As a young captain I was privileged to serve on the staff at the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks. Carlisle is a beautiful post with a rich history, and I truly enjoyed being in that environment. Among the most impressive buildings there is Upton Hall which has an interesting history of its own. At the time I served there it housed the Military History Institute, and sported a beautiful green lawn that would be the envy of many golf courses. In the corner of this pristine lawn stood a small, obscure sign that read, “Please walk on the grass.”

The first time I saw it I did a double take. Walk on the grass? Wasn’t this an Army post? Every private and every cadet is taught from the very beginning not to walk on the grass. Why in the world would this sign be there?

I never got a clear answer from the many officers I asked, but over time I began to piece together a theory. You see, most of the Colonels attending the War College as students haven’t been told to avoid walking on grass since they were cadets or Lieutenants, presumably because they have generally complied with the practice of sticking to sidewalks. Throughout their careers these future senior leaders have honed their abilities to comply with commonly accepted rules, even if not instructed to do so.

They have carried with them the lessons of cadet-hood into their colonelcy and remain firmly planted to the concrete. I think the sign was put there to remind some of them that the constraints they learned as aspiring junior leaders did not necessarily still exist.

It would have been an important lesson if anyone had noticed.

You see, we do this in nearly every area of our lives. We conform to constraints we were taught early on, even when those constraints no longer exist. We carry the baggage of a compliance culture that inhibits innovation and creativity. We still strive to color inside the lines because that is what we were taught in 1st grade by well-meaning teachers, even though no great art was ever created that way. Similar to achieving good grades in school we strive to avoid failure (even when engaged in creative problem-solving) even though nearly every great advancement was spawned through learning from multiple failures. We cling to processes and procedures (and doctrine!) that may no longer be relevant because we are comfortable in our conformity. We like it here on the sidewalk.

Any combat leader who has seen a tank stopped by a chain-link fence knows the effects of this culture: the driver was always taught not to run over official looking things (true story).

But if we are to thrive in a changing environment we need to leave behind the constraints that are no longer valid. No First Sergeant told any Colonel at Carlisle Barracks not to walk on the grass, but nearly every Colonel stuck to the sidewalks anyway. We self-constrain all the time without questioning why. We should stop doing that to ourselves.

When new ideas emerge in your organization do you see possibilities or obstacles? If you see obstacles, do you question their validity? Do you only see the risks in new things, or the potential? Do you see the flaws in a new idea or where it might take your team, even if the first iteration fails? How good are you at recognizing that you and your organization may be shackled with old constraints that might not exist or are no longer valid?

By the way, many constraints that guide our organizations aren’t actually real policies, but exist as urban legend and myth. I can think of probably a dozen times in my career that simply challenging a well-known and commonly followed practice by demanding to see the policy or regulation has led to the realization that the constraint either never existed or was no longer valid. Invalid constraints can be dealt with through your emerging “Stamp out Stupid” campaign.

Sadly, when I returned to Carlisle Barracks ten years later as a student the sign was gone, and the likelihood of students coming up with the idea of walking on the grass was further reduced.  I hope the invitation to break the “conformity to outdated constraints” culture materializes in some other way.

So what now? What do you do with this grassy metaphor? I recommend you attend to the idea of artificial constraints in your organization. Seek out where innovation gets trampled by outdated and invalid limits on thinking and doing. Most importantly, reflect on where you are constraining yourself unnecessarily and remove the cultural barriers that keep you from walking on the grass.

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