Leaders know that analogies can be powerful. They instruct, inspire and provide guidance, using an easy-to-remember shorthand.

But what if you use the wrong analogy? For instance, it’s tempting to tell our staff that ‘this business should run like a well-oiled machine!’ But what if a ‘well-oiled-machine’ does not allow for deviation, messy experimentation or disruptive innovation?’ Similarly, thinking of our business like a ‘game of chess,’ precludes the possibility of moving in unorthodox ways. Or outside disruption: When last were you about to take a king, when a kid in Tokyo took you out with a simple app?

With the wrong analogy, we could unwittingly programme our keenest minds to buy into a worldview that isn’t particularly useful, or even downright problematic, and consequently, we could encourage the wrong behaviour. Our leadership-poetry might encourage automatons and discourage initiative.

There must be a better analogy…

Setting the tone for agile innovators

Many organisations today are actively seeking to disrupt their own industries. They are keen to become the mavericks, the rule-breakers, the radical innovators of their field. In, ‘They’re Your Rules, Break Them,’ I propose that innovative organisations might better use a military analogy, but a very specific one: that of a highly trained platoon moving through enemy territory…

Elite forces on special ops

Imagine a small, elite group of soldiers, locked in urban warfare in a dark and hostile city. Threats abound, but you must nevertheless make it through the alleyways and open streets, across the city squares and sometimes even through the sewers, to get to the other side.

You have high levels of technology, but they can’t save you in and of themselves. They only work as well as your team’s thinking works. This changes a number of specific things:

-       Training your special forces to the highest degree possible is imperative. But you also have to train them to be adaptive. You have to create a culture capable of learning on the go

-       Having a plan for moving forward is non-negotiable. But you also have to factor in the notion that your plan cannot foresee the changes, surprises and gaps in knowledge that will inevitably derail any formula that is too rigid, and you must prepare in advance to be adaptable

-       Mission and vision will matter greatly, and the importance of crystal-clear goals will keep individuals operating as a team, moving in the same direction. When they all know what the intention is, they can innovate and adapt on the move, without harming the desired goal. Alternatively, when you have specialist silos that care only about their own unique needs and not about the mission – or in other words, when you use a different analogy and effectively dismantle your elite forces special unit - you are as good as dead in the water. Interdisciplinary teams can see each other’s needs and move in complementary ways. Separated silos cannot.

-       The flow of information must go in all directions. The commander is in charge, but if one member of the team keeps a critical observation to himself, you’re all in trouble. Under pressure, the most junior member might see a safe way out, and to ignore him on the grounds of rank or hierarchy is short-sighted in the extreme.

-       In addition to all this, you are in a war for hearts and minds. The support and buy-in of locals may save you. Their hostility may be your undoing. The behaviour of the unit in its various habitats creates or destroys this goodwill. And you can’t see or know in advance what your competition is planning until they roll it out. You must play the ‘what if?’ game and try to out-guess them.

-       All the while, your competitors are also fighting the propaganda war, for the hearts and minds of the people all around you.

All of this is infinitely more dynamic than can be accommodated by the sorts of analogies we tend to use, which typically focus on ‘well-oiled-machines,’ or ‘us versus them’ sports scenarios. This analogy is political. It is strategic. It is ever-changing according to a changing scenario. It is thus much more reflective of reality.

Rigid rules can keep an existing system operating optimally. But they can’t accommodate the strange vicissitudes of change and disruption. And they tend to get in the way of innovation. 

What if your leadership tone and style – the stories you told; the analogies you used – enabled rather than shutting down innovation? Rules and predictability may feel safe. But an organisation can easily be so safe that it becomes obsolete. The analogy of the elite forces team on a special ops mission can go a long way toward overcome rules-paralysis and actively encouraging a culture of continually adaptive excellence.

They’re your rules, and you can break them. But if you want to do so, you are going to have to win the war for hearts and minds within your own organisation. You are going to have to set talent free from mindless compliance and you are going to have to train and encourage adaptive excellence. Get it right, and you just might guide your platoon safely home.


Douglas Kruger specialises in dismantling needless rules. A business coach and author of 5 books with Penguin Random House, including ‘They’re Your Rules, Break Them!’, he speaks locally and internationally on the topic of disruptive innovation and how to reduce your own rules in order to achieve it. Douglas is also a multiple award-winning speaker, who was inducted into the ‘Speakers Hall of Fame’ in 2016. His audio books are now available globally from Audible.com. See Douglas in action at www.douglaskruger.co.za.


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