to keep everything moving.

How do you decide when to break the rules?

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