Structured Freedom with Rules and Strategies

February 23, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Posted in Blogroll, Practice Excellence, Structured freedom | 3 Comments

From the systems thinking perspective, everything we do individually or in groups, boils down to just four types of basic activities. These are to execute, decide, facilitate and ensure. Execution is the simplest and most fundamental of them because nothing gets done till some tasks or actions are executed. Actions are generally taken individually while the tasks may be executed individually or collectively. The other three activities are more in the nature of being supportive to the primary activity of execution.

Decision involves making a choice from multiple options. This is where the concept of “Rules & Strategies” comes into play. There are a number of definitions of the terms “rule” and “strategy” used in different contexts. Hence it would be helpful to specify the meaning in which I am using these terms. For me, rules make the choices for us while strategies are the choices we make. Let me take a few examples to illustrate this. When I was child, there was a rule at home that the small children must be back home before the sunset. The choice for us was already made for us by the elders in the family. However, till sunset we were free to make our choices of what to play, when and with whom. Similarly, when I grew up and started driving motorized vehicles, I had the option of choosing a particular path to reach my destination. But when to move and when to stop was decided by the traffic signals. Society and the government also make lots of rules for us. For example, society lays down the rules for one of the most important decisions in our life which is, whom we can marry and whom we can’t. Similarly, because smoking is a health hazard the government has made a rule that any public display of smoking has to be discouraged. The film-makers however come up with an innovative strategy of superimposing the warning sign quite attractively while Katrina Kaif danced to an item number.

So it is safe to say that we encounter rules & strategies in all walks of our life, though we don’t often realize it. Here are some common differences between rules and strategies. Generally rules are defined by few to be followed by many, whereas the strategies are formulated by us for ourselves. Rules typically have consequences; whether legal, social or emotional. Strategies don’t have consequences as such; though we may be have good or bad outcomes depending on how well the strategy worked. Rules try to cover a large number of situations whereas we need specific strategies for each type of situation.

In terms of execution and decision, in case of rules, the time gap between decision and execution can be quite large. For example in religious, social and cultural rules this gap could be in generations or even centuries. Strategies on the other hand normally have a short time gap. For example, a cricket team may decide the strategy for a game before it starts but mid-way they will have to come up with a revised strategy depending on how the game is going. The captain would decide the strategy even for each over, sometimes changing the field placement half-way through the over.

An important category of rules is about those which we make for ourselves. When we strongly believe in something, it severely limits our choices. We may fool others with ingenious strategies, but we can’t fool ourselves. Only way to loosen the stranglehold of our beliefs is to get beyond them and critically examine them from outside. This requires an open mind to learn from failures and new exposures.

Why is understanding of rules & strategies so important for all of us; partially because they shape our decisions and actions? We can’t facilitate others’ working unless we understand the rules and strategies at play in their context and in their specific situations. A good grasp of the framework of rules & strategies gives us a great handle to influence others and shape their behavior.

Ability to ensure the desired outcome is the essence of leadership and it is imperative for the leaders to understand and use the right rules & strategies for a given set of persons for a given situation.

When there are restrictions placed on us we want to be free from them. Tighter the restrictions, more we crave for the freedom. But do we really look for absolute freedom? Not necessarily, because we also like the protection that the rules provide us. For example when driving on a road, we are happy that the traffic signals are stopping the cross traffic from coming in our way. The social, cultural and legal rules provide a great safety net for the disadvantaged when they are thoughtfully formulated and sincerely enforced.

By nature human being are lazy. We live in the comfort of the belief that whatever is working today will continue to work forever. So we keep making similar choices and keep repeating certain actions over other alternatives. This is strongly habit forming and kind of gets into our muscle memory. After some time, almost without any conscious thought we go through same motions again and again. It is great for productivity and speed of execution, but we must remember that this also gives rise to certain structures. With repeated use, these structures tend to get stronger and stronger. When our decisions and actions are aligned with the structures, we experience great momentum. However, the moment there is need for change of direction or a course correction, the same structures exhibit tremendous inertia. So the reality of our lives is not absolute freedom but a kind of “Structured Freedom”. It is therefore in our interest to be aware of the structures and the strong influence they have on our freedom and be able to recognize the structures that exist in our minds as well as around us.

All of us are responsible to ensure the desired outcomes. The scale expands as our responsibilities increase. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to directly change the structures. More the force we apply, more is the resistance. If they are rigid they will brake; if they are flexible, they will spring back. Only way to effectively change the structures is to understand how changing rules & strategies and patiently repeating the new ones often enough leads to modifying the existing or creating the new structures. This is the only permanent solution.

We have only scratched the surface of this immensely important concept which has tremendous possibilities in all walks of our life and work. Let’s together explore it further in future, peeling each layer as we go. If my thoughts find a resonance with you, please share your experiences and thoughts. If you have a different perspective, I would love to understand it, even being challenged. So you may like to join me on this exciting journey.



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  1. Dear Mr Karve,

    The article touches well with the differences that are there between Rules and Strategies. The real life examples (Katrina example was the latest one) strike at the right time!

    Though, it would have been good if the activities (execute, decide, facilitate and ensure) mentioned in the first statement were rightly prioritized. Execution cannot or is never achieved without decision (unless it is a reflex action). Thoughts?

    Also, it is true that execution is the primary activity but each of the activities that are listed in this article has execution inbuilt into them. e.g. there goes some level of execution to make a decision. So it is just for the person to understand how they utilize the power of them 🙂


  2. […] with rules and strategies“. Though it sounds like a complex and abstract subject it is really simple. Once we understand it, we can use it in a variery of situations in all walks of our life. Like […]

  3. […] we saw in my recent blog on structured freedom at, the structures form by repeatedly making certain choices over other possible options. This […]

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