A creative exercise called ‘break the rules’ can help to illuminate the the number and level of restrictions on how you work. It can also be the basis for new ideas, according to Paul Sloane.

Innovators are rule breakers. We often see how new entrants to a market break the rules to which that the existing players conform. The low-cost airlines did this when they challenged the ways in which the major airlines did business. The new players used electronic tickets, bypassed travel agents, did away with allocated seating, flew to new smaller airports and so on.

Break the Rules is a workshop method that I use to challenge the fundamental assumptions of your business. It can be used to illustrate the number and level of restrictions on how you work. It can also be the basis for new ideas. Here’s how it works:

Divide into teams of 6 to 8 people. Each team must list as many rules as they can think of that apply in the organization. They should spend approximately 30 minutes capturing as many rules as possible – both obvious explicit rules and the unwritten, implicit rules – “the way we do things around here.” What do you always do? What do you never do? What rules apply to hiring, to firing, to people, to finance, to approvals, to customers, to competitors, etc.

Typically groups find anywhere from 60 to 100 rules. Once you have a long list of rules, you then deliberately challenge each of them. For each rule, ask the question: “Can we break this rule for the benefit of the business?” You can then use the broken rules as springboards for new ideas.

For example, let’s say you were looking for ways to improve the productivity of a telemarketing department. Here are some of the rules that you might list as applying to the business today:

Break the Rules is a workshop method that I use to challenge the fundamental assumptions of your business.

  1. We use the telephone
  2. We call between 9 a.m. and 12 and 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.
  3. We are always polite and professional.
  4. We use a script that has been carefully developed to deliver the right messages.
  5. We reward our agents for the number of leads they generate.
  6. We follow-up each appointment with a confirmation letter and information pack.

Now we break the rules:

  1. We will use other methods of contacting people than the telephone
  2. We will contact people outside normal business hours, e.g., early in the morning, at lunch time or in the evening.
  3. We will be rude and unprofessional.
  4. We will let our agents say whatever they want.
  5. We will fine our agents for every lead they get.
  6. We will not send out a confirmation by mail.

How can any of these ideas help us to make the department more effective? Items 1 to 3 might suggest that we find creative ways to approach our target prospects as they arrive at or leave work. The telemarketing team could dress up as clowns and approach commuters getting off trains with humorous and outrageous messages which solicit responses.

Item 4 might prompt us to think of ways in which we could make our message more interesting and less mechanical. The idea of fines might prompt us to emphasize to potential customers the costs and penalties from not responding.

Finally, item 6 might lead to the ideas of confirming appointments through a special website or hand-delivering to customers a package containing an attractive wall calendar with the date and time of our appointment highlighted.

When I facilitate this exercise in my workshops I often find that teams decide that they can break some 40 to 50 percent of the rules beneficially. They are surprised at how many self-imposed limits are holding them back.
By Paul Sloane

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at