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The difference between rules and principles

I’ve written before about the importance of defining your core principles, the need for them to be consistent externally and internally with your strategy, and living them through actions, not words. Don’t get me wrong - sainthood is not realistic for most of us - but on the whole, most of us aspire to live up to our principles, even if occasionally we forget ourselves.

Rules, however, are a wholly different concept. Principles are how we live; rules are technical constructs to be obeyed (or disobeyed). Too often, people try to enshrine principles as rules, or worse, suborn principles through ill-conceived, contradictory or just plain dishonest rules.

David Maister, author of 'Managing the Professional Service Firm‘, pointed me to this summary from 'How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything' by Dov Seidman:
The Problem With Rules (as opposed to Values or Principles)
  1. Rules are external: made by others
  2. We are ambivalent about rules (we like breaking them)
  3. Rules are reactive to past events
  4. Rules are both over- and under-inclusive (they are proxies, not precise)
  5. Proliferation of rules is a tax on the system
  6. Rules are typically prohibitions
  7. Rules require enforcement
  8. Rules speak to boundaries and floors, but create ceilings
  9. The only way to honor rules is to obey them exactly
  10. Too many rules breed over-reliance
First posted 3 July 2007