Want to break the rules? Start with self-belief

Think:Act magazine "Breaking the rules"
Want to break the rules? Start with self-belief

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Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe
April 3, 2019

Let these 10 rules be your guide to taking risks and maximizing your return from experimentation


Illustration by Joni Majer / wildfoxrunning
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"Breaking the rules"

Sometimes it's good to be a maverick in business, to dispense with traditional wisdom and trusted formulae in favor of creating something entirely new. But even breaking the rules requires some form of order; otherwise you risk a chaotic charge into the unknown – with potentially disastrous consequences.

From Mark Zuckerberg's refusal to wear a tie, to Sir Richard Branson's attention-grabbing balloon rides, being different has been the magic ingredient for a long list of successful people. So, what's the secret? How can you pull ideas out of left field without sending your business into a flat spin? Read on for some of our top tips … for breaking the rules.

Screw it, just do it

This is the mantra that turned Sir Richard Branson into the multibillionaire he is today; so much so he made it the title of his biography. The theory, which is related to the one above, is that sometimes you just have to accept the risk and make a decision – or else suffer analysis paralysis.

Without this sentiment the world would have far fewer business success stories. Products and services would evolve slowly and there would be few great leaps or disruptive or "wow" moments. Do your research, by all means, but know when it's time to push the button.

Fake it until you make it

Adopting a bold, perhaps even outlandish, vision can also inspire entrepreneurial employees to think differently. So-called "stretch goals" foster ambition and encourage staff to contribute creative ideas and growth plans beyond the norm.

A can-do attitude has always been important in business, but achieving quick success sometimes means taking this concept a step further. A successful sales pitch should brim with self-belief because confidence puts minds at ease. So put your game face on, even if you're not entirely sure how to deliver afterwards.

Befriend your rivals

In business relationships, collaboration has overtaken competition as the strategy of choice. The old ways involving crushing rivals have given way to a more collegiate approach in which everyone wins. For businesses looking for growth opportunities, this is an especially useful development.

By collaborating on projects, businesses can use economies of scale to achieve more or deliver better results. Collaborations have the potential to save money, deliver important learning opportunities and develop networks and contacts, which is why growing businesses, in particular, are so keen to join forces.

Adopt a cause

Don't be a rebel without a cause. Having a purpose is particularly important because it can attract an audience and develop loyalty quickly. Standing up for a cause – an idea or a social movement for example – helps customers to ally themselves with the movement, and the brand. In the modern commercial environment, it's just as important to talk about what your business stands for as it is to explain what it produces, perhaps even more so. In adverts, Nike never says how good its trainers are, Apple never lists the technical specifications of new devices and Jaguar doesn't shout about speed or fuel economy. It's important that this isn't simply lip service though. If you believe in the values you adopt, and really act on them, you will find that your customers will ally themselves with you and pay you back with loyalty.

Dispense with things

Think before you invest in office space, expensive equipment or a room full of employees. A smartphone is the only essential piece of equipment for a startup and entrepreneurs can pick up much of the software they need to grow for free. Digital communications and productivity tools have had a deflationary effect on the investment needed to start and grow businesses.

Businesses now need only a skeletal setup to achieve a billion-dollar valuation. Before the dotcom boom, an organization would need hundreds of thousands of employees, a significant property portfolio and millions of dollars' worth of assets to do it. But when Facebook bought Instagram in a $1 billion deal in 2012, Instagram only had 13 employees. Go light and travel quickly.

Unpack your sandbox

Experimentation is a watchword for business in the 21st century. All of the world's leading businesses have some form of sandbox: a department tasked with generating new ideas or a company-wide diktat encouraging employees to innovate.

Experimentation and testing have given birth to a host of new ventures, some more successful than others. The key for businesses is to know when to quit: A sandbox can become an expensive white elephant if bad ideas are not identified and killed off quickly. Play, but make the play serious.

Listen to the oddballs

They might seem to you to be the square pegs in round holes, or the difficult troublemakers, or simply the nerds, but you would do well to listen to them. As Bill Gates said: "Be nice to nerds, one day they will be your boss." Entrepreneurs should understand the misfits – they might show you unexpected new shapes you can fit into. But that goes for the rebel talents too. Rebels can bring about higher success. You might worry that rebels on the edge might disrupt things, but if you can understand their intentions they might lead you to an unexpected but positive outcome. You might have a job managing them, but rebels are often rebels out of frustration. Learn to channel that and learn from them.

Listen to the grassroots

Companies are driven by the top team who envisage strategy and steer the business. But it's arguably more important to pay attention to what employees on lower rungs of the corporate ladder are saying. Because sometimes the top team exists in an ivory tower.

Good ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere, so businesses should build in mechanisms to capture employees' thoughts and develop the best ones into strategies. The alternative risks creating a myopic, top-heavy strategy that ignores the experiences of people actually responsible for putting the theory into practice.

Do something crazy

Stunts can be a major gamble, but with clear objectives they give even the most static business a huge lift. From Greenpeace to Red Bull, organizations have boosted brand visibility by, for example, hanging a huge sign from the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Brazil or sponsoring an extreme skydiver in their bid to set a free-fall record from 4,000 meters.

Aside from the marketing value of a well-executed stunt, imaginative stunts can energize a tired business and its workforce, galvanizing it, motivating employees and providing fresh impetus.

Hire on a hunch

Don't underestimate attitude, first impressions and personal chemistry – all of which can mean the difference between a successful and unsuccessful hire. It's easy to lose faith in your instincts when so many important business choices are driven by complex algorithms and data insights. But "gut feel" remains a vital component of decision-making, especially when it comes to hiring.

Not only are soft skills hard to quantify in numbers, but so is the potential for strong working relationships. CVs and psychometric testing are useful gauges of candidate capabilities, but interviews are an important opportunity to strike up rapport and gain insight that the numbers alone can't deliver.

Further reading
Our Think:Act magazine
Think:Act magazine "Breaking the rules"
Think:Act Edition

Breaking the rules


Is breaking the rules a crucial skill? We examine how the people who have made their own rules also significantly shaped the world of business.

Published March 2019. Available in
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Portrait of Think:Act Magazine

Think:Act Magazine

Munich Office, Central Europe