More than to the visionary his cell:
His stride is wildernesses of freedom:
The world rolls under the long thrust of his heel.
Over the cage floor the horizons come.
— Ted Hughes, ‘The Jaguar’
It is necessary to create constraints, in order to invent freely.
— Umberto Eco, Reflections on The Name of the Rose
What rules could we get rid of today that would enhance our ability to create value?
— Vineet Nayar quoted in Lars Kolind and Jacob Bøtter, Unboss
Returning home from a bracing winter day’s walk, I opted for a route that took me through Whitstable’s active little harbour. The tide was high, the fishermen’s vessels rocking in their moorings, the whiff of their haul still lingering despite the best efforts of the freshening wind. What I experienced, though, was a sensory overload of another kind. It seemed that whichever way I turned my head, my eyes were assaulted with signs of interdiction. No climbing. No black bags. No parking. No fouling. No jumping. No diving. No swimming. Rules and regulations rose up at me, and swam at the periphery of my vision. A swirling vortex of restriction and limitation.
‘What is permissible then?’ I wondered. All these signs reminded me of the corporate world; of the business appetite for policy, process and procedure; of the legislator’s shopping list of constraint; the regulator’s quest for compliance. All of it packaged in demands for conformity and language dripping with negativity. But what of phrases of encouragement, participation and optimism? Why do we find it easier to say no rather than yes? More often we tell people not to do things rather than to do them. We adopt a position of risk aversion rather than taking a chance and embracing the unknown. No wonder our workplaces are as they are, and the statistics about worker satisfaction are so poor. We jump to prohibition so quickly.
Which is not to say that there cannot be a beneficial aspect, in the right context, to limitations. Again, language is important here. For example, personally I am drawn more to the notion of frameworks than policies. Rightly or wrongly, I perceive the latter as rigid and restrictive, the former as flexible and permissive. With policies come rules that will be policed, a strict enforcement of the hierarchy. With frameworks come mutually agreed working practices, high levels of autonomy, fluidity of roles, plans that can be quickly adapted in response to shifting contexts.
Policy creates an environment in which trust struggles to find a foothold, fear and inhibition rear their ugly heads, transparency is lacking, communication is closed, and email becomes a mechanism for self-protection, serving as a record of directives issued and received. Frameworks enable openness and transparency to flourish. They do not require email at all. Within a framework, information can be exchanged rapidly and acted on in real-time. Cycling teams often show us how this is done, adapting their plans to suit the day’s conditions and the form of their team members, constantly communicating among themselves and with support staff, taking decisions on the fly.
Constraint can also help catalyse creativity. Lack of people, money or technology can prompt innovative solutions. Working at the edge of the box, building on what has gone before, can result in great leaps in our knowledge, science, business and art. Working within the limits of the canvas, the frame, the page or available ingredients has not hampered our artistic forebears. But here the attitude is optimistic. I have these morsels available to me, what meal can I make from them? I have this small landscape before me, how shall I transform it into a floral feast? I have but a single piece of paper left, which words will I select for my poem? There is an inclination here towards what can be done, a positive outlook, rather than a sour-faced listing of all that cannot be achieved.
Rules may be necessary in the societies and communities we share. How we frame and present them matters, though. Better the language of the optimist than the strictures of the policymaker.
Only endings allowed things to stay
as they were, as they had been:
otherwise it was all change,
glimmers of light, faces at the window,
whispers of good intention.
— James Sallis, ‘Other Conclusions’
What kind of fool do you think I am?
To think I know nothing of the modern world
All my life it’s been the same
I’ve learnt to live by hate and pain
It’s my inspiration drive
I’ve learnt more than you’ll ever know
Even at school I felt quite sure
That one day I would be on top
Another dot upon the map
The teachers who said I’d be nothing
This is the modern world that I’ve learnt about
This is the modern world we don’t need no one
To tell us what’s right or wrong
This is the modern world
— The Jam, ‘The Modern World’