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Kill a Stupid Rule to Boost Productivity

A major report on updating the education system is set to recommend reducing the 6 week summer holiday to 4 weeks, with longer holidays across the rest of the year. Why? In a nutshell, more R&R when it's needed (for teachers and pupils), and less negative impact of a longer time away in Summer.

There are, undoubtably, plenty of similarly entrenched structures and traditions in our own working worlds that we inherit and go along with without question, but which may equally be holding us back. Below, we examine what we can do to address the inertia of the status quo and look afresh at the way we work...

"If nothing changes, nothing changes"

Courtney C. Stevens

As a kid, I recall how the summer holidays used to stretch out endlessly before me. Bright, clear days offered unstructured, untold opportunities. Endless hours were spent with friends, climbing trees, playing crossbar challenge and immersing ourselves in early versions of FIFA and Mortal Kombat on the Sega MegaDrive. I remember in vivid detail spending entire days in my mate’s back garden, knocking a shuttlecock back and forth, attempting to break our previous rally records. The celebrations that ensued when we broke a thousand were glorious.

My parents may have viewed this endless summer differently. Looking back, I can now see things through a slightly more pragmatic parental eye. How on earth were you supposed to tackle day-to-day life, balance a job and entertain your kids for 6 long weeks? How are you supposed to do it now? What are the reasons for this peculiarly long summer holiday tradition? Who does it benefit?

Whilst the history of the 6 week break is shrouded in myth, one of the most popular assumptions is that children would be deployed by their parents in the surrounding fields to support their families and ensure a productive harvest.

Admittedly, I may occasionally feel inclined to set my son free in a field and see how he fares, but I don’t believe that the UK farming industry would take kindly to hoards of marauding children hacking at their crops in a misguided horticultural experiment. I can barely take my son on a visit to ASDA without him careering down the aisle in a broken trolley, watching as he fingers fluorescent pink donuts which I’m then obligated to buy.

Safe to say, a significant agricultural shift isn’t going to feature on many 21st century summer itineraries.

A wealth of evidence now suggests that six week holidays are actually quite damaging in a range of ways. The educational progress of children is stymied, with the Autumn term traditionally used by teachers to regain the progress made prior to the summer hiatus.

In other words, it takes a third of the school year to catch up what has been forgotten over our extended Summer break.

Social-class divides are further entrenched as those unable to afford cultural experiences or significant foreign travel are left to fend for themselves. Businesses schedule important work outside of the summer months, correctly assuming a lack of availability and productivity from their distracted workers.

Endless summers indeed. Clearly, the badminton and tree-climbing I recall so fondly were actually necessary free activities, helping our parents to pool resources, crowd-source care and divert their fragmented attention towards work.

But finding opportunity for improvement isn't always enough to motivate the necessary positive change.

Despite the obvious drawbacks, lengthy summer holidays remain part of our cultural heritage because of tradition and habit. It’s often far easier not to investigate the reasons behind our traditions, just in case we shine a light on a practice so insane that we’d prefer not to admit that we’ve been acting against our best interests for generations.

When it comes to work, a reliance on tradition and habit can mean that we don’t have to think about the practicality or benefit of six week holidays, or the cadence of a 5-day working week. We can avoid considering why we commit to an 8 hour working day, or mandate office attendance. We can dodge questions around the true value of billing by the hour, or allocating set times for lunch, or the value of a 2-hour commute, or what precisely we mean by ‘collaboration’.

It’s far easier to stick to the existing template, citing the benefits of tradition rather than daring to make those around us feel even mildly uncomfortable.

So much of what happens in our workplaces can fall into this category. Probing questions with good intentions can be met with a wall of uncomfortable resistance. ”It is what it is!” becomes a handy phrase. Dismissive, effective. Signifying nothing.

One concept that effective teams can deploy is ‘kill a stupid rule’. This is an opportunity to regularly review existing practices and decide whether or not they still work for you. We are so used to adding complexity to our working world that we tend to forget one of the most effective things we can do is to get out of our own way. Subtract rather than add.

Perhaps your team meets every Tuesday at 8.30am. Does that still serve its purpose?
Perhaps you respond to every Teams message within 5 minutes. Why?
Perhaps making minor changes to your website requires several layers of senior approval. Does that serve you?
Perhaps every meeting in your diary is scheduled for an hour? Is that necessary?

If we make space to analyse our everyday behaviour, sometimes the folly of our traditions and habits becomes apparent. ‘Kill a stupid rule’ is an invigorating way to generate momentum and eliminate complexity. It forces us to look at our own behaviour, occasionally recognise something we may have outgrown, then make a smarter decision. Without the space to consider and potentially eliminate a redundant practice, we could find ourselves destined to stay on a hamster wheel of ineffectiveness, repeating the same unproductive behaviours year after year, generation after generation.

Yet every so often, we do find the courage to cast off the shackles of tradition. We notice when established ‘common-sense’ has become ‘non-sense’. Corporal punishment is no longer practiced in schools. Smoking in restaurants has been consigned to history. Artexed ceilings are no longer fashionable. Flammable shell-suits are rarely worn with pride in public. All things that “were what they were”. And now no longer are. Practices, traditions and behaviours that were questioned. Then killed.

Tradition and habits often prevent us from making smarter choices. Killing a stupid rule can enable us to create space and time, two things so many of us crave.

Which begs the question; what's stopping you from doing what you really need to do today?

4and20Million help teams tackle the biggest challenges of modern work. See the homepage for more information on how we could benefit you.


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