“Rules are not necessarily sacred, principles are.”

– Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Partnerships, organizations, and communities operate best when there are agreements in place. The default agreement is a set of rules because we assume that clear and straightforward rules function best.

Rules promote safety and equality. They can function well in offering protection and leveling the playing field. But there is a big drawback of rules – they do not invite relationship.

Rule defined (from Merriam-Webster)

  • a statement that tells you what is or is not allowed in a particular game, situation, etc.
  • a statement that tells you what is allowed or what will happen within a particular system (such as a language or science)

It seems to be a trait of humanity that we love to make and break rules. Spend a day on a playground, or with kids on the beach, and you see both sides of this human drama being played out. Some kids prefer declaring the rules to a game, some kids prefer knowing and following the rules, and other kids are bulldozing sand castles and keeping their eyes open during the hide and seek countdown.

Once we move from a rule-based system to a principle-based system, it gets messy. When there are no rules, what do we do?

Agreements can still function with principles. There is more room, more permeability. The freedom within a principle-based agreement encourages parties to be in communication with each other, and that is what is messy.  If it’s not entirely clear, we need to reflect, share, and negotiate. The good news is, as fruitful dialogue increases, trust increases as well.

Principle defined (from Oxford)

  • a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning
  • a fundamental source or basis of something.

I’ve seen this happen with online communities that function with principles. When someone feels a conversation is inappropriate, the parties engage in a conversation about the impact of what’s being said rather than whether or not it’s permitted or not permitted. The conversation itself promotes relationship.

Rules are being questioned even within urban design, where cities are removing stop signs, stop lights, and center lines. The concept of “shared spaces” is spreading. From wikipedia:

First proposed in 1991, the term shared spaces is now strongly associated to the work of Hans Monderman who suggested that by creating a greater sense of uncertainty and making it unclear who had right of way, drivers reduce their speed, and everyone reduces their level of risk.

Instead of relying on the stop sign (rule) to tell drivers what to do, they have to practice awareness and make eye contact with pedestrians, bicyclists, and other drivers.

Partnership agreements, employee handbooks, community guidelines, and all agreements could potentially benefit from a shift from rules to principles.  Just like traffic calming, there may be a slowing down, but the interactions created in the process will build more value for your organization.