Japanese station
Photo by Ivy Barn on Unsplash

At a young age, we learn that the world is made up of rules to be followed. In particular, our parents and school foster us to follow rules with the intent that we have a good foundation, and that those rules will continue to guide us, so that we make good decisions that align well with other people…before at some point, we realise it’s possible to bend or break the rules.

To what extent we choose to follow rules or not, is very much a matter of personality, but also the culture we grow up in. In Japan, perhaps more than most places in the world, rules play a very important role. Rules are essential for people to feel comfortable and ensure a certain degree of control in the world around us. Everything from how we behave on trains, how we communicate with each other, our rituals and behaviour at work, to how hospitals and public institutions function is all governed by a surprisingly detailed set of rules.

Japan is often perceived as one of the most well functioning societies in the world, which probably has some foundation in this highly rule based way of thinking. At the same time, Japan is also perceived as one of the most conservative countries in the world, the Japanese corporate giants of the past are struggling to remain competitive, overwork and lack of gender equality is the norm and suicide statistics amongst the highest in the world. While there is probably room for a deeper social study on this topic, it leaves you wondering how could such a well functioning society also be facing such problems? Is it possible that the same rules that help maintain a well ordered society is also the root cause of what is holding Japan back from responding to social change?

After spending quite a few years in Japan, it is my view that rules tend to narrow our ability to respond to change. Principles on the other hand give good guidance while providing the flexibility to respond to change and remain focused on what matters.

How could Japan and especially Japanese companies achieve better outcomes, if they operated around principles rather than rules?

Before exploring that further, let us set the context correctly — what’s the real difference between rules and principles?

Rule comes from the latin origin regular ~ straight stick, regere ~ to keep straight, to govern

Principle comes from principium ~ beginning or principia ~ foundation.

Simply from this, we get a fairly clear idea what was the original intention with the words.

A different way of describing it:

A principle internally motivates you to do the things that seem good and right. People develop principles by living with people with principles and seeing the real benefits of such a life.

A rule externally compels you, through force, threat or punishment, to do the things someone else has deemed good or right. People follow or break rules.

— Source: Quora

“Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”

— Dalai Lama XIV

I recently attended a talk by Marty Cagan, where he said (slightly paraphrased) “It is exactly what made Japan successful in manufacturing that is now holding Japan back”. If we consider this carefully, in context of the comparison above, manufacturing is a highly predictable process where you want to avoid disruptions or change as far as possible, which is best done by clear instructions that are carefully controlled. Inevitably, Japan has been extraordinarily successful at mastering this during the 60s to 80s. However, today the world is much more centred around software and services, where change is constant. If we have shaped a system that is intended to control and avoid change, how could we expect such a system to effectively respond to constant change?

If we have shaped a system that is intended to control and avoid change, how could we expect such a system to effectively respond to constant change?

In my work with Japanese companies, we often face rules that everybody is aware has become obsolete and is hindering us from doing our work effectively, and yet there is an assumption that we still cannot challenge or bend the rules, despite working with the best of intentions to support the mission of the company. As I described in a previous post, this is often met with an attitude of しようがない (shyoganai) which implies there is nothing we can do about it. Yet, sometimes very small shifts, loosening up our rules and redefining them as carefully considered principles could have a significant impact.

sometimes very small shifts, loosening up our rules and redefining them as carefully considered principles could have a significant impact.

In his talk, Marty also addresses the fundamental cause behind this problem — essentially, Trust. Explicitly or implicitly, despite top executives being aware that the current approach is failing, they continue to pursue this path, because they don’t trust their teams to execute their vision. Thus, a command and control approach to leadership, governed by strict rules remains the norm.

Although VUCA was originally articulated by the US Army war college to describe the context at the end of the Cold war, it is perhaps more true today than ever that we are living in a world of significant Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, in the light of new threats of fascism, climate crisis, “fake news”, and privacy issues.

This impacts all industries and societies, and makes it hard to define clear rules for how we operate in such an environment.

“In a changing world, principles scale, rules don’t”

Clynton Taylor, Culture summit

While rules play an important part of keeping Japanese society functioning as effectively as it does, the same rule based mindset is not adaptable to a changing environment, it restricts peoples’ behaviour by narrowing down the options and are thus not appropriate to effectively innovate in a modern context.

I am not suggesting Japan fully abandon rules, but rather that we encourage people to bend the rules as far as possible, whenever appropriate. However, this is only possible if we also articulate the underlying principles for those rules. This can encourage people to take initiatives, make their own interpretations, and still stay within a framework of what the principles were intended for. At the same time, we leave room for flexibility, to improve, shift perspective, challenge the norms and ultimately create more innovative organisations and culture over time.