How to design rules that work

Rules are ever present in our daily lives. We follow social rules, laws. We create organizations by making rules, we create deals and contracts all defined by rules. But very few people learn how to create rules. Most rules, don’t work. As a former game designer, I’ve studied rules academically and tried and tested rule sets thousands of times. This is what I’ve learnt so far. ## Rules always create side effects

All rules are limitations on a persons actions (a rule says you can’t design your text a certain way). But since people are surprisingly intelligent, they always find ways around rules (the rule creates a counter culture and suddenly hipster typographical posters abound!). We smile at this behavior in kids, always looking for ways to get around bedtimes. Bt we fail to see that every human does this, it’s so ingrained in the human condition it even has a name in game design and economics: emergent behavior.

Emergent behavior means the behavior that arrives as an unforeseen consequence to a situation. Rebellion is an emergent behavior. Cheating is an emergent behavior.

Rules always , without exception, create these unforeseen behaviors because rules are *fractal*. Meaning that rules can never cover every single situation or twist in the language.

Did you brush your teeth? Yes. Did you brush them with the toothbrush? Yes. Did you put toothpaste on the toothbrush? Yss. Before you brushed your teeth? No…

When I create rules I always have to take emergent behavior into account, *where is it likely to happen*? *How will the rule affect situations that aren’t exactly the same*? How often does your management or project manager take emergent behavior into account when creating rules? If the answer is never, the rules aren’t really working.

## The softest touch works, while hard rules fail

Surprisingly, the rules that do work aren’t the simple and direct ones. In fact the simpler and more direct the rule is, the more emergent behavior it creates. Let me show you why. If you set a rule for yourself that **you must turn left at every intersection** you’ll soon find yourself in conflict with the rule. You might quite quickly arrive at the workaround that the rule doesn’t say how many times to turn left, and from then on you’ll be turning left several times to turn right. I bet you’re thinking of other rules you’re breaking in this way?

But if the rule says **you can only turn left at intersections** it is much more open to interpretation, and oddly we’re more inclined to follow it. Maybe I’ll turn right somewhere that’s not an intersection? Or maybe taking a turn around the block will be interesting? The more open version of the rule makes the rule more interesting and less annoying. What’s happening is that activating individuals minds, asking people to judge for themselves, makes them more inclined to work with the system. Asking individuals to simply follow a rule is more likely to make them bored and opposed to the rule.

## Rules limit what people think