Are Stupid Rules Hiding in Your Organization?

When Alexander II was the Czar of what is now Russia in the mid 1800’s, he look out of his palace window and observed a soldier guarding an area of the palace lawn which appeared to be little more than empty space.  “What is that soldier guarding,” he asked then Ambassador Otto van Bismarck.  Bismarck asked the captain of the guard for a reason for the sentry’s post only to learn the soldier was following a long standing order at the palace.  It was the 1800’s version of “We’ve always done it that way!”

Vowing to learn the rationale for the guard duty, Bismarck had the soldier asked if he knew why he was standing guard over what appeared to be empty space.  The soldier was clueless as to the reason but assured his inquirer he was following precise orders.  His superior also did not know why, only that this particular post had always been under strict orders to be guarded around the clock.  Undaunted by bureaucratic ignorance, Bismarck finally found an elder soldier who told him what his father, also a palace guard, had told him.

Some 150 years early during the reign of Catherine the Great, the region had a long, hard winter.  One morning, looking from the same window from which Alexander II would late peer, Catherine saw the first flower of spring pushing out of the snow covered palace lawn.  Wanting to enjoy this lone flower for as long as possible, she posted a guard to protect the flower from being picked.  Unfortunately, the order was never rescinded.  So, for many years to follow, soldier after soldier engaged in a round the clock meaningless act in strict obedience to what quickly became a completely inane policy.  No one challenged the policy; they just did what they were told.

The flower story is relevant today.  Policies and practices, appropriate at the time of their creation, can assume a permanent life of their own.  As circumstances change (which they always will), the “givens” that govern enterprise must be examined and questioned.  Without a culture that values boldness and candor, well-meaning front line employees will follow, even defend, the rules that add no value.  They will guard flowers that are not there.  It takes leaders willing to challenge unhelpful procedures and question valueless rules.

If your customers wrote the rules impacting service delivery, how would the rules change?  If your frontline service providers wrote the procedures, how would they be different?  What if you threw out all rules and procedures and added back only those that added value and/or reduced effort in how service was delivered?  What if you had a “stupid rule” team that weekly brought to leadership the inane rule candidates for exorcism or overhaul?  Find the stupid rules hiding in your culture and put them under a customer-centric spotlight.

© Chip Bell Group, 2023.  Courtesy of John R. Patterson (  Permission is given to download and distribute this article as long as it contains this copyright notice.