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Sansolo Speaks:  Unwritten Rules

by Michael Sansolo

If you follow or participate in any sport you are aware that all those games are governed by an incredibly intricate series of rules codified through the decades.

Those rules can be so arcane and detailed that recently my beloved New York Mets successfully executed a play thanks to their awareness of a rule about which their opponents were clueless.  That kind of attention to detail, I believe, is one of the reasons that they currently are 12-5, with the second-best won-loss record in Major League Baseball.

But I digress.

In addition to all those written rules, there are things that are never written down, but are still somehow observed whether in sports or business. For example in baseball recently there has been a kerfuffle over teams ignoring the unwritten (and incongruous) rule to stop trying too hard once your team has a large and presumably insurmountable lead.

(I actually would suggest that this metaphor has limitations.  In business, unlike in baseball, there is no such thing as an insurmountable lead.  But that's for another day and another column.)

In business, these unwritten rules are frequently called institutional knowledge, the informal system by which insights are passed down inside a company to improve job performance. These bits of lore could be as simple as the right way to make a balky machine work or as complex as understanding why a certain customer must be treated in a specific way to retain their business.

And quite frankly, the great resignation that is taking place could cause a significant amount of institutional knowledge to disappear thanks to the cascade of boomers opting for retirement.

One of the challenges of losing such knowledge is that many times these long lasting traditions might defy logic, yet could still be essential. It’s hard to imagine any place you’re more likely to find such issues than in the strange tastes and desires shoppers in one area might have for a specific food or dish that shows up virtually nowhere else.

For example…

Nearly 40 years ago I married into a family from upstate New York and learned one of these interesting differences. In the Syracuse area (where my wife was largely raised) there is no dish that brings greater passions than fish fry. Not surprisingly, the origins of this passion came from Catholics observing Lent, but it grew into something else.

In upstate New York fish fry has little to do with religion (my wife’s family isn’t Catholic) these days, but so much to do with haddock and specifically how it is prepared. There are major issues about whether the fish is cooked with or without skin and trust me; they don’t accept cod or any other fish as a substitute.

To prove the point of all of this, my wife recently sent me this article about upstate New Yorkers and their fish of choice.

This takes us back to unwritten rules, because no doubt there are similar taste preferences in whatever market you serve and no matter how illogical it might seem, your customers won’t be satisfied unless you have the right type of fish fry or cream cheese or whatever, depending on local traditions, history or whatever.

Once again we all talk about the power of being local, but nothing could make you seem less unaware of local traditions than say, serving salmon or cod rather than haddock anywhere from Buffalo to Albany in New York.  Or, like John Kerry, ordering a cheesesteak “with Swiss” at Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia.

In this regard, take a moment to rewatch Kevin’s FaceTime video from Monday about the food culture at Northgate Markets in Southern California.)

There are unwritten rules … but they almost never should be ignored.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at

His book, “THE BIG PICTURE:  Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available here.

And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon here.