The Desire Path
The voice of our inner heretic.
The thing about rules is that they are obsolescent the moment they are created.
Those that create them lay a path they want others to follow. If the rules don’t make sense though, we find a more direct path to where we want to go. We call it “the desire path”, and there are legions of those whose job it is to create it. Those in the professions, the lawyers, accountants and others who move seamlessly between regulators and business, and the criminals, who are at least more transparent about rule-breaking.
Rules are easily and often necessarily broken - as my grandmother told me, they are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of the wise. Gandhi advised that we learn the rules very well so we know where to break them.
Norms, on the other hand, are much more powerful. Rules are defined, written and fixed. Norms are implicit and fluid. They have a relationship with rules more like that of bindweed with roses. Rules are drafted and imposed; norms are grown over time and generations.
Our education system does rules and is in constant battle with community norms. In “Emile” Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote,
“If, instead of making a child stick to his books, I employ him in a workshop, his hands work to the advantage of his intellect, he becomes a philosopher while he simply thinks he is becoming an artisan”.
His thoughts are reflected today in the 70/20/10 principles of learning and development. The ratios are not precise, but the principle is clear - we learn most by doing (70%), enhanced by peer group and coaching support (20%), and augmented by formal education (10%).
I think the same is true of our relationship with rules - they only really work when they align with norms. Norms win, as a quick look at any large organisation indicates, from the current bête noire of Thames Water to Mingle and Jingle governance clearly show. When it comes to the workplace, norms win.
Artisans are shaped by communities and norms, not rules, and by practice, not formal education. Their relationship with their craft is forged over time alongside others doing the same much more than by episodic “sheep dip” training courses.
Consider any workplace you know well, and you will recognise the “invisible colleges” of those who have the instincts of the artisan. People who take the time to talk about the nature of the work they are doing because it matters to them far more than anything management says. Quiet heretics who treat rules as guidelines, recognise management dogma for what it is and find a path that works for what their client wants.
Their peers and mentors, the 20% of their lives that is not enclosed by their employer, are shaping what comes next, as a quick look at Facebook Groups, Github, and other locations that provide the contemporary setting of the coffee shops that powered the industrial revolution shows us.
Those who make the rules want us to go where they want us to go without having to go to the trouble of asking us. But just as culture eats strategy, so norms find more direct routes than rules to where we want to go.
In the midst of our busy day, we need to notice the invisible college which we are part of and the quiet voice of our inner heretic. They matter.
Because our employer’s obligations are not to us, and as the pressure comes on, that will show.