Magnifying Glass Unwritten Rules.jpg


Stories: How did you get here?

Listen for all the ways the group explains the past — What’s the history of the condition you’re trying to change? What’s the history of the group, itself? Keep an ear out for official accounts, informal tales, and even kooky conspiracy theories. These stories are great clues to the unwritten rules the group is following.

Expectations: How do you think things will turn out?

Dig into the group’s presumptions about the future — What’s likely to happen? What’s possible, but unlikely to happen? What could never, ever happen? Their expectations are a goldmine for unwritten rules.

Restrictions: What written rules, laws, budgets, and deadlines are involved?

Pay close attention to how the group behaves. Every behavior that can’t be easily explained by a written rule, law, budget, or official deadline points directly to an unwritten rule.

Connections: What else is this related to?

The condition you’re trying to change doesn’t stand alone. Instead, it’s part of a series of Russian nesting dolls, sitting inside other conditions and housing still other conditions. Sometimes, the unwritten rules from related conditions migrate over and confuse us.

Labels: How do you categorize, sort, and prioritize things?

Watch how the group does inventory of people and ideas. It’s human nature to sort and re-sort constantly to help us make sense of our complex world. The labels we use to understand things are a great clue to invisible, unwritten rules.

Roles: Who is involved?

Do an inventory of everybody involved in the condition you’re trying to change — Who are the usual suspects? Who exerts influence? Who isn’t around but is still important. Getting clear on who’s who can help us see unwritten rules we couldn’t see before.



  • What was our greatest success?

  • What is a crazy conspiracy theory about what we’re doing?

  • What story would you tell your friends about what we’re doing?

  • What’s our origin story?

  • What was the most important event in our evolution?

  • How did the thing we’re changing come to be?


  • What will put us out of business?

  • What do we think could never, ever happen?

  • What will happen to us if we don’t make the change?

  • What will make the us twice as successful?

  • What do we think is likely to happen?

  • What we think is possible, but unlikely to happen?


  • If we had an unlimited budget, what would we do differently?

  • What decisions can we not make for ourselves?

  • What written rule do we all typically ignore?

  • What written rules are in the way of what we’re trying to do?

  • What deadlines do we absolutely have to meet?

  • What laws have the biggest influence on what we’re trying to do?


  • What outsiders are affected by what we’re trying to do?

  • What group could we never, ever merge with?

  • What other groups do we belong to?

  • What is the biggest outside force that affects us?

  • What other industries serve our customers?

  • What market shift would make what we’re doing irrelevant?


  • What at work do we describe as “good” or “bad”?

  • What at work do we describe as “urgent” or “meaningless”?

  • How does the group describe changes like this one?

  • What activity never seems to fit with anything else?

  • What official groups does management sort us into?

  • What informal groups do we sort ourselves into?


  • Other than management, who is the biggest influence on us?

  • Who is the biggest winner if we get this right?

  • Who benefits most if we fail?

  • What kind of person could never, ever be part of us?

  • Who isn’t so obvious, but is directly involved in what we’re doing?

  • Who is important precisely because they’re not around?

Chess Queen and Unwritten Rules.jpg



  • Change up our origin story

  • Add an unexpected element to the story about what we’re doing

  • Focus on a new most important event

  • Tell our story about what we’re doing from an unexpected perspective


  • Make our mission much bigger, bolder, and more ambitious

  • Introduce unexpected metrics

  • Take an expected outcome off the table

  • Change the cost of failure


  • Draw on an unexpected budget

  • Invent a new, unexpected approval process

  • Tweak the environment

  • Get rid of a written rule


  • Team up with an unexpected partner

  • Align with our long-time opposition

  • Make two changes at the same time

  • Unplug what we’re doing from the usual framework


  • Break us up into unexpected teams

  • Invent a brand new, unexpected category

  • Change the order of how we do things

  • Sort activities into different categories


  • Take a usual suspect out of the mix

  • Add unexpected folks to our group

  • Choose someone unexpected to lead what we’re doing

  • Cite very different experts

* These clues, questions, and strategies were developed by Jeff Leitner and Andrew Benedict-Nelson to help identify and change unwritten rules (social norms). For more, see See Think Solve: A Simple Way to Tackle Tough Problems.