IDENTIFYING YOUR RULES

“Pipe-dreaming authority is the worst enemy of truth.”

ALBERT EINSTEIN

Solving the most difficult problems requires that you change the thinking that is preventing a solution—your rules. Even good rules can keep you from solving a problem. Try to draw Figure 7.2 on a sheet of paper without breaking contact between your pen or pencil and the paper. Can you do it? When first asked to do this, most people claim that it is impossible. But their own rules are what make this problem a challenge.

We use one side of a sheet of paper at a time. But to draw the figure at right without lifting your pen, you need to use both sides. Simply draw the center dot and fold a corner of the paper to the dot. Then, without lifting pen from paper, draw along the folded corner, turn ninety degrees and begin drawing your circle. As you draw, your pen will return to the front of the paper, and you will complete the figure without ever breaking contact between pen and paper. If you hadn’t been drawing on paper all your life, this would be a simple problem. Your years of excellent experience made it difficult.

The first step in rule breaking is identifying your rules. We will start with the limitations that you identified when you defined your problem. Perceived limitations are often the prime rules that keep us from solutions. Examine your list of limitations. If you listed money as a limitation, than you must have a rule that specifies that a certain amount of money is needed to solve the problem. Extract rules for each of the limitations you listed. Create a list of your rules for solving the problem. List all of your rules, especially the ones that you think can’t be broken. Rules that “can’t” be broken are at the core of most impossible problems.

You still have more rules about your problem. While you were breaking your patterns of thinking, you created a number of ideas. Some were good and some were awful. Your judgment of those ideas is based on rules. Make rules out of the reasons for embrac- ing or rejecting those ideas. Examine the ideas on your idea sheet. Start with your best ones. What are the reasons behind your judg- ment? These reasons are more of your rules. List these rules on your rule sheet.

You should also have some ideas that you believe will not work. Identify the reasons why they will fail. They are rules too. Record them. For example, you may have rejected an idea as too risky. Implicitly, you have a rule that only low-risk projects are accept- able solutions. Or if the solutions you think are viable require a large team, one of your rules may be that the problem is too big for one person.

Procedures and rules of thumb are excellent candidates for rule breaking. For example, there once may have been a good reason for requiring thirteen vice presidents to sign off on a change, but the reason could have disappeared. Include every procedure that is hindering you in your list.

Don’t worry if your rules seem obvious. Many of them will be so obvious that you will be tempted not to include them in your list. Obvious rules are good rules to break. No one has seriously considered violating these rules, while the obvious solutions have failed repeatedly.

Create a long list of rules. Then select one to break. Is there a rule that, if broken, would enable you to solve your problem? This is a keystone rule. Never mind that it can’t be broken. It may be just the rule that is standing in your way.

A keystone rule might be that “Greedy, selfish people won’t help end hunger.” If you could break that rule, you could end hunger. Greedy, selfish people have more than enough resources to do so. If there is no rule that you could break to solve your problem, identify more fundamental rules. Do a pattern-breaking exercise to broaden your thinking. Look for that keystone rule. It will be there if you have an enabling problem. When you have identified your keystone rule, it is time for the most important step in thinking like Einstein: break that rule.

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