“There are reasons we have rules.”

In the long list of statements I’ve heard that set my teeth so on edge that I need an orthodontist, this one ranks near the top, because yes, there are reasons for rules. If we’d just pay more attention to the reason and less to arbitrary enforcement we’d all be far better off.

It appears Elon Musk and I agree, this being the 6th of his recently published 6 productivity rules. The other five, which revolve around meetings and how to reduce their negative impacts, are worth your time as well.

No matter how much you agree with the two of us, though, you don’t set the rules in your company. And I’d bet that even in Tesla and SpaceX, some meetings aren’t just necessary. They’re important.

Take, for example, getting approval to proceed with something or other. While there are organizations and situations where an email chain might be sufficient, there are plenty more where you don’t have the authority, you need to get it, and you won’t get it without a meeting or three.

Here are my rules when you need approval to proceed:

Rule #1: Be confident you’re right. In negotiations, “deal momentum” is a fatal mistake. Fall in love with the deal and you’re likely to get a bad one. Whatever you need approval to do, falling in love with the idea is just as likely to be fatal. You’re at risk of confirmation bias — of proposing a mistake, and, worse, getting caught at it, because you only sought out evidence and logic that supports the idea — ammunition, that is, not information.

Make sure you’ve dug deep enough that whatever unpleasant surprises might hit you while you are proceeding, that fatal ones aren’t likely to be among them.

Rule #2: Know who the approvers are. You need to do more than just look at the company’s org chart for this. You need to understand who is likely to be significantly affected by your idea, and how; you also need to understand which of them could torpedo your quest for approval, either because they have the authority to say no, or because they have strong relationships with those who have the authority to say no.

There’s political power that’s described by the org chart, and then there’s all that other political power that isn’t on a diagram but is no less real and important.

Step 3: Map and use your degrees of separation. From Step 2 you know who you need to persuade. Next you need to figure out who you know whom you need to persuade to introduce you to whom you need to persuade, or, failing that, to introduce you to whom you need to persuade to introduce you to the person they know who can introduce you.

Get those introductions and use them to schedule meetings. One on one meetings, because introducing an idea in a group meeting and asking for approval in the same meeting is futile. Nobody with any political sense is even going to ask the questions that matter to them in a group setting, let alone put their stamp of approval on it before they’ve had a chance to explore the risks and ramifications.

In a one-on-one setting they can at least explore the subject in more depth.

Keep these meetings going until you have at least a majority of the approvers you need in your camp. To the extent possible make these face-to-face, white-board-driven meetings, so you can watch how each other think and react.

Oh, and by the way — these aren’t actually one-on-one meetings. More likely they should be be two on two: You and your “subject matter expert” facing your target and her subject matter expert. A key piece of the persuasion puzzle is convincing your target you’ve explored the subject in depth. To do this you need someone in the room who can respond to questions in depth.

Your role is to direct traffic, and to make sure “depth” doesn’t turn into “rabbit hole.”

Step 4: Have “the meeting.” Now that everyone who matters agrees … or, if not everyone, enough of those who matter … it’s safe to get them together so they can hear each other agree.

It’s also safe to use PowerPoint, and to include some participants via web conferencing if that’s geographically necessary.

Seem like a lot of meetings? Seem like the bigger the organization the more meetings you’ll need?

Sorry, Elon. In most businesses the only alternative is for good ideas to die without ever getting a fair hearing.

Culture, trust, and vocabulary are all intertwined, something that’s on full display every tax season.

Not the taxes you paid last week, although that is what brought the subject to mind. I’m talking about the corporate overhead every cost center manager has to pay.

In most large companies, managers call this a “tax” or, maybe, a “tithe.” For most of us, “tax” implies coercion by a remote, implacable authority. “Tithe,” while more benign, still has overtones of compulsion. Either way, like real taxes, those who pay the headquarters tax have no expectation they’ll get any benefits from it, and a strong expectation that headquarters’ wasted efforts will be wasted inefficiently.

With actual taxes we all know we do receive benefits, and could even enumerate some of them if pressed: Not only national defense, a diplomatic corps to make national defense less necessary, a system of criminal and civil justice, and the so-called social safety nets, but also basics like potable water, sewage handling, road maintenance, and, here in Minnesota, snow removal. These are benefits we take for granted until, as the citizens of Flint discovered, they don’t happen.

Our distrust of government long ago became cultural. Neither evidence as a driver nor nuance in our thinking affects the certainty of our conclusions. Propose that any branch of government is valuable and efficient and you’ll become an object of immediate ridicule.

If you collect or are funded by corporate overhead, beware the risk of guilt by association. If managers call it a tax, then a tax it is, with all the cultural freight the word hauls with it.

The parallels get worse. Some of the taxes we pay supports government’s regulatory responsibilities. Most of us recognize the reason for regulations when they’re taken one at a time, whether it’s an EPA regulation that prevents corporations from releasing toxins into the water supply or a zoning ordinance that prevents your neighbor from turning his backyard into a junkyard. But taken as a whole we all know government regulation is bad and imposes unfair burdens.

The taxes cost center managers pay to corporate headquarters support a regulatory regime as well, from Internal Audit to workplace safety to enforcement of IT’s information security standards.

Taken one at a time and properly explained, much of headquarters-imposed regulation makes sense, too, but that doesn’t mean anyone appreciates Compliance as a collective noun any more than we appreciate government regulation as a collective whole.

Right about here the parallels start to break down. The federal government is, as someone once explained it, the world’s largest insurance company, protected by the world’s largest armed force: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security account for something like 90% of the federal budget. Whether these are valuable or not is a matter of personal philosophy.

One hopes headquarters’ spending on security and internal insurance services is more restrained, and that the value of the services headquarters provides is, once listed, commensurately less controversial.

Or not. As is the case with the services we receive from our various levels of government, ask your fellow cost center managers if the value they receive from headquarters justifies the overhead charge they and you pay and they’ll express the same doubts citizens express about government services — doubts about both value in principle and efficiency of delivery.

Ten or twenty years ago I might have recommended that everyone at headquarters should just develop a thicker skin and ignore the grumbling. But I think it’s fair to say that at a societal level the question of government taxes vs value has contributed to the toxicity of our political dialog.

It isn’t much of a stretch to anticipate that grumbling about the “headquarters tax” in your company can poison relationships between headquarters departments and the business areas they support in ways that damage the company’s overall effectiveness, not to mention its ability to adapt to changing marketplace conditions.

What’s to be done?

First, make sure you can enumerate the benefits you provide. If you don’t understand what they are you probably don’t provide any.

Second, make sure you provide them efficiently and effectively. If you aren’t sure (and you aren’t sure), ask the departments you support, or hire consultants to ask for you.

And third, encourage everyone to stop calling their corporate overhead a tax. For that matter, don’t call it “overhead” either. Instead, choose a term that has some connotation of value.

Call it rent.