There are many frequently debated but ultimately unanswerable questions such as leader vs manager and strategy vs execution. One that gets less attention – but is just as important – is the question: rules or standards?
In law, the distinction is clear and the choice is somewhat obvious. Rules differentiate legal from illegal behavior, hopefully in a simple and clear way. On the other hand, standards include general criteria which are necessarily less clear and therefore require more complicated decision making. Rules are more costly than standards to create while standards are more difficult for individuals to interpret and others to judge.
For example, when you are required to pay a fine for exceeding a speed limit, you are violating a well defined rule. However, it’s a standard when drivers are cautioned to drive carefully; both the violation of the standard and the potential punishment for violation require interpretation.
In sports, the distinction between rules and standards is still clear but the choice is less obvious. Of course, the official playing of a sport is governed by a long list of rules, even if some of them seem to be continuously debated.
But what about coaching?
College basketball’s all-time winningest coach, Mike Krzyzewski, makes the case the best way to build a winning culture is to set standards for teams, rather than institute hard rules. If the players know the standards, they are more likely to make the best decision in the moment. From Coach K: “Usually when you’re ruled, you never agree with all the rules; you just abide by them. But if you have standards and if everyone contributes to the way you’re going to do things, you end up owning how you do things.”
This approach not only worked with college students, where his Duke teams won five national championships, but also with the star-studded U.S. Olympic teams, which he led to three consecutive gold medals.
It also works in business. As shown by the umbrella story, strict expense report policies are often less effective than overall guidelines (“spend the money as if it were your own”). Standard operating procedures and rule books discourage initiative and creativity while boundary systems empower innovation within defined limits.
There is a time for management and rules; there is also a time for leadership and standards. It’s not rules or standards. It’s a balance.