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Rules vs. Principles

A “rule” is an authoritative statement of what to do or not to do in a specific situation. It is issued by an appropriate person or body. It clarifies, demarcates or interprets a law or policy.

A “principle” is a fundamental truth or concept that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behaviour.

Rules compel people through force, threat or punishment to do what has been deemed good or right by someone else. People obey or disobey rules and accordingly are punished if caught breaking them. Rules are controlling in nature. Rules are constraining.

Principles on the other hand motivate people, internally, to do things that seem good or right. Principles are guiding in nature. Principles are upheld or not upheld. Principles are liberating.

The spectrum of Rules and Principles and Organization Agility characteristics

Rules vs. Principles

Organizations and societies stipulate rules and espouse principles. The culture of any organization, in the context of its business agility, can be observed by seeing how its people react to those rules and stated principles. Behaviours can be classified into four quadrants as shown in the diagram based on whether people (individuals / teams) typically obey or disobey rules and whether they uphold or don’t uphold stated or implied principles. Highly agile teams are usually intent on upholding principles and they obey rules that are aligned with the principles. On the opposite side, the worst possible place to be for an individual or team is where rules are constantly disobeyed and principles are not upheld. This typically characterises dysfunctional cultures where it is common to see plotting, scheming, back-stabbing, blame-trading, responsibility-avoiding and uncaring individuals and teams.

Designing rules and principles for high business agility

Given that both rules and principles guide decisions and strongly influence behaviour and underlying attitude in individuals and teams, it is recommended that organizations wanting to be agile follow these simple but powerful guidelines.

  1. Encourage people to follow the “spirit of the law” (Principle) rather than the “letter of the law” (Rule). That is a good approach to upholding principles and obeying rules

  2. Encourage decision making at all levels with no fear of recriminations

  3. Encourage “doing the right thing” (Effectiveness) over “doing the thing right” (Efficiency)

  4. Minimise the number and type of rules and principles to a few, clear, intuitive, widely accepted and non-negotiable ones that are fair and just to everyone.

Examples from one highly agile organization


  • No project costing over $1m can be started without a CFO and CIO approved business case

  • No IT project shall continue over 6 months nor have more than 12 team members

  • No code shall be implemented into business-critical production systems without formal approval from the CAB (Change advisory board)


  • Sign-off of documents is discouraged unless it is deemed high risk to the organization

  • Time and effort is to be invested in building working prototypes and models than in creating documentation

  • A test-driven development approach should be preferred over any other development approach

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