For the most part the suit dryer is used as it was intended and constructed, to dry wet swimming suits and trunks that got wet through use in a swimming pool. However, what has begun happening at our gym is the suit dryer is also being used as a way to spin perspiration out of a sweaty t-shirt after a workout. Not everyone is doing it, in fact there are only a handful that follow this unintended practice, but it represents enough non-compliance for the management of the gym to post notices on and around the suit dryer explaining the rules for use of the dryer. By the number of notices and instructions for use on the wall, I would say they have had complaints on more than one occasion. To management, more complaints means more people are not following the rules which means greater rule clarification or instruction is necessary. As a result more notices get posted around the suit dryer ‘clarifying’ the terms of use.


This is the perfect illustration to distinguish between rules and standards. Rules exist to govern activity from people. They are an external attempt create a certain outcome. They are a control mechanism that is designed to ‘ensure’ the governor/leader a particular result from the behavior of people.The rules of the suit dryer manufacturer and the gym say that the dryer is intended for wet suits. When the people – for whose convenience the machine exists in the first place –  begin to use it for other things, to break the rules to go outside its intended use, an attempt is made to govern their behavior more strictly with more rules. The assumption is that the first two rule postings that are displayed on and near the machine, must not be understood or are unclear, so more rules are posted to bring greater clarity and more precise obedience.

The problem with rules is that they establish the criteria for loop holes and people will always find a way to do what they want. It is part of our creative design that we push to create an outcome of our choosing. We are made to create, to produce. Rules are a way of governing how and where creativity occurs. They are an outside-in from of governance that, by their nature, are just begging to be created around. After clarity has been established and rules are not obeyed, the only way to coerce compliance is through enforcement. In the suit dryer case at the gym one suggestion was to place a camera (visible to the locker room users) facing the suit-dryer to deter any incorrect use by threat of being captured in the act – on film. Could you imagine? A camera constantly filming in a men’s change room?


Standards, on the other hand, approach the objective of governance from a completely different perspective. Standards are built on common assumptions such as; people are made to create, and will. Rules create loopholes. Outcome management is most effective from the inside out i.e self governance. Standards establish ideals that people reach for, agreed outcomes that people work toward. Standards speak to results or outcomes, and don’t have to be focused on process. Not that process is not important – it is – but standards allow people to deviate from the process (in the spirit of creativity) for the sake of the outcome. Standards require any objective, goal or outcome to be very clearly marked which shifts the burden of performance or outcome more heavily onto the leader to provide strong clarity about the objectives and goals to be met.

I was invited to join a group of business owners in the DFW area that had made Inc. Magazine’s annual list of the nations movers and shakers. The objective was to leverage the collective knowledge and experience of the group to help solve the common challenges among the participants. The objective was very clearly identified and the kinds of help that was needed was clearly discussed. There were no rules. I expected the normal posing and posturing that happens among senior leaders as they jostle for position and pecking order. Instead I was confronted by a ruthless commitment to openness and authenticity. At times posers have attempted to enter the ranks. They came for a while, but the standard of participation set the bar at such a level that they either comply or feel too exposed and they would leave. The social pressure for conformity becomes the policeman. Rules become unnecessary and the mission drives the action. It is a loose and fun environment where anything can go with room for unbridled creativity.

Rules mitigate and drive. They mandate parameters and give the leaders a false sense of control. Standards lure with the hope of what if and set the stage for creative abandon within the guidelines of the outcome.

Two questions then:

  • Are you leading with rules or standards?
  • What could the possibilities of leading with standards do for your organization?