Ah, Jubilee time. Fireworks, flags a-flutter, and BBC TV series about that other fond memory of 1977: punk. (That jubilee coincided with my seventeeth birthday: specific memories are hazy, but bunting, sausage rolls and pogo-dancing were involved.) Our old acquaintance – in the Auld Lang Syne rather than the sedan chair sense – Peter Cook has already made the connection, understandably given his own Punk Rock People Management micro-book (and series at HRZone). So excuse me a little while I wax briefly nostalgic about what all that stuff about Mohican haircuts, bondage trousers and ‘No Feelings’ was all about at the time. (And I’ll try not to wax poetic about doing so with a Melody Gardot CD and a book about gardening at my right elbow. Everything gets old – even, pace Andrew Marr, bloggers.)

As the BBC’s Punk Britannia series helps to explain to those younger than me, the ‘explosion’ of Punk had a longer fuse than casual observers might have noticed. As a musical phenomenon, it had rather long roots – including the American garage bands chronicled on the Nuggets CD series, the New York bar band scene earlier in the 1970s, and British mod bands of the 1960s. “Here’s three chords, now start a band” is not only a popular misquote, but a misquote of a fanzine published long after a long, long fuse had finally connected with the powder-keg. Whatever it might have been, it was no epicentre of musical originality: even the Sex Pistols played cover versions. Versions shorn of musical finesse and infused with a splenetic vigour that was a deliberate assault on ear-drums attuned to the prevailing musical forms of the time, but cover versions none the less. (Were I so minded, there’d be a very bad taste joke about extra-ordinary renditions to be had …)

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There are lots of dread phrases in our working lives. “Can you come through to my office when you have a moment?’, “We’ve been looking at the figures and …” and “It’s not been an easy decision to take but …” are just some of them. Some of these are more insidious and less obvious: one that’s always made my hackles rise and my blood temperature chill a few degrees is ‘Rules are rules’. It’s not just the dead-pan logic – the kind of thing that gets passed off as Zen wisdom by people who misunderstand the former and lack the latter. It’s also the sense of resignation that it reflects in the speaker and seeks to instil in the listener. If they’d said ‘principles’ or ‘values’ instead of ‘rules’, it wouldn’t seem as bleak: principles and values are guides that flex in response to events. Rules, like latter-day Canutes, are often more interested in bending reality to their will.

There’s an excellent post – How to Rule out Rules? – by Dan Rockwell at his Leadership Freak blog that explores this conundrum of rules, this balancing act between having rules that you need and rules that you don’t. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, although I thought his final note sums up his argument best:

I’m not suggesting organizations do away with all rules. Organizations devoid of rules are in chaos. I am suggesting many organizations rely too heavily on restrictive rules that alleviate leaders of their responsibilities.”

Another of his points is the role of rules in stifling creativity, although I’d argue that this is a point about processes as much as rules. We live and work in a capitalist economy, part of which means accepting that ‘destructive creativity’ is part of the deal: capitalism requires innovation to remain not just profitable, but open as a process – and as a society within which the system is operating. (Points made in Will Hutton’s “Them and Us”, reviewed earlier this week.) If you read our review of Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” – or, better yet, read the book – you may also have concluded that good ideas don’t necessarily come from following the rules slavishly, obliging each procedural checkbox and checking every step you make against the manual.

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