Knowing when to break the rules

Published by Peter on

This post is not about doing something illegal or unethical. Don’t do illegal or unethical things. Those are bad.

This post is about roles and responsibilities, both in a team and in society. It includes a sports metaphor and a picture of me wearing an orange safety vest.

Let’s start with the basics

When you want to learn something new, the instructors always begin with the basics. You have to learn the fundamentals to understand the framework and structure and individual components of the thing you’re learning.

This is true in all kinds of things. Painting. Writing. Team sports. Teaching. Coaching. Managing people.

You know this if you’ve ever watched an old-style kung fu movie.

Wax on. Wax off. Don’t forget to breathe. Very important.

Breaking the rules for more effective team output

As a soccer coach, I spent weeks making sure kids learned and understood their roles on the team. Forwards stayed up front. Defenders stayed in back. Left stayed left. Right stayed right.

Without this basic discipline, there was no team—just playground mayhem.

I made them stick to this rigid structure to the point where they would police each other. “You’re on the wrong side! Stay in your position!”

By simplifying their roles, I got them to focus on the fundamentals—passing, trapping, tackling. Each player only had to worry about a small part of the field and a couple of neighboring players.

They began to learn how the game flowed. When the ball was on the far side of the field, they could observe and learn instead of frantically chase wherever the ball went. They began to anticipate the dynamic motion of the game.

Eventually, some of the kids noticed that a slavish devotion to the rigid framework was sometimes more limiting than helpful.

Everyone has their role to play, but stick too tightly to the structure and you stifle innovation.
Stock photo by ellinnur via Envato Elements

The tightly structured approach won some games, but it also dampened the players’ ability to innovate. It kept them from leaping into opportunity or reacting to unexpected dangers.

Less structured teams simply threw their most physically gifted kids on the field and let them dominate with raw athleticism. But no one learned much about the game. They learned that winning was the most important thing to their coaches, and that a few stars got all the attention and playing time.

Those were not the lessons I wanted my kids to learn. Those aren’t the beneficial lessons of participating in recreational youth team sports.

I remember one game in particular, late in the U-10 season against the league leader. They were loaded with talent, and they were outrunning us. At halftime, I changed our tactic. I decided to unleash our most athletic player, giving him full range of the field.

He was ready to be creative in a productive, team-oriented way. His teammates were ready to support him and cover the resulting gap in our structure. Our opponent, however, was not ready for the confusion and disorientation it caused. We tied the game and made it to the playoffs.

It’s likely we would have won more games that season if I’d just put that kid on the field from the beginning and said, “Go win the game for us.” But I’m quite sure we would not have made it to the championship, which we lost on penalty kicks.

Peter coaching a youth team in 2008, several kids looking up at him
This is that team, though not that game.

That team had above-average talent, so I’m not saying my coaching got them to over-perform. I do think they learned a lot about the game, teamwork, playing your role, and trusting your teammates.

And I learned a lot about leadership by being a youth coach for so many years.

Good teams have well defined roles, with clearly delineated responsibilities. Good teams put the right people in those roles and give them the tools to do their jobs.

Great teams expect their people to break the boundaries of their well defined roles when the situation calls for it. Great teams provide clear strategy to empower their people to get creative, to take initiative, to overlap, to cover for each other.

The best teams trust each other enough to do all that even when the manager isn’t around to orchestrate it.

Surviving when your teammates break the rules

We’re all playing some kind of role all the time, not just when we’re part of a clearly defined team. Whenever we’re out in public, we all become part of Team Grocery Shoppers, or Team Highway Drivers, or Team Beachgoers.

As a member of that team, we’re expected to follow certain protocols and behaviors. And we expect the same of our teammates. It’s why we wait in line at the grocery checkout, and we don’t walk across other people’s blankets at the beach.

Sometimes our teammates disregard the rules, though. Reacting appropriately requires awareness and flexibility.

Failing to react can even sometimes put your life at risk.

For several years I volunteered twice a week as a crossing guard at my kids’ elementary school.

Imagine several hundred kids between 6 and 11 years old, all running out to the street at the same time after being cooped up all day. They’re looking for their parent’s white SUV among an armada of white SUVs.

Now imagine harried parents, running late, on a jam-packed suburban street with inadequate parking. Not only do they have to find their kid (which is like finding one particular bee in a swarm), but then they have to whisk said kid away to little league, or art class, or daycare so the parent can rush back to work for their afternoon meeting.

This is why we have traffic rules. They provide some orchestration to the mayhem and chaos.

Some rules are legally enforceable, like No U Turn and Speed Limit 25. Some are behavioral expectations, like no distracted driving. We all agree to abide by these rules to keep people from getting hurt.

During my time as a crossing guard, things mostly were safe. But I kept kids from getting killed three different times, and I was inches away from being killed myself. That’s a moment that is seared in my memory, I can tell you.

I’m sure every parent and kid had a Very Good Reason for breaking whatever rule they chose to break. The were in a hurry. Their kid was right there so why did he have to go all the way to the crosswalk? Making a U turn is quicker than going all the way around the block.

The mom in her Chevy Suburban who almost killed me had a Very Important Thing to say to her kid.

Here is the promised picture. That’s the spot I nearly died one day. Isn’t the vest spectacular?

I stood in the middle of the street on the double yellows, my stop sign clearly visible (just like in the picture). As the mom pulled away from the curb with three jumpy kids in the back, she turned all the way around to tell them to calm down. She looked forward again just in time to catch my eye as she sped by at 30 miles per hour, her mirror inches from my head.

That mom did not play her role appropriately as a member of Team School Pickup. I’m lucky that I was aware enough that I didn’t step into her path. She’s lucky that no kids rushed into the street at that moment.

Motivation, context, and consequences

We all make decisions in every moment.

Context matters. Jaywalking outside the school at 2 a.m. is a different decision than jaywalking outside the school in the middle of school pickup.

Consequences matter. Doing something unexpected on the soccer field may win or lose a game. Doing something unexpected at school pickup may get someone hurt.

Motivation matters. Personal motivations sometimes conflict with what would be best for the team. How does the risk of being late to a meeting compare with the risk of injuring a crossing guard or a child?

When you’re making a decision that may affect other people, having a strong understanding of context, consequences, and your own motivations will help lead you to the best decision.

Discounting any of those may lead to bad decisions.

Ignoring context in a slavish commitment to a rigid framework may make you miss opportunities.

Ignoring potential bad consequences may lead you to make rash decisions that turn dire very quickly.

Ignoring your personal motivations in the decision-making process may lead to short term personal gains at the expense of the long term health and success of the team.

It all starts with understanding the framework within which you and the team are working, and the reasons that framework exists.

Wax on. Wax off.

Don’t forget to breathe. very important.


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