More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
— Ted Hughes, The Jaguar

It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely.
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose

What rules could we get rid of today that would enhance our ability to create value?
Vineet Nayar quoted in Lars Kolind & Jacob Bøtter, Unboss

Traipsing homeward from a bracing winter day’s walk last week, I opted for a route that took me through Whitstable’s active little harbour. The tide was high, the fishermen’s vessels rocking in their moorings, the whiff of their haul still lingering despite the best efforts of the freshening wind that whistled in off the North Sea. What I experienced, though, was a sensory overload of another kind. It seemed that whichever way I turned my head, my eyes were assaulted with signs of interdiction. No climbing. No black bags. No parking. No fouling. No jumping. No diving. No swimming. Rules and regulations rose up at me, and swam at the periphery of my vision. A swirling vortex of restriction and limitation.

What is permissible then? I wondered. Inevitably, I was reminded of the corporate world from which I have just departed. Reminded of the business appetite for policy, process and procedure. The legislator’s shopping list of constraint. The regulator’s quest for compliance. All packaged in demands for conformity and language dripping with negativity. But what of phrases of encouragement, participation and optimism? Why do we find it easier to say no rather than yes? More often we tell people not to do things rather than to do them. We adopt a position of risk aversion rather than taking a chance and embracing the unknown. No wonder our workplaces are as they are, and the statistics about worker satisfaction are so poor. We jump to prohibition so quickly.

[Photo credit: Interdiction, Richard Martin, 23 January 2015]

Which is not to say that there cannot be a beneficial aspect, in the right context, to limitations. Again, language is important here. For example, personally I am more drawn to the notion of frameworks than policies. Rightly or wrongly, I perceive the latter as rigid and restrictive, the former as flexible and permissive. With policies come rules that will be policed, a strict enforcement of the hierarchy. With frameworks come mutually agreed working practices, high levels of autonomy, fluidity of roles, plans that can be quickly adapted in response to shifting context.

Policy creates an environment in which trust struggles to find a foothold, fear and inhibition rear their ugly heads, transparency is lacking, communication is closed, and email becomes a mechanism for covering one’s backside, serving as a record of directives issued and received. Frameworks enable openness and transparency to flourish. They do not require email at all. Within a framework, information can be exchanged rapidly and acted on in real-time. Cycling teams often show us how this is done, adapting their plans to suit the day’s conditions and the form of their team members, constantly communicating among themselves and with support staff, taking decisions on the fly.

Constraint can also help catalyse creativity. Lack of people, money or technology can prompt innovative solutions. Working at the edge of the box, building on what has gone before, can result in great leaps in our knowledge, science, business and art. Working within the limits of the canvas, the frame, the page or available ingredients has not hampered our artistic forebears. But here the attitude is optimistic. I have these morsels available to me, what meal can I make from them? I have this small landscape before me, how shall I transform it into a floral feast? I have but a single piece of paper left, which words will I select for my poem? There is an inclination here towards what can be done, a positive outlook, rather than a sour-faced listing of all that cannot be achieved.

Rules may be necessary in the societies and communities we share. How we frame and present them matters, though. Better the language of the optimist than the strictures of the policymaker.

Only endings allowed things to stay
as they were, as they had been:
otherwise it was all change,
glimmers of light, faces at the window,
whispers of good intention.
— James Sallis, Other Conclusions

What kind of fool do you think I am?
To think I know nothing of the modern world
All my life it’s been the same
I’ve learnt to live by hate and pain
It’s my inspiration drive
I’ve learnt more than you’ll ever know
Even at school I felt quite sure
That one day I would be on top
Another dot upon the map
The teachers who said I’d be nothing
This is the modern world that I’ve learnt about
This is the modern world we don’t need no one
To tell us what’s right or wrong
This is the modern world
— The Jam, The Modern World

2 thoughts on “Interdiction

  1. An interesting and enjoyable read thanks Richard. Like you I am more drawn to a framework than a policy or set of rules. I find it odd that we so often believe that prescriptive, directive, thou shalt nots are necessary in order to keep order.

    I observed and took part in a Twitter chat last week where the question was ‘What rules do you follow when delivering or facilitating learning events?’ Immediately I struggle with the question as I interpret rules as a coercive form of getting something done, whereas I think a learning event should be more coactive and cocreated. I responded to the question twice – both times stealing from the late, great Joe Strummer.

    On an interview with a Canadian TV station I heard Strummer reference three things to live by:

    Question authority, Maintain your dignity, Treat others with respect. I suggested that if it’s rules you’re after – you could do worse than these.

    Thereafter – I quoted him:

    ‘don’t use the rules
    they’re not for you, they’re for the fools
    and you’re a fool if you don’t know that
    so use the rule you stupid fool’

    My low conformist tendencies had won out, I left the fray shortly after.

    Thanks for encouraging me to stop and think. And thanks for the reminder that the language of the optimist is preferable to the strictures of the policy maker.


  2. I think you know the term I bandy about, “semantic straitjackets”. We’ve previously discussed how work design and slotting roles into conventional classic hierarchy is developed by applying a strict set of semantic definitions to what are the boundaries of a role’s (and thus the incumbents’) activities.

    It is essentially a set of no’s and thou shalt not go beyond this, etc. So, parallel to and aligned with your observations with relatively little leeway until you (or a role) approaches the top, the makers of the rules.

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