I never knock clichés. They wouldn't be repeated for decades by millions of people if there wasn't at least some grain of truth and inherent value in most of them. Even Yogisms http://yogiberramuseum.org/just-for-fun/yogisms, the "philosophical" observations of the late, great New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra always provided some genuine guidance. There's no stronger call to action than Yogi's famous advice: "when you come to a fork in the road, take it." Or, as we might say today: "don't just stand there, do something." And there's never been a clearer explanation of pattern recognition (so critical to making smart investment decisions) than when he opined: "it's like déjà vu all over again." And my favorite - as a former restaurant owner and operator - was his comment about the perils of popularity. He noted: "nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded."
I was thinking about Yogi in a slightly different context recently when someone told me that a specific situation we encountered was the exception that proved the rule. The more I thought about it, and how he used the phrase, the more I wondered if he even understood what that expression actually meant. I'm not sure that most of us do.
It's like young lawyers who say "for all intensive purposes" when they mean "for all intents and purposes" or worse, in cases where people butcher the lyrics of classic songs. "Wrapped up like a douche" instead of "Deuce," a reference to a souped-up Ford, was always my Springsteen example from the song "Blinded by the Light." I realize that the lyric was written by Manfred Mann, but it will always be The Boss's song to me.
Part of the reason for the confusion around the significance of exceptions to the rule is because we don't even reference the full phrase these days. We've dropped a critical part of the original language because I think it seemed on its face to be so circular. The complete expression from ancient Rome actually states: "the exception confirms the rule in cases not excepted." This reminds me a lot of Humpty Dumpty saying to Alice about a word that: "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." Whatever that means.
Still another part of the difficulty is that there are a number of different "accepted" understandings of the concept that vary (according to the scholars) in degrees of accuracy and correctness.
But what really interests me is a different concern that is important for every entrepreneur, and represents the traps we can fall into when we make the bigger mistake of thinking that a single rule governs all cases in a given situation.
It turns out that there are rules that are common and applicable to regulating behaviors in industries that we think of as being quite diverse (like medicine and manufacturing) and then there are other rules (rather than exceptions to the same general rule) that govern other types of behaviors. It's not about good or bad apples - it's about being careful not to treat apples and oranges as if they were the same.
As you create your business's culture and identify and communicate the behaviors you want to encourage, it's essential to start from a clear understanding of which rules make sense for the kind of business you're building and the industry you're in. And you need to understand as well that all the rules in the world won't ultimately get the job done unless you want robots instead of real people working for you.
The best businesses are organized around expectations of performance and not based on rules of behavior in large part because even the best managers can't be there all the time. You need your people to make the right calls in the moment - not run to, or hide behind, some massive rule book. Just as one size never fits all, your core beliefs have to closely and specifically align with what makes the most sense for you, your team, and your company. (See https://www.inc.com/howard-tullman/are-your-values-costing-you-too-much.html.) This is a process that's actually a lot easier than it sounds.
Let's take a simple example of what's pretty much understood as a "universal" rule/proposition that, I would argue, has next to nothing to do with the way that millions of entrepreneurs should run their businesses. One basic concept is this:
Preventing Errors is Cheaper than Fixing Them
Hard to argue with this conventional piece of wisdom. It's always cheaper to do everything right the first time. Not possible, but theoretically cheaper.
Of course, almost every car manufacturer would disagree with you. At least until they get caught lying about what they knew and when in the context of poorly-positioned, exploding gas tanks or shrapnel-spewing airbags. Then they have no choice but to fix the errors regardless of the cost. And, at that point, they rationalize it as a PR and marketing cost and not the result of a design or process problem or-- worse yet-- the end product of some stupid cost-cutting move that put profits above people.
But leaving the car guys aside, here's the crux of the question: in some businesses the smartest and most conservative course is error avoidance and, in others, it's the worst way you can proceed. Your job is to determine which is the right course for your company and - just to make things rougher - it may be that different strategies are right for different parts of the same business. Simple shorthand: we want new and faster bullet trains being built (innovation), but we want today's trains to run safely and on time (operation).
So how do you determine what's best for your business? Here are a couple of simple questions to ask yourself:
What is the fundamental deliverable of my business?
Goal A: Is it providing a consistent and dependable outcome? Each and every time and as predictable as sunrise. This would describe industries like manufacturing and professions like medicine. No one wants a cowboy for his cardiologist. Let him experiment and learn on someone else.
Goal B: Is it providing new, unexpected and innovative results? Are my clients and customers looking for completely different ideas and game-changing creativity? This would describe industries like advertising (at least in the old days) and high-end fashion. Everything about successful fashion these days needs to be inspirational and definitely not institutional. Frankly, no one could wear the latest Parisian fashions even if they tried because - for the runway shows - they're mostly stuck together with tape and safety pins.
Once you have figured out whether you're basically building an A or a B business (and yes I know that every business will have elements of both), then you need to ask yourself:
Am I building a system with controls and a bunch of procedures and processes to help my people deliver a fixed and expected result? These are primarily businesses dominated by operational and managerial concerns. Error-free, six-sigma execution is essential. Process changes, innovations, and system improvements are normally outside of the day-to-day scope of operations. You will also need people to help you get better, but every day you need to take care of business.
Am I creating an environment that encourages experimentation, risk-taking and new approaches with all the errors inherent in that process? These are primarily businesses dominated by creative and developmental concerns. Leaps, not layups, are what it takes to succeed. Trying to avoid mistakes, avoiding embarrassment, and playing it safe is a formula for failure.
Once you know where you're headed and what you are building, you can decide how to focus your time and attention most effectively. It helps a whole lot to have a roadmap - especially if you care a lot about where you end up.
There's more to this discussion. But the critical thing is that the demands, the designs and the drivers of these two very distinct types of businesses are very different, and it's easy to confuse your objectives and commingle your approaches if you're not totally clear. No one business or single approach can be all things to all people.
If you're running a "factory," rules, regulations and restrictions are your best friends.
If you're running an operating room, protocols, checklists and sterilizers will save lives.
If you want new ideas and novel solutions, you need stronger people, not more structure.
If you're building the future, you can't steal second base with one foot on first. You have to cheat a little bit. It may not be perfect behavior, but as Yogi also once said, "If the world were perfect, it wouldn't be."