Revolutions are made by rule-breakers

Engadget's Darren Murph has a tale of how ESPN's newsroom adopts technology:

"The iPad has been out for just over two months, yet somehow ESPN -- a massive corporation that should technically have all sorts of red tape bogging down this type of forward thinking -- has managed to not only get a setup working in its labs, but actually get the new setup working and onto shows that we're enjoying each and every day. "

This shouldn't be out of the ordinary, but it is. Corporations routinely create layers of rules and red table that keep bright people from doing new things. Rules are for stability. Revolutions are made by rule-breakers.

I'm old enough to have been around at the dawn of the personal computer revolution -- even before IBM got into it.

In the early days, sneaking a personal computer into a corporation was a radical act. Computers were huge, expensive machines surrounded by a priesthood dedicated to protecting the investment (and not so incidentally, also protecting the priesthood).

Personal computers didn't enter the workplace through the IT department. They came in through the side door. Individuals brought them in to perform calculations (using VisiCalc), word processing (using Electric Pencil) or to run amateurishly written programs (in BASIC).

When I started working in digital media at the Minneapolis Star Tribune in the mid-1990s, I had to break all sorts of rules. There was a pathetically outdated corporate standard for PCs and a terribly overpriced official vendor. The officialy blessed systems didn't meet our needs.

I broke the rules by buying computers at Best Buy and the Northgate outlet store on my personal credit card, threw out the corporate Windows 3.1 image and installed a beta version of Windows 95. This led to a great wailing and gnashing of teeth in the IT hierarchy, but I stuck with it. We had Things to Do in a Hurry, and I wasn't at all interested in the limits of "support" from the IT department. We eventually reached an accord on these issues, and the IT folks slowly came to grasp what we were doing, but to get there I had some rule-breaking to do.

Rules are there for a reason. We shouldn't forget that.

Generally, whenever you find a rule, it's because somebody did something that was spectacularly bad or stupid in the past. If you go plugging random crap into the company network you might wind up introducing a virus and accidentally deleting every image on the shared server (which happened when I was at Cox Interactive and no, it wasn't me who did it). And it's not all about technology. You might run afoul of Sarbanes-Oxley, perish the thought. You need to understand the reasons for rules, and the risks that come with breaking them.

But reasons trump rules. Revolutions are made by rule-breakers, and we need revolutions. We need revolutions even if they piss off somebody who doesn't like getting phone calls at 3 a.m. about things they never heard of and can't fix.

Just be very careful about picking your fights, line up management support before you make your moves so that you're not alone out on a limb, and make sure you can win. When revolutions end badly, it's not a pretty sight.


I prefer "guidelines" to actual rules...