10 rules of business

When I was at school, I had this idealistic vision of the business world as being an environment where very clever people sat in offices and made intelligent, black-and-white decisions, driven by the knowledge they were always doing the right thing. Of course, now that I have worked in a commercial environment for the best part of two decades, most of it in middle management roles, I know almost the exact opposite is true. The business world is a place where (mostly) well-educated and intelligent people run around frantically and operate largely within shades of grey, often making as many bad decisions as good, which are sometimes fuelled by personal agendas as much as a desire to do the right thing for the business.

I used to think there was a definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to go about business. But actually business is more about rules and processes that we hope will lead us to a positive result more often than not, and protect us from ever making ‘the big one’ which generally results in a visit to HR and a P45.

Management textbooks and training courses always try to boil business success down to a few basic rules and easy-to-remember acronyms, but nobody ever seems to tell you the ones that really matter. So here are my ten rules for success in the real business world, that anyone who has ever worked for a business of any reasonable size should hopefully recognise.

1. Management by committee

The more people you involve in making a decision, the less likely it is a decision will be made. ‘Management by committee’ is a contradiction in terms – ‘avoiding personal accountability by committee’ is nearer the mark.

2. Ability isn’t everything

Talent helps, but the following skills are equally useful (frequently more so):

Delegation – Getting clever people to do the work for you, then taking credit for it.

Poker face – Being able to smile to someone’s face while stabbing them in the back.

Seeing the big picture – Spouting vague, generic management gobbledygook while other people work out the difficult details. See also delegation.

Compromise – Getting other people to agree to what you want, no matter what.

Direction – Making a clear decision and then sticking to it, even in the face of irrefutable evidence that you are 100% wrong.

Sharing responsibility – Blaming the rest of the team when things go wrong.

Personal accountability – Taking all the credit when things go right. See also delegation and seeing the big picture.

3. Newton’s first law of business

In the absence of an external force, a body is either at rest or moves at constant velocity. Translation: nothing in business changes, unless someone gives you a good shove. Equally, once a project has started, it is very difficult to stop it, even if no one can remember why they are doing it in the first place.

4. Newton’s second law of business

A body subject to a force (f) experiences an acceleration (a) in inverse proportion to its mass (m), as determined by the equation f = ma. Translation: the bigger a business is, the harder it is to get it moving.

5. Newton’s third law of business

When a body exerts a force (f) on another body, the second body exerts an opposing force (-f) on the first body. (Or, more commonly, to every action there is an equal but opposite reaction.) Translation: If you’re going to attack an opponent, be it a competitor or a rival for a job, expect them to hit you back with equal force. Also, applying the second law: being bigger helps.

6. The inverse Powerpoint rule

As the amount of content on a Powerpoint slide increases, the probability of it actually telling you anything useful decreases. Similarly, the more slides a Powerpoint presentation contains, the less it will tell you.

7. Standing next to greatness

If you can’t do something great yourself, the next best thing is to stand next to someone who does and hope some of their glory rubs off on you. (Failing that, claim a share of the credit while they’re not looking/listening.)

8. The inverse volume rule

The louder someone shouts out their opinion in a meeting, the less likely people are to listen to them. (Although the likelihood that someone will punch them in the face does increase.)

There is also a related inverse frequency rule, which states that the more times a person repeatedly expresses the same opinion in a meeting, the less likely people are to listen to them. In many cases, the two rules can be applied to individuals at the same time.

9. The accuracy/inaccuracy rule

The more decimal places a number is reported to, the more likely it is to be inaccurate. £31m may well be an accurate estimate. £30,985,473.26 is a figment of somebody’s imagination, or at the very least their calculator/an Excel spreadsheet. If people could really forecast that accurately, we would all be lottery winners.

10. Moving the goalposts

As soon as you think you’ve worked out all the rules of business, they are guaranteed to change. Either that, or you get fired for being a smart-alec know-it-all.