Write your own rules in business

Recently, I received an email from my golf club with the subject line of “Cheating!”

There have been enough conversations about the perceived bending of the rules to warrant communication to all members.

We know it shouldn’t happen. We hope it never does but it has.

It’s a nasty word – “cheat”.  It conjures up questions about integrity and trust. Especially in a game such as golf. Golf is a game that is self-judged. Until you get to the higher levels of the sport, you’re expected to keep your score and understand and stick to the rules. To the point of being willing to call a penalty on yourself.

Even at the higher levels, there is no referee with you. You need to call over an official if you’re unsure of the rules for judgement. By and large, you’re expected to know the rules, stick to them and trust your partners to do the same.

In fairness, a similar type of email could come from clubs of many sports. Golf is unique in its self-judgement of the rules. The one thing that all sports do have in common is that there are rules in place.

Rules create parameters that allow us to understand the simplest of things. Whether you’re winning or not. Whether you’re playing the game within the spirit within which it was conceived.

There is a finite set of boundaries that you play the game by. They let you know what stage you’re at within the game, what the score is, what’s allowed and what’s not.

For instance, whether you’ve played the game or not some rules are obvious. We all know that to score a goal in football, the ball needs to go into the net (the whole ball). We know that the aim of golf is to get the ball into the hole a few hundred yards away. We know that you need to get the ball over a tennis net and keep it within the lines.

We may be aware of other rules within those sports. Football is 90 minutes long and you can’t handle that ball. Golf is played over 18 holes and a low score is a good thing. Tennis is played over either the best of three or five sets.

Then there are the subtler rules of engagement that you’ve heard of but not understood because you don’t play the game. The off-side rule (although no-one is currently sure about that one). The rule about not moving your golf ball from where it ends up achieving a more favourable lie. The foot fault rule.

And the ones you’ve never heard of but make these sports complex yet fascinating. Goalkeepers can only hold the ball for six seconds (yeah, right). You can move stuff from around your golf ball if the ball doesn’t move, and the stuff isn’t still growing. You can hit a tennis ball around a net, not over it.

These sports and hundreds of others were created on day one with a set of rules that have evolved over time. This is usually because of instances that demand a change of parameters.

Governing bodies create these rules and appoint officials to oversee them. Once you play a sport, you know the rules, play to them and ignorance is no excuse. There is even a move towards using technology to reinforce the rules in certain sports. To take away judgement and create consistency. The rules create a finite playground – the rulings must be as black and white as possible.

Goal-line technology and VAR. Hawkeye in tennis. Hot spot in cricket. We are getting better and better and leaving minimal doubt and creating consistency.

These finite parameters mean we know where we are when playing these sports. We know the goal; we know what’s allowed and what is not. We know what stage we are at, how long until the final whistle, which set, which hole. We also know what stage our opposition is at. We know how many runs the other cricket team posted.  A tennis score is a combined score of both of you playing, the same is true for football. We have three goals, you have two. We know what our fellow golfers are scoring and how we stack up against them.

These factors allow us to develop strategies, tactics and techniques to achieve the results you want. Which is usually to win. And, you know what winning is. It’s defined for us. At a point in the match or contest, you’ve either won. Or you haven’t. This creates excitement, passion, rage and some of the most dramatic moments of our lives. Playoff finals, Murray winning his first Wimbledon, that cricket world cup final. That Saturday in 2012. The list goes on.

Knowing what winning is and when you’ve won is everything.

What about business though?

Who sets the rules? Who defines the parameters that govern our strategy, tactics and techniques?

Sure, there is an argument that “winning” in business is simple.  If you make a profit, you’re winning. If you’re still in business you’re winning. If you’re in unmanaged debt, you’re losing. If you run out of cash, you lose. But, how do you know when you’ve won?

Yes, you can set targets. But if you don’t meet that target have you lost? You’re still profitable and making a difference so which is it? Can you be winning and have lost at the same time?

There is no governance that defines what it looks like in a business when you’ve won. Your competitors don’t know either. Imagine playing a sport where you don’t know how many competitors there are. Nor do you know who they are or where they are. In fact, you don’t even know when they are. You’re all on completely different playing fields with random numbers making up a team.

Everyone uses a different scoring system, and no one uses the same equipment. No one knows what scoring looks like or how to keep score.

There are no boundaries to the playing fields made up of various surfaces and there is no start or finish point. Some teams have no resource whilst others seem to have an inexhaustible supply.

Welcome to the sport of business.

The rules of this sport are infinite. There are no boundaries that govern us beyond the ethical. And, let’s face it we know that many choose to ignore those anyway. When playing an infinite sport, recognising that it’s a game that you can’t win is important. It’s also a game that no one else can win either. There are losers and there are lots of us winning but no-one wins.

This means we can set our own rules, play our own strategy and enjoy the game for what it is. No one else can tell us what the rules are because there are so many unwritten and yet to be written rules that we play by.

It’s one of the best games you can play – make sure you’re having fun whilst you’re winning.

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