A number of years ago an “executive coach” (and I use the phrase extremely skeptically in his case) gave me a DISC profile to determine my personality style so we could plan our strategy for working together. He came back with his analysis of the results to inform me I wasn’t strategic, didn’t get how to be creative, and was only concerned with following the rules.

That I was currently leading the strategic marketing and marketing communications efforts in our Fortune 500 company, was doing a great job (based on all the feedback), and was viewed as a cheerleader for creative change in our organization didn’t have a place in his DISC profile analysis.

Reconsidering Rules and Creativity

Always trying to learn from even stupid encounters, his comment about me following the rules prompted thinking about my relationship to rules. In one sense, the analysis was spot on since I do love to precisely know all about whatever I’m doing to make sure I’m “following” the rules.

What the test missed, however, was the big step in between knowing and following the rules where I apply a lot of creativity: I love exploiting every angle, loophole, omission, and unintended consequence of the rules to win the game.

And by “game,” I mean anything in life where there’s a win/lose opportunity including work, career, personal relationships, and all the silly stuff too, such as sports, getting to the airport fastest, and my granddaddy game of all time, Monopoly.

How to Be Creative Around the Rules

Here’s my rationale for getting all the rules down upfront. Obviously somebody spent a lot of time coming up with them and is very invested in others following the rules. When you blatantly challenge rules or break them outright, you tend to wind up in a back-and-forth confrontation and discussion about why the rules are or aren’t right. When you reach that conversation, you typically face a fairly low probability of changing the mind of the authority figure protecting the rules.

To me, all that discussion represents energy, creativity, and effort which aren’t going into WINNING the game.

I’d rather get all the rules out there in the open, make sure they’re not going to get changed mid-stream, and expend all my energy, creativity, and effort into approaching whatever the game is in completely unheard of ways. I want to pour everything I have into taking advantage of smarts, tenacity, and hard work to WIN in a way no one has ever thought of or been able to successfully pull off while still following all the game’s dos and don’ts.

When it’s all over, the game’s authority figure has no standing to waste my time with arguments about rules being violated. Instead, they’re left to reflect silently on how in the world what just happened, happened.

That’s not to say rule challengers aren’t using incredible extreme creativity to create fantastic success. In fact, because of my approach, I’ve tended to pair up with extreme rule challengers quite successfully in my career. They wound up keeping the authorities occupied while I’d lead the rest of the team in designing the strategy and implementation to WIN the game.

My Approach for How to Be Creative

So yeah, you can accuse me of following rules, but I’m still going to figure out how to be creative in working them over every which way possible to help my team win.

What’s your attitude toward following rules? Anybody with me on this one? – Mike Brown


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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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10 Responses to “How to Be Creative While Following Rules”

  1. Talitha Akin says:

    Hear hear! Rules do not necessarily bind innovation. There is endless research that demonstrate elements of an organisation that enable innovation.. e.g. leadership, climate, etc (let alone an individual’s own creative capacity). These variables do not require rule breaking. So from a someone with a similar profile here’s to leveraging from the rules!

  2. Alex says:

    I think most people who start their own companies aren’t too big on following “the rules.” Rules are important, of course, but if they’re like wearing a suit two sizes too small, you aren’t going to be very flexible.

    Speaking of “profiles,” I had a executive search guru give me one of those detailed tests when I was a finalist for an ad/PR agency job a few years ago. I was told it was a nail in my coffin, as the results indicated that I did not place “making money” as my #1 priority. It was in the top 3–but not #1–so out I went. #1 was finding creative ways to do excel at work. (Which I believe is the hallmark of innovation, thus profitability?)

    The guy who would’ve been my boss threw a fit and said he wanted to hire me anyway, but he was overruled. He left that company less than a year later, I think.

    In retrospect, I’m glad I missed that “opportunity.” Too many sheep in the world as it is.

    • Mike Brown says:

      I don’t remember the name of it, but after the DISC profile, I took a similar type but clearly different test for a job opportunity. In that one, I came out as entrepreneurial, creative, and willing to take risks. As I told my career coach (Kathryn Lorenzen – the exceptional one, not the guy referenced in this post), the two tests put together showed both sides of me. Either one individually (and especially DISC) were lacking.

  3. Tracy Panko says:

    Loved your approach to this post, I think too often fear of making a mistake (especially in large corporate cultures) overcomes natural inquisitive nature into challenging the logic in why we believe something is a “rule” in the first place.  As entrepreneurs and leaders in our own companies we have to encourage our teams to challenge the assumed rules every day to succeed or we become another “me too.”  The talented Kathryn Schulz @wrongology reminded us of that at TEDXKC.  But, you may disregard everything I have said because I lost in Monopoly to my 13 year old son over Thanksgiving…

    • Mike Brown says:

      Your response prompts a clarification, Tracy, and that is that if nobody is paying attention to a rule and it’s not important, then I’m all for breaking it. It’s the ones where I’m going to spend more time arguing about breaking them than I would coming up with an alternative approach where I say, “I give,” and start the bending and stretching. 

  4. cadence tan says:

    i’m with you on learning from ANYTHING – the grandma that walks every morning across my window at 80plus, or the young boy in a squeezed bus that glancing back in adoration & silence (form of asian culture in respect) despite consistent poking from his caregiver – i learn everyday.

    to me non-conclusive finds from generic the test means nothing, tests are just man-made measures of what they know and define (for your case as ‘creativity’: didn’t get how to be creative)- if you didn’t score for a IQ test or creativity measure, doesn’t mean you have less of either. It just means the definition is either not exhausive enough to include another type of creativity like yourself (or considered & cannot be included since its a Black Swan event – hence skews the mean average if included, only gives a more robust median number – i prefer the former). I find difficult to ‘conform’ to certain ‘unconstructive rules’, but i religiously follow general logical rules & routines that makes the game fair. Given as long as the integrity of the ‘purpose’ of such rules is not compromised, some rules are meant to be contructively challenged to be able to ‘benefit’ from changing for a better & more exhausive ‘definition’.


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