lustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Want To Make Your Environment More Creative? Kill Some Rules.

Our creativity is often determined by how actively engaged and focused we are. Sometimes our focus is dictated by the constraints, or rules, we apply to it.

The more we focus, the more we create. The more we create the more we enjoy our work. And the more enjoyable, expedient, and efficient an experience is, the more meaning we give it. And here’s the thing: the simplest rules create the most effective experience.

A Single Rule

Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham did not set out to launch a global wave of creativity. They were simply trying figure out how to make a go of Super Deluxe, a tiny basement venue they owned in Tokyo that wasn’t doing very well. On a lark they decided to invite some architect colleagues over to spend an evening sharing their work and engaging in a bit of pecha kucha (peh-CHAHK-chah), a Japanese phrase meaning “chitchat.”

The simplest rules create the most effective experience.

There was one rule, though: You had to give a formal presentation consisting of 20 slides, each shown for exactly 20 seconds. As Mark and Astrid tell it, the rationale behind the rule was simple: “Give a microphone and some images to an architect—or most creative people for that matter—and they’ll go on forever! Give PowerPoint to anyone else and they have the same problem.”

The first night went so well that they planned another for the next month, dubbing it PechaKucha Night. PechaKucha Night soon became a popular monthly event, and it wasn’t long before the problem of what to do with Super Deluxe was no longer an issue.

Word began to spread beyond Tokyo, and after three years and 30 events, PechaKucha Nights began cropping up in other cities. By 2010, PechaKucha Night had gone viral to over 230 cities all across the world, with new cities coming on board every few days.

When you go to a PechaKucha Night—I’ve been to several and participated in two—you’re struck by the creative energy flowing through the people and the place. What I find so interesting about the Pecha Kucha phenomenon is how such a simple concept—a single, non-negotiable rule that invokes a single constraint—can create such an engaging experience.

It’s a counterintuitive idea, but one behind some of the most effective experiences in the world.

Vague Rules

Take “shared space” urban design, for example. In shared space design, motor vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists all share the road equally, with the only rule being “all due respect to the most vulnerable.” Shared space design is void of nearly all traditional traffic controls, signs and lights. Curbs have been removed, asphalt replaced with red brick, and there are fountains and trees and café seating right where you think you should drive. It’s completely ambiguous. You have no choice but to slow down and think, but keep moving.

It’s a counterintuitive idea, but one behind some of the most effective experiences in the world.

Result? Twice the fun and flow with half the accidents. Shared space design began as an experiment in small European towns that didn’t have a budget for traditional traffic controls at high-volume intersections, but has spread to metropolitan cities. Visitors to the 2012 Olympic Games enjoyed the shared space redesign—a three-year, multimillion dollar project—of London’s cultural mecca, Exhibition Road.

No Rules

Most people by now know about the Netflix vacation policy, which is essentially to have no policy. Employees simply take as much time off as they want, whenever they want. No one tracks vacation days. Compare that to conventional rules and policies, which usually result in people being forced to use their vacation or work the system to get paid for time not taken.

The power of this kind of self-organization suggests that creativity and innovation might best be achieved not through rigid hierarchy and central controls, but from one or two vital agreements. These agreements are often implicit, that everyone understands and is accountable for, yet that are left open to individual interpretation and variation. The limits of the rule are set by social context.

The quote by Netflix vice president Steve Swasey sums it up quite nicely:

“Rules and policies and regulations and stipulations are innovation killers. People do their best work when they’re unencumbered. If you’re spending a lot of time accounting for the time you’re spending, that’s time you’re not innovating.

Trust Is The Best “Rule”

Focusing on the rules of any experience gives rise to a different way of thinking. You will begin to search for natural and self-organizing patterns of human behavior. Ask how to exploit those patterns for good, rather than just trying to control them. The most effective experiences might best be achieved but by one or two simple rules.

Simple rules can often emerge from the right context and do not always need not be stated to be understood by all, yet can produce the highest levels of participation.

In other words: keep the simplest rules, kill the others.

How about you?

How have rules helped your creativity?

More insights on: Creative Blocks, Office Dynamics

Matthew E. May

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Matthew E. May is the founder of LA-based EDIT Innovation, and the author of the new book, The Laws of Subtraction: 6 Simple Rules for Winning in the Age of Excess Everything.
load comments (9)
  • vanevela

    Great article. We are opening a coworking space in Fort Lauderdale (AxisSpace), where the main focus is community. The more people participate and get engaged with others and with their surroundings the better, so “trust is the best rule” seems to hit it right on the head. It seems counterproductive to police people around with a bunch of restrictive rules, it seems a lot more sensible and liberating to hold people accountable based on trusting them to follow a couple simple rules. With freedom comes responsibility. “Keep the simplest rules, keep the others.” Simple, yet great advice. Thanks!

  • Cody Min

    Fantastic article. I love the idea of a PechaKucha Night. Thinking of starting one up in NYC at some point, as I saw there weren’t many happening over here.

  • Patricia C Vener

    Well done. I hate rules but I value responsibility, my principles, and the respect of one another for each other. I agree completely with the Steve Swasey quote.

  • drdownundermum

    HaH . . we often do No-Rules versions of things at my place, but I have been doing it all my life.!! It is quite hard to persuade others to do it and wrestle themselves out of that rut . . but they love it when they do. Starting some No-Rules workshops next year.

  • Tim Donnelly

    We also have a No-Rules vacation and sick policy at my work. But honestly, there ARE rules, though they are unspoken. If someone decides to leave Netflix for two months gallivanting through Europe, I’m sure someone’s going to be more than a little wary of how hard a worker that person is. And who is going to do that guy’s work when he’s gone? I do agree it’s really nice to not have someone counting the days you take off and talking to you about it, but I think to call it “no rules” is a bit misleading.

  • Nate

    Guidelines not rules.

  • Kenneth Vogt

    “Vague rules” are still rules. “Guidelines” are still rules. “No rules”, when they have socially unstated boundaries, as still rules. If you really want to kill the rules, there is only one way out: truly institute principles. Yes, trust will be required and there will be failures. But there are failures when things are rule bound too. Consider more on this here:

  • gwenhill

    Rules are constraints to the creative. They often require a workaround, which requires precious time and siphons away creative energy. All I really need are three things: specs, delivery dates and resources. After that, my work ethic and my love for my work carry every project through to completion. In the end, everyone is happy with the results.

  • Anne Miles

    I enjoyed the thinking in this and agree with @Nate that guidelines not rules are great. I also think that there are certain rules that add to the creative process though and taking those out affects the client relationships too much that it hinders the best work getting out. Additionally a no rules process around getting tasks done can lead to the business being unprofitable and therefore unsustainable.

    At the same time I realise some creatives fight for endless numbers of hours on projects and free thinking around deadlines and sometimes the work benefits from these conditions but we are in a commercial environment and there are some business practicalities that have to be considered to be able to keep having the opportunity to work and get paid for it. I think a balance can be achieved by having certain projects where there is a creative investment and others where they are simply making the best of the circumstances.

    ‘No rules’ can work well in regard to the execution rather than to some processes in the business however and experimentation and development of techniques is a healthy way to express this thinking IMHO. I think it is a very important decision as to what has freedom and what doesn’t. Those things that can have a ‘no rules’ policy I feel include:

    – Executions, techniques, styles, tools etc

    – Where good ideas come from (include producers and even admin and tech people in brainstorms)

    – Allocation of tasks – who does what

    – Where people sit

    – The environment and culture

    – Idea generating techniques

    – Experimentation (provide opportunity to do so with ‘20% time’ or capture this in overheads)

    Where I think having a ‘free for all’ actually hinders getting the creative done or having an unsustainable business which therefore limits the opportunity to continue doing what you love for a living:

    – Being on time and doing what you say you will (within reason)

    – Treating people as equals (so that does mean that keeping track of certain things is important)

    – Having a clear process for the clients (they have a massive chain of command and you need to make it work for you or they will affect the results and profitability of your projects)

    – Knowing who does what in the business and also separately on projects (without a clear idea of who is responsible for what then mistakes happen, people are unsettled and lose focus on the work. Flexibility can be implemented so long as it is with respect to people’s expectations. In a small team people can jump in and out more easily but in a big team this can be dysfunctional as much as it is idealistic creatively)

    – Being profitable (sorry – that means doing jobs within budget and only investing in creative opportunities when it is good business to do so)

    I also think there are people that work comfortably in certain ways and they’ll fight to the death to maintain that status quo. This is an obvious limitation of theirs but at the same time if that’s all they’ve got then you have to respect where they sit and make the best of that. So, letting go of expecting them to fit in a wider/better/bigger business model or expecting them to lift up to a certain expectation may be self-defeating. Having a rethink about building a smaller business group around those tasks/skills may be a good way to go instead of expecting them to jump into the more challenging role. Reconfigure the team to allow for growth without them. So, this is ultimately about letting go of ‘rules’ or ideas about how a bigger business works and make it work for the limitations and skillsets of the people who are already there providing you can make it sustainable – eg. make them a smaller department/pod/service rather than a leading role in the wider business even if that’s non-traditional.

    I agree with @Tim Donnelly that there are often unspoken rules and that’s fine so long as everyone understands what they are. If not chaos can sabotage good work getting through. This often can be an unseen level of creativity too – those with limitations can’t see a potential they are not capable of.

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