Walk don’t Run…but Never Stop Walking

“If you stand still, your opposition has the power to knock you down, if you keep walking, they have to follow you,” she said. “I’d rather keep walking.”

Who’s the she who is giving us rebels such great advice? Princess Reema Bint Banda al-Saud. I saw her speak at South by Southwest Interactive two weeks ago. You  can watch and listen to her keynote here. I confess I attended her talk thinking that it would largely be a public relations activity for Saudi Arabia. I left mighty impressed with the practical rebel instincts of a woman who is taking concrete steps to improve the role of women in Saudi society. It is well worth the listen.

The “Walk don’t Run” part is my riff on what she said. Too often, rebels rush headlong into a change mission, totally psyched by their idea and/or disgusted by the current reality. But as we point out in our book, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within, rebels are well-advised to adopt a more measured approach to getting their ideas adopted. Recalibrate your own expectations of immediate and glorious success, which are probably driven more by ego than by common sense. Take your time. But don’t stop.

Another great talk full of ideas for Rebels at Work was by Dan Pink who talked about Fear, Shame, Empathy and More Ways to Change Behavior. His talk is not available yet for viewing, but there’s a handy recap of his major points here. We don’t want to brag or anything, but most of his ideas line up pretty good with our advice to rebels.

  • Use good questions.
  • Enlist the Crowd.
  • Give people an easy way to act.
  • Try stuff. Pilots and prototypes are always preferable to messy and noisy failures.

But there’s one suggestion Pink made that frankly Lois and I never thought of.

Make Time to Rhyme – Rhymes increase process fluency. The message just “goes down better.” Think of it like linguistic comfort food.

So now I’m trying to think of some more poetic ways to talk about Rebels at Work. So we could do:

When your boss is a jerk,
You need Rebels at Work.

OK, that’s not very charitable. Let’s be more positive:

To succeed as a Rebel
Good ideas must you peddle
Of Allies have several
But around bureaucrats be careful

Enough from me.  No doubt some of you are more talented than I.

The Cowboy Trail and the 10% way to get buy-in

AlbertaI’ve been fantasizing about going on a road trip this summer to Alberta to experience the majestic Canadian Rockies.  While browsing possible itineraries, I keep noticing this advice:

“Leave the beaten path and take the alternative route of….”

If you’re trying to get new ideas considered at work, I’d like to suggest similar advice.  The best route may not be beating a path to your boss and the usual up-the-chain-of-command approval process. If she says, “NO,” then what? You’re sort of at a dead end.

An alternative approach is to reach all around you and get 10% of the people at work behind your idea. When you reach 10%  the idea is likely to be adopted, according to scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  The 10% can be people at any level; in other words the assumption that you need “executive buy-in” may be a faulty assumption.

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer.

“Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

So if your company has 1,000 people you would need to get just 100 people to support your idea for it to spread. If there are 5,000 people, your aim is 500.  Many say it’s easier and sometimes faster to get 100 people to support a good idea than to work an idea through the traditional hierarchical approval chain.

“As agents of change convince more and more people, the situation begins to change,” SNARC research associate Sameet Sreenivasan said. “People begin to question their own views at first and then completely adopt the new view to spread it even further.

Use the tools: Work Out Loud

Influencing the 10% at work is not easy but it is easier than it was five years ago.

You can write blogs on the internal Intranet and work out loud (WOL) about the idea’s potential value, what it would take to make it happen, and asking for input from colleagues to refine the idea.

If you don’t yet know about the Working Out Loud concept, I urge you to learn more. It’s a BIG idea that is starting to reshape how people work, how new ideas develop, what it means to collaborate and innovate, and, of course, reach that 10% so new ideas catch on.

Check out John Stepper’s Working Out Loud blog to learn more about the concept, and get some useful articles about how to start incorporating this practice into how you work.

Of course, depending on the idea, you can also consider using external social channels to write about the concept, get ideas, ask for help and connect with people at work on these channels.

YOUR GOAL: Make the idea stronger by involving more people and by involving more people get to the 10% tipping point.

But what if my boss gets upset?

Your boss may feel uncomfortable with you Working Out Loud and socializing ideas with people outside his chain of command.  What happens if she pushes back and asks you to stop?

  •  First, acknowledge the discomfort and empathize: “I see this makes you uncomfortable….”
  •  Reassure her that the idea supports what the organization values or a shared goal.
  • Then explain how you’re trying to learn more about the viability of a possible idea and trying to get a sense of what would be needed for it to be successful.   Initiative, learning and research are valued in most organizations.
  • If you work in an organization espousing the need for greater collaboration, innovation, empowerment, or employee engagement explain that this is exactly what you’re doing.
  •  Invite your boss into the process so she can, too, can learn about the developing concept. Maybe she wants to follow you on Twitter?  Get alerts when a new blog post comes out?  Join the project community?  In the spirit of openness and Working Out Loud, don’t hide, invite.

And if you’re the boss?

  • Appreciate that you have someone in your organization with ideas and the courage and initiative to put them out there and get frank feedback.  (THIS is employee engagement at its best.)
  • Make it safe for your team member to keep going. Encourage and ask how you can be helpful.
  • Chill about a bad idea making you look bad. If people don’t like your team member’s idea, they are not going to get behind it.  The wisdom of the crowd will breathe life in or out of the idea.  Your job is to help your team members grow and achieve outcomes, not control how your team member learns, gets input and builds organizational support.
  •  Know that this is the future of work and a much better way of vetting possibilities than the traditional slow and often exhausting meeting-after-meeting approach. Be grateful that someone is helping you learn the value of working out loud and introducing ideas in new ways. Your team member is doing you a favor by helping you become more relevant.

The Cowboy Trail

While many will head to the popular Banff and Lake Louise this summer, I am learning about the alternative routes.

The Smith Dorrien Spray Trail, The Dinosaur Trail and the Cowboy Trail sound like they are just off the beaten path enough for this cowgirl rebel to find wonder and creative renewal.

Stop the worrying: manage your boss

“What’s your biggest obstacle when you try to introduce new ideas or improve things at work?”

That’s one of our favorite questions to ask people who come to our  Rebels at Work talks and workshops.

The number one obstacle: My Boss. (The second is fear.)

So what do you do if you’re championing a new idea? Learn how to manage your boss, particularly in these two ways:

  1. Understand what most worries your boss and find ways to ease those worries.
  2. Build credibility and trust with your boss.

Chart managing boss jpegBuild credibility with your boss

  1. Don’t mock your boss:  Whatever you do, don’t criticize your boss for being cowardly or too concerned about her own job security, because after all, that’s only human. The fact that you both want job security may even be a good way to develop a common understanding. Neither of you want to hurt your careers. If you can establish that as a given, perhaps your boss can begin evaluating your ideas on their merit.
  1. Don’t go over your boss’ head: This can seem like the only option if your boss is recalcitrant, particularly if he forbids you to discuss your ideas any further. Going over your boss’s head is like trying to draw to an inside straight in poker: the chances that it will turn out well are very slim and, when it doesn’t work, you end up with the worst cards at the table. Once a rebel shows one member of a management team that he can’t be trusted, he has almost certainly tarnished his reputation with every other boss in the organization. If you decide to do this anyway and it turns out badly, apologize sincerely and profusely. It’s your only hope.
  1. Don’t worry about your boss stealing your idea: We often hear rebels complain that management took their ideas and didn’t give them enough credit. Our take? When a manager likes a rebel’s idea enough to steal it, that’s a rebel win. As rebels, we often have to swallow our pride and savor the internal satisfaction that comes from knowing that we planted the seed.  If it’s any consolation, know that as a rebel you are likely to have new ideas, spot emerging trends, or figure out problems unimaginable today. Our creativity and vision form the pattern of our lives. They are a renewable resource we can depend on. Our creativity is our safety net.

Ask More Questions and Tell Fewer Lies

Lois and I made a conscious decision to write Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within for fellow rebels lacking leadership positions in large organizations. There were at least two other audiences we could have written for:

The Rebel Manager. Someone actually in a leadership position trying to take an organization in a different direction. That’s whom I usually think of when I hear the term Change Agent.

The Manager of Rebels. Here we’re referring to “bosses” who want to be helpful to their “rebels.” Often they recognize the need for innovation, but don’t have the ideas themselves. Or don’t want to be the front person for a change initiative but wouldn’t mind supporting people willing to take the lead. I think sometimes Rebels at Work can be overly critical of managers who recognize a problem but don’t want to push the solution directly. Sure, some of them are playing it overly safe, but others may have good reasons to demur. They may have fought many battles earlier in their careers, and just don’t have enough juice left for another push. Or they realize they may not have enough influence in their hierarchy to pursue a direct approach.

rebels-at-work-bookThese well-intended managers of rebels keep asking us some great questions at talks we’ve given recently. And a lot of them revolve around how to manage a team of individuals holding strong opinions. You would think managers would want teams of strong thinkers. HA! We all know managers are still trained and many are in any case inclined to achieve homogeneity and harmony in the work place What is otherwise lovingly referred to as CONSENSUS. As Luke Visconti of Diversity Inc. recently wrote in his Ask the White Guy column:

The dominant culture, regardless of who it is or where it is, is driven to value conformity.

If more businesses and organizations truly valued Diversity of Thought, the need for Rebels at Work would decline significantly. So I spent some time this weekend checking out the latest research on the topic.

The good news is that there is some recent research. The most noteworthy is an MIT study published this fall that examines whether diversity of teams in terms of gender and tenure was associated with 1. team harmony and 2. team productivity (as measured by revenue.) The study doesn’t measure diversity of thought per se, but gender differences and varying levels of work experience often are associated with the clash of ideas in the workplace.

The study has some interesting and sometimes counterintuitive findings. Teams composed of members who were hired at different times did not show lower levels of cooperation, but, according to the researchers, did show significantly lower levels of performance. Teams with higher levels of gender diversity, however, were associated with reduced team harmony, but in this case these teams were also associated with significantly higher levels of performance. (Interestingly, mixed gender teams easily outperformed both all-male and all-female teams.)

The press has popularized the study by reporting that diverse teams are more productive but less happy. But I think the study points to a more nuanced conclusion–the need for managers to develop better techniques for dealing with differences in the workplace, whatever their causes. The tension that comes with the clash of ideas is a frequent challenge for Rebels at Work. Often, the Rebel is so caught up in the excitement of advancing her ideas that she fails to notice and/or discounts the unhappiness and discomfort building among her teammates. The manager, whose training emphasized the need to build consensus but not how to navigate turbulent whitewater, is often just a bystander as his team blows up. Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done here.

Some preliminary ideas for managers of rebels.

  • “Rethink your default settings”. The phrase comes from a report by a UK consultancy on how to increase diversity on boards. I’m using it here to refer to the habits and practices that managers of team rarely question. How do you run your meetings? Whom do you talk to first about an issue? What priorities does your calendar reflect? Examine everything and consider upending most of it. For example, if you have a new influx of team members, let them set the agenda for an upcoming meeting. Give them a chance to share their observations without interruption.
  • Acknowledge different categories of “expertise” for your team. I’ve seen many teams where only one type of expertise is recognized and valued. Either you are on expert on how things have always been done—standard operating procedures, or you’re here to learn. Sound familiar? But how about having a team discussion on the different types of expertise that could be useful to meeting team goals. Who is most familiar with the new research? Who here understands the growing Hispanic market? Who is on top of new technology? Just having an explicit conversation about the many categories of useful knowledge can be an eye opening experience for team members.
  • Talk explicitly about individual thinking and work styles. There’s any number of free tests on the internet about thinking styles and they are all useful. But recently I’ve found it to be just as effective to have team members describe “how they think” or “how they solve problems” to each other. Most people know if they are good with detail or if they prefer to play with bigger concepts. I’ve come to believe that most job performance issues are caused by asking people to do tasks for which they are not well-suited. Forget the job descriptions. Let individuals gravitate to the tasks they do well.
  • Ask more open-ended questions and tell fewer lies. OK, well maybe managers don’t tell lies on purpose. But in their effort to project certainty, they often make pronouncements suffused with an unjustified air of certainty. Monitor the number of declarative sentences you make as a manager and resolve to replace at least a third of them with questions. Here’s an example. A team member asks you how the team plans to meet a difficult deadline. Instead of providing your not-so-definitive answer, why not just reflect the question back to the team. “That’s a great question. What ideas do you all have.” You’ve now encouraged everyone on your team to speak, including the different thinkers and rebels.

I’m sure there’s many more ideas out there. Please do share in the comments.

Like a rebel boss

Like a teenage rebel boss jpegMy son is about to turn 20 and I’m so proud of him. Prouder still of me.

I didn’t throw sharp objects, nag incessantly, take away privileges, drone on about accountability and responsibility, or yell and scream like a raving maniac during those teen years. (Well, except for that one freak out. More on that in a minute.)

Reflecting on those years I realize that becoming a good boss of rebels at work can help you become a better parent. Especially during the teenage years.

There are many good reasons to be a good boss of those rebels and mavericks who, like teenagers, think current policies and approaches are stupid and want to change everything. If you help rebels, they’ll go to the mat for your organization and you’ll likely get a promotion, score a big bonus, look good with the suits on the executive floor, and be the person everyone in the company wants to work for.

But the real reason to coach rebels like a rock star is to train yourself for those teenage years.   If you have teenagers or have made it through, you likely know what I’m talking about. If you don’t yet have teenage children, take this advice and thank me later.

Like the rebels who work for us, we love our teenagers’ fresh thinking, their creativity, their intolerance for school and societal rules that just don’t make sense, and their willingness to go to the mat to do something about those stupid rules. They are so bold and vibrant and confident that it can take our breath away. We want to be them.

And yet they make us crazy when they skirt the rules, do dumb things without understanding the bigger context, let their emotions run wild, and screw up so badly that we have to have one of those dreaded meetings with the principle or the CEO where no one really knows what to say except, “Talk to her. Try to keep him in line. I know she’s basically a good student/employee. One last thing — let’s not let this happen again.” You walk away feeling like a reprimanded teenager.

Better for rebels, better for teenagers

So what helps us help rebels at work – and, in turn, helps us help our teenagers at home?

When we coach rebels and help them learn how to navigate within existing structures however screwed up they may be, they develop capacities for being effective, meaningful citizens of the world. If we simply insist they follow the rules, they just get angrier and more frustrated.  Saying, “the rules are the rules” to idea people at work and creative kids at home is like talking in a different language. Like a language with all guttural, ugly sounds. They just hear the hard edges and look at the spit coming out of our mouths and think, “How pathetic.”

I tried, not always successfully, to remark more on what my teenage son was doing well than on what he should be doing differently or better. I’d ask him what was working in school or share my work challenges and ask him what he thought might be the best approach. I valued his opinions because I knew they would be honest, frank and fresh. Not the usual blah-blah responses.

Rebels at work also provide this freshness. Don’t miss out on these perspectives. They’re foreign, like a teenager’s, but with more wisdom.

Conversations with rebels, like teens, can’t be superficial or disingenuous. They’ll tune you out, and you’ll miss out.

What worries you? What else do you think is possible? What are we kidding ourselves about? What might happen if we…

Questions teach, both them and us.

Rebels and teens know a lot. They think a lot. And they’ll help you gain new perspectives. Their ideas might make you feel uncomfortable. OK, they will make you feel uncomfortable. But that’s how we learn, right?

By hearing and considering their views, we build trust, love, mutuality, togetherness, bonding. Most importantly, we build their capacity to consider other views and learn how to disagree without being a jerk. To be able to talk about ideas where no one is right or wrong. To feel safe enough to disagree and still feel safe and valued as part of the family or as part of the organization.

Freak Out!

As long as they don’t steal your credit card to buy World of Warcraft add-ons.

This is where the freak out happened.

My son and I had had several conversations about getting the gaming thing under control. So when I opened my card statement and saw several different $25 charges from Blizzard Entertainment, I went nuts.

He came home from school all cheerful and I started screaming, channeling an Irish banshee, waving my credit card bill. I was maniacal, and one scary woman. To finish off my tantrum I slammed the front door, got in the car, and drove off leaving my son at home alone for several hours.

I am a calm person. He knew that a line had been crossed.

When I finally came home, he had written a letter to me, not only apologizing but also explaining how he would pay me back and, much more importantly, how he was going to cure the burgeoning World of Warcraft addiction. “That I’ve disappointed you is the worse thing of all,” he wrote.

He had a plan that was far better than anything that I could have constructed. He beat himself up harder than I ever would or could.

From having been the boss of rebels, I guess I knew that he would figure out a way forward that was more insightful and effective than anything I could imagine.

Because we had a relationship built on honesty and mutual caring, I knew we would recover. No one had to win or lose.

I love that boy, who I now have to call a man. He’s creative, passionate, dedicated, often unrealistic in setting goals, curious, and sometimes self-absorbed when he’s in the flow of a project.

Like a rebel. Like the best people who ever worked in my organizations.

So if you have a rebel working for you, rejoice! Coach, ask questions, let go of control while setting some boundaries, and make it safe to talk about the tough stuff.

You’re going to love the teenage years.


Why Bosses Say No

No!“There’s no money in the budget for that” is the most common management response to new ideas. The more creative or risky the idea, the quicker our bosses’ “Sorry, no budget” reflexes.

We walk away thinking, “Well there’s no sense on pushing that idea forward. There’s no money to fund it.”

But here’s an important truth:

Money is rarely the real reason ideas get shot down.


Six real reasons and how to get around them

1. It’s just not that important: When an idea helps an organization accomplish something that’s important and valued, that idea gets funded and approved. Many very good ideas get rejected because they don’t support what the organization most cares about. So show how your proposal supports what’s most valued.

Consider: Do you know what’s most important and valued? What’s appearing on the agendas of management meetings? What new buzz words creeping into conversations? Do this homework before you start socializing your idea. We’ve seen funds appear almost magically when an idea addresses an issue deeply important and relevant.

2. I can’t understand what the “it” is: Sometimes new concepts are so foreign that people just can’t figure out what we’re talking about. As the idea creators we easily “get” the concept, and make the mistake of thinking that other people will as instinctively understand what it is and how it benefits the organization.

Consider: Use an analogy to help people see how the idea is the same and different. When Bill Taylor and Alan Webber had the idea for Fast Company, they pitched it as putting Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone in a blender and pressing the on switch.   What is your idea like – and how is it different?

3. Timing out of kilter: Your boss may love your idea and say no because the timing doesn’t fit with planning cycles. If you start lobbying for an idea in November but plans and budgets are finalized in September, you’re out of luck for a while.

Consider: Learn how decisions get made and the timing of decisions and budget planning. Work with the system.

4. Where are the best practices? Innovative concepts are just that – innovative and emerging. They haven’t been done before and involve risk and complexity. Alas, many people are extremely uncomfortable approving new ideas unless they can be backed up by best practices or controlled experiments. Without having some sense of certainty, people reject the idea. It’s just too risky.

Consider: If you can find supporting case studies or best practices, use them. If not, consider using the Cynefin Framework to engage in a conversation about the context of your organization (or the customer environment) and the implications of that context for making decisions. For example, if people agree the operating environment is becoming more complex, they are more likely to support novel approaches and acknowledge uncertainty.

5. I don’t like the idea. There will be times when your boss just dislikes your idea for all kinds of rational and irrational reasons, and doesn’t know how to tell you. So he asks you to do more research, puts off your meetings, and says things like, “Let’s keep this on the back burner.” The tough thing about this stall tactic is that you keep your hopes up and become more and more frustrated. It’s the equivalent of the movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

Consider: if you think your boss is having a hard time giving you frank feedback, help her by asking questions like, “On a scale of one to 10, one being highly unlikely and 10 being very likely, how likely is it that this idea will get approved and funded in the next year?” (Ratings take the emotion out of discussions and give you useful data about intent.) Or say, “It looks like you don’t like this idea and you’d like to be able to tell me that. It would help me if you’d say it directly.”

6. I love the way things are. Some people just love the way things are and want to preserve what they think is working. They’re not so much opposed to your idea as they are in love with the status quo.

Consider: If you suspect your boss is in love with what exists, ask him, “Where do you see value in changing how we operate today? In what ways do you think this new idea could make us more effective?” If he thinks everything is going well and sees little value to changing, you have some important data. You can either build support around and below your boss to keep the idea alive. Or you can accept that he’s never going to budge and either drop the idea or go to work for an organization that values what you value.

 Emotion trumps logic

Remember that most decisions are based more on emotion than logic. To get to “yes,” find out what people yearn to be able to achieve (aspirations) and acknowledge the risks and how you’ll minimize them (fears). Aspirations and fears are a common paradox. Opportunities lie in the contradictions.

Lastly, manage your own energy and reputation. If the boss hates your idea and sees absolutely no value in pursuing it, you might not want to pursue it. At least not in his organization.

Whose responsibility is Debbie’s mother?

Debbie's motherDebbie’s mother has called me 32 times over the past three days. She started calling on Monday night when the storm kicked in.

The storm wound down last night, not as bad as predicted. But Debbie’s mother keeps calling. Six times this morning.

Debbie’s mother has the wrong number. I am not Debbie.

I explained this fact to her during several calls. But still she called. So I looked up the incoming phone number and found that it was from Cedar Crest Nursing Home.

I called the nursing home to tell them that one of their patients (residents?) was upset and desperate to talk to Debbie. Could they please help her find the right telephone number for Debbie?

“I’m sorry. We have three floors of patients here. There’s no way I can find the woman you’re talking about,” the Memory Loss floor supervisor told me. “Patients on my floor don’t have access to phones so it’s not one of mine. It must be someone on another floor. Sorry, I’m just too busy here.”

“Could you make a call to your colleagues on the other floors?” I ask.

“I’ll try,” said the Memory Loss supervisor and then hung up.

Debbie’s mother is trying to find Debbie. But Debbie’s mother is lost inside the nursing home. There is no one to hear her, except for me, the wrong number.

How many are lost at work, calling and getting no response?

In my work with big companies I often feel that people are lost, calling those in positions of responsibility with ideas, cautions, and worries, and getting no response. They feel like Debbie’s mother.

“I thought if I raised this issue, someone would be there to listen and do something about it,” people think. “I thought this was the year we could finally start to make a dent in doing work that would make a difference. But I guess not.”

After a while people stop calling, realizing that no one is going to pick up. They become complacent, doing as the floor supervisors request, yet worrying nonetheless.

We need people at work with the tenacity and hopefulness of Debbie’s mother. Maybe this time the call will go through.

What we need more are floor supervisors who care as much about helping people in their company who are lost and searching as they do about maintaining order in their small organizational silos. What might happen if more managers truly cared about EVERYONE and not just “their employees” or their patients?

A rebel calling: taking responsibility

I have a lot to do today. But perhaps the most valuable thing I can do is to drive to the nursing home and find help for Debbie’s mother.

In work and in life we rebels are often called to do things that we think someone else should be handling.

Responsibility is never neat and orderly.

My phone is ringing again. It’s Debbie’s mother.


The Stability Trap

Given my long career at the CIA, I still read widely on international relations and politics. One of the most interesting articles I’ve read in some time just appeared in Foreign Affairs–The Calm Before the Storm–Why Volatility Signals Stability, and Vice Versa.   Trying to figure out when and how a society becomes unstable is the bread and butter work of a political analyst in the Intelligence Community.  Nassim Taleb’s and Greg Treverton’s article is wonderfully contrarian, arguing that in fact the most stable societies have a history of healthy volatility in their recent past.

The best indicator of a country’s future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past.

Reflecting on my own career, I can remember many countries that I knew were going to implode at any moment, and yet somehow never did. And when there was a surprise–or, in other words, an intelligence failure–it was often because a pillar of the international community had suddenly–or so we thought–gone all wobbly on us.

And then I wondered whether this nifty piece of analysis could have broader implications.

Wait a Minute! Could this apply to companies as well? Could it in fact be the case that:

The best indicator of an organization’s future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past?

Rebels at Work know that one of the main reasons why their ideas don’t get a fair hearing is because most management teams prefer, indeed they crave, stability. My experience in government and the private sector is that one of the real reasons people avoid change is because they dislike disruption. Changing an organization is like staying in your house when you’re remodeling your kitchen. It’s messy and uncomfortable. As a result, people in an organization often will agree that the future end state is much preferable to the Status Quo, but nevertheless get grumpy at the thought of any disruption of their daily routines.

Organizations and managers need to rethink this aversion to messiness, to moderate volatility. And one of the best ways for a company to inject a healthy dose of ideational volatility into its operations is to be more tolerant, perhaps even welcoming, of its rebels, mavericks, and heretics. I can promise you that we rebels are very good at stirring things up if you just let us. Injecting new ideas into the tired debate about next year’s strategic direction would make all organizations stronger. Encouraging dissent from the prevailing wisdom in organizations is analogous to the “political variability” that characterizes countries that enjoy genuine political stability. As Taleb and Treverton point out, decentralization and political changeability makes countries stronger; authoritarian rule tends to only make them brittle.

Many companies and organizations today are brittle. They look strong but that strength is untested. The absence of diversity in their strategy and tactics leaves them vulnerable to any changes in the environment they fail to anticipate. Rebels at Work can serve as the anticipation engine of your organization.

But only if you let them!


Shame on Me (Maybe)

This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by Lois Kelly, on Santa’s list of 2014 gift posts.


Lois recently wrote a deeply sad blog post about shame. I read it a couple of times, and bookmarked it. Something nagging me…

Tonight I sat down to write my Blog Secret Santa post. I knew I would have to revisit the concept of shame. (Merry Christmas one and all!)

Then two things happened. I read this short message from Simon Terry

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot.” – Czesław Miłosz

and, I was flicking through the new book by Seth Godin, “…and it’s always your turn.” In it, a quote by Alfred Hitchcock.

“There is no terror in the bang. Only in the anticipation of it.”

I took a photo and appended it to Simon’s post.

alt text

And now, I link them both to Lois’ post about shame and silence.

Shaming those we work with upsets me as a manager, as a colleague, as a worker. As if there was not already enough discord and discomfort to deal with in the workplace!

And now I see what was nagging me about the idea of shame. It is this:

What if they are talking about me?

I don’t think they are, but what if…what if?

I had a couple of slightly uncomfortable meetings in my team recently. Nothing desperate or sad. They were discussions about the future, and how we get there. They were strategic, and practical. Nothing personal – we get along as a team. But there was enough discord and tension for me to consider: do I know my team well enough? Can I well represent their needs and desires? Have I presumed too much?

I have plenty of self-confidence and assuredness in embracing the changing nature of work. I am a change agent and provocateur, an intrapreneur and disorganizer. I can deal with a lack of certainty, with the ebb and flow of constant change, I embrace a fail-forward approach to work. I cheerlead the team to try! To fail! To keep going! To self-manage!

I always see this as openmindedness, about creating opportunities for greatness. I care about my team deeply and want them to succeed. But what if…what if instead they feel stymied? What if my SHOUTY cheerleading holds them back? What if they thought / knew that their way – another way – would be a wrong way (in my eyes)?

I would never say any of the sentences Lois listed as symptomatic of the shameful leader… What’s your problem? et al. But what am I implying in my enthusiasm, in my single-minded pursuit of tomorrow’s workplace?

I am questioning whether I really let their voices be heard. I know my listening skills are less than stellar. Does it add up to a culture of bias to my way or the high way? Are they consequently lost or let down (if not shamed)?

There are too many rhetorical questions in this post. Apologies. Of course, like most of my blog content, I am talking and learning out loud. I am thinking: what is the BANG!, the pistol shot of truth that releases all the pent up…STUFF? How do we – me, you, the team – really get to that better workplace tomorrow?

Change agents and rebels at work like Lois are helping me navigate this leadership journey. That is their gift to me. This is a small one in return.


<–This Much We Know.–>

Calling bullshit

I call bullshit jpegI’ve had ridiculous years before, but never a year of bullshit.  Well, half a year to be more precise.

Here’s how all the bullshit started.

In June I was having dinner with a  close friend from college whom I hadn’t seen in 36 years, catching him up about my life and talking about all that I’ve done and accomplished.

“Lois, stop the bullshit,” he said.

What? Me?!

In other words, he felt that I was trying to impress him, which in truth may have been one of my defaults over the years. I never knew it was so obvious. (Or maybe it’s not, except to people who really know us.)

Being called on bullshit in June, I started to pay much closer attention to it. In myself and others.  Now I see it everywhere, especially in business situations.

Bullshit, according to philosopher Harry Frankfurt of Princeton University, is a lot like humbug but a less polite word.  Both mean false talk or behavior, absent sense or meaning. In verb forms they mean deceiving.

We love confident people

I don’t think most people at work are intent on deceiving others. But our society sees confidence and certainty as positive, desirable attributes.  Most of us have bought into the belief that confident people are successful people. By confidence in this context I mean the Merriam-Webster definition:  The quality or state of being certain :  certitude <they had every confidence of success>

We buy from confident sales people. We believe confident coaches, consultants and “thought leaders.” We want to follow confident leaders. We glow when teachers tell us that our children “exude confidence.”

But how much of all that confidence is just a veneer over uncertainty?  How much of it is “faking it until you can make it?” How much of it is bullshit, deceiving ourselves and others and hoping to God that we can deliver on what we’re saying?

My hunch is quite a bit.

What if we revealed our Dark Sides?

So what might happen if we exposed more of our uncertainty and vulnerability? Would people buy less from us? Choose to work for a different company or boss? Not pay attention to our ideas? Would they judge us less competent?

Or might they like and trust us more because of our honesty?

I’m participating in a program this month (Quest 2015) to help us creative types look at how we can lead a more creative life in 2015. On Saturday morning a prompt came from Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor and author of the book, “The Upside of Your Dark Side.

The Upside of the Dark Side: Which emotions do you feel most guilty about having? Afraid that others might find out? How could you spend this year trying to be open to the emotional window that allows you to be courageous?”

Whoa, Nellie. “There’s no way I’m going to share my most guilty emotions publicly,”  I posted to the Quest 2015 community Facbook page.  Sorry, gang. I like this community writing and sharing, but I’m not going there. I don’t do darkness. I’m the positive, optimistic chick. And, good grief, what would people think if they knew my real dark side?

Todd replied to my “NO WAY!” right away.

Thank you for sharing this, Lois.  Let me share two thoughts from the science:

  1. Shared pain serves as social glue. And binds us into greater intimacy than almost anything else. Sharing our vulnerabilities is a sign of strength.
  2. What we know is anxiety, sadness, anger, embarrassment, guilt, and boredom aren’t the problems. Our unwillingness to be in contact with these emotions and our unwillingness to listen to the information they provide is the problem.

What if we made space for these uncomfortable thoughts and feelings and still moved in the direction of what matters most? What are our intuitive emotional reactions telling us that we can learn from?

You’ll be amazed at what happens when you are open to them. What if our deep dark secrets are the same as everyone else?

Getting real is really hard

So after a few hours, I wrote my “Dark Side” story, shared it with the group, and turned off the computer.

You can watch and praise Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability, but to lay bare your vulnerabilities is Really. Hard. Scary. Work. That’s why most people avoid it like an IRS Audit.

But guess what? Nothing bad happened. Only good. Ripping my soul open helped people see the real me.  Instead of judgment, I got encouragement and compassion, and a whole lot of love from people I have never met.  I’ve also seen some new light in my dark places.

All of this leads me to consider:

  • How can I show up more as my real self, making it safe for other people to come as they are?
  • How can I pay as much attention to the information from people’s emotions as I do to research data?
  • How can I more regularly call bullshit and invite people into honest conversations that need to be had to solve important problems?

Note:  Many of us rebels are good at calling BS, especially when we’re angry. But how could we call BS in a way that doesn’t whip up a shitstorm?  What skills can we put into practice so that we have honest conversations and not “I’m right, you’re wrong” debates with people who don’t agree with our ideas?

  • How as a society can we stop rewarding the bull shitters?

This is a one person at a time change, although some individuals can influence thousands. A recent client incident brings this alive for me.

The executive vice president of a Fortune 100 company was explaining the eight behaviors important to shaping their corporate culture.

“To be honest, I’m only good at these three behaviors, and I really struggle with these two,” he explained during a company Town Hall.

People’s reaction to his talk was off the “employee engagement” charts.
“I never heard an executive be that honest and self-aware – especially at this company. I thought this was going to be another BS session on vision and values. But this one executive changed my whole view about the company because he was so truthful,” an employee told me.

The gift of calling bullshit

In all honesty, I was upset with my college friend when he called my bullshit.  Today I realize he gave me an important gift.

– See more at: http://www.foghound.com/blog/2014/12/16/bah-humbug-a-year-of-bullshit/#sthash.j3sqMtjP.dpuf

Rebel Dangers: When your Boss Leaves

Readers of Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within keep providing us with ground truth and new insights about life as a rebel at work–many of which we wish we had included in our book. One of my favorites is this lament from a reader who is a longtime rebel at work. When a new boss took over his unit, he got the distinct impression that the new boss wasn’t fond of his work suggestions. As this reader wrote,

I feel like I’m being told to go sit in the corner and shut up!

Although it shouldn’t be this way, in most organizations rebel fortunes are tied to the personality and management style of a boss. As we discuss in our book, understanding your boss and gaining credibility are the first things rebels need to do. Life as a change agent is hard, and it gets even harder if you don’t have a plan and an order for your actions.

When your boss changes, you almost certainly will need to start over. New leaders are likely to be at least a bit insecure and therefore reluctant to continue activities they’re not comfortable with–i.e. they consider uncertain and/or risky. Don’t assume your new boss won’t have issues with what you’re doing. She will and it’s your job to gain her confidence. In our reader’s case, he senses that his boss is not comfortable with the “creative ideas that spill over into other domains than the one I’m technically responsible for.”

And that brings up another interesting dimension of being a rebel at work. Sometimes you’re shut down not because you have ideas for changing your own particular job, but because you have the interdisciplinary skills to offer ideas to help other parts of the organization. Rebels at work are often constrained by one-dimensional job descriptions and dysfunctional stovepipes. Rather than encourage individuals to contribute on issues they’re passionate about, many organizations prefer employees to stay in their own lanes. They do so so they can hit targets and have predictable results, but their “success” comes at a price: disengaged employees and unrealized potential.



Shame on you

Shame boyShame is one of those big, ugly words. It implies that detestable, dishonorable and hugely embarrassing acts have been committed.

Unlike embarrassment, shame is much more painful. Making a mistake can be embarrassing. Doing something immoral or disgraceful is shameful.

Carmen and I have written a lot about how uncomfortable it is to be a rebel at work, asking frank questions and suggesting new approaches that upset “business as usual.”

But we were truly taken aback during a recent workshop when we asked people about their biggest fears and so many started talking about SHAME. One, and then two and then several people said that their bosses had made them feel shameful for speaking up about issues in their workplaces.

Social scientists have done extensive research around the issue of why employees fear speaking up, coining terms like Organizational Silence, the Mum Effect, and the Spiral of Silence. (See the book “Voice and Silence in Organizations.”)

Despite the awareness of the problem and its causes, this fear of speaking up at work remains pervasive. Not because people are afraid of looking dumb or making people (and themselves) feel uncomfortable.

But because they are made to feel shameful by their bosses.

The Shame Game jpeg

The sad fact is that most people who speak up at work CARE about their organization more than most. They want to make things better. To consciously or unconsciously make them feel that speaking up is a disgraceful, improper act feeds a culture of fear and silence.

And no amount of money spent on employee engagement is going to fix that.

Perhaps managers’ 360 feedback surveys should ask questions like:

  • What do I do to make people feel comfortable raising uncomfortable issues about our organization?
  • How fearful are you about raising uncomfortable issues with me? (1 to 10 scale)
  • How often, if ever, have I made you feel guilty about speaking up and raising unpopular views?

And perhaps it’s time to write down questions  and comments that fly around the workplace that imply shame. Keep a list, and then share it with your boss or the corporate ombudsman or HR to have an honest conversation.

  • Why can’t you be a team player like everyone else around here? What’s your problem?
  • Do you really have to bring this up again? Why can’t you just let it go? All you’re doing is causing trouble and diverting us from our real work.
  • You should know better. Really, at your age and at this point in your career it’s kind of shocking that you can’t understand how the business really works.
  • You’re kidding me, right? You actually think that…

If we really care about our organizations, we’ll continue to suggest ways to improve – however uncomfortable they may be.

We rebels may also have to be the ones to raise the need for developing an important organizational behavior: learning how to consider new ideas, without being defensive or resorting to destructive behaviors like shaming people.

And if people refuse to learn this skill and continue to make us feel shameful? Well, that’s a signal that it’s time to find a new job.





Jerry Garcia was a reluctant rebel

Jerry Garcia, Reluctant Rebel at Workjpeg

There’s a pervasive image of change makers as hell-bent, fire-breathing, go get ‘em cowboy (or Steve Jobs) types of people.

Not really. Most of us are incredibly reluctant to get involved.

Not because we don’t care. But because we often feel that solving the problem requires expertise far beyond what we know. And because we know how HARD it is to change things inside a company, a non-profit, our children’s school, or any organization that has been functioning a certain way for a while.

We keep thinking that the people with the expertise should see the problem and step in. But when it becomes clear that the people with the expertise aren’t seeing the issue or acting, we feel that we must.

The fact is most rebels care too much to sit around and let a problem fester.

So we reluctantly get involved, even when we don’t necessarily have the expertise to solve the problem.

When the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead got involved in efforts to save the rainforests he famously said:

“Somebody has to do something, and it’s just incredibly pathetic it has to be us, with all the other citizens of the planet, and all the other resources out there, but since no one else is doing anything about it, we don’t really have any choice.”

 In a 1989 interview with High Times  Garcia explained his reluctance.

HT: You’ve made the statement that you think it’s pretty pathetic that you’re the ones who have to do it.

JG: Yeah, it is. It’s an alarming feeling. This is an earth problem — the whole earth. And who’s left talking about it? Us.

Come on! We’re not the ones. We’re not qualified to do it. But we’re going to do it unless, or until, somebody else does. We’re going to keep working on it. We’re going to get as much support from as many people as we possibly can.

If we lose it (the rainforest), we’re not going to get it back. It’s definitely life threatening, in the same sense that atomic bombs are life threatening, only this one is mindless. It’s gone along and there’s nobody at the wheel. Out of control. Something needs to be done about it. We’re alarmed — we’re just making an effort to communicate our own alarm.

 Rebel theme: “Something needs to be done about this. I guess I need to be the one to get things started.”


Adults at Work

“This book was written for me. I need to get a copy!”

“I’ve been waiting for a book like this!”

“Wish I could have gotten this advice years ago.”

That’s what we’ve heard from individuals who’ve read Rebels at Work, at least those individuals who aren’t managers in large organizations.

From the managers, at least some of them, the reaction is a bit more….muted, shall we say.

“Why would I want my employees to make my life even more difficult?”

“Are you suggesting that my employees are always right?”

“The last thing I want to do is to encourage dissent in the workplace!”

And we wonder why why we have a crisis of Employee Engagement in the workplace. Although we suspect the problem is not that employees aren’t engaged in their work–at least in the beginning. All of the new entrants into the labor force we meet–mostly those frisky Millennials–are super excited to start contributing.

And yet somehow they become DISENGAGED.

Employee Engagement implies that the attitudes of the workers are the issue.

Employee DISENGAGEMENT may be more to the point. Something leads them to reassess their commitment and disconnect from their jobs. And one of the main causes of disengagement is the sense they get from their organizations that their views and contributions are not respected.

Note that I didn’t directly blame managers. Sure, they’re part of the organization, but I suspect there’s something deeper at play. In a nifty piece in Fast Company more than a year ago leadership consultant Michael Chayes argued that the scientific management principles that emerged at the start of the last century bear much of the blame. As a result of these principles:

Managers became the “adults,” planning for and directing the more “child-like” workers, who lacked the capacity to manage their own work lives. The resulting culture of business promoted high productivity, but at the expense of workers who became little more than “cogs in the system.”

Rebels at Work is the book for those who believe we can all be Adults at Work. It’s not anti-management. It’s pro-humans.


Bring your soul to work

Stone spiralThe malaise of work is a spiritual crisis.

Not spiritual in the religious sense. But spiritual in our yearning to have more joy, kindness, respect and compassion at work. Spiritual in our desire to grow our capacity to learn, help, care, imagine, forgive, and support others – and they us — when we push ourselves into the scary territory of doing new types of work. Spiritual in that we want to be devoted to our work, but not slaves to it.

To single handedly change corporate cultures is almost impossible. But perhaps what we can do is  bring our best selves to work, allowing our spiritual longings to run free, and in doing so, infect others.

By our best selves I mean doing work that matters to us. That we, for some reason, are truly good at. So good, in fact, you could say we become devoted to our work.

I don’t mean devoted to our company’s purpose. The reality is that most organizations don’t have an inspirational purpose that stirs our heart and soul. They’re about serving customers, making money, and hopefully, providing decent wages and an ethical work environment. You can search a whole lifetime to find an organization with a “meaningful purpose” and come up empty. Or you can find one with an inspiring purpose and walk into a cold, cynical culture.

 Rather than focus on company purpose, perhaps we should focus on personal devotion. By devotion I mean what you care about find great satisfaction in being able to do well.

A friend who works for a global transportation company felt trapped in a job that left him spiritually bereft.

“I just don’t feel like this company is changing the world in any meaningful way. I need more purpose at work. Some days I wish I could just paint more,” he said.

“You’re an artist!” I asked. Who knew.

Over dinner he told me how creativity is so important to him, and then we started exploring how he could bring more creativity to his work inside a big company. How he might be able to devote himself to developing creative product and service solutions. How maybe he could devote himself to creativity at work, period.

He’s now head of innovation and happier and more energized than I’ve seen him in the past 10 years. His spirit is infectious, too.

This is the wonderful thing about being devoted to your work. Your human spiritual workings – kindness, caring, compassion – grow and affect others at work, as well as your family and friends.

The frame of your devotion can also help you envision where to take your work, reaching beyond companies, functions and specialties.

What are you devoted to?

I’ve always been devoted to helping people, causes and companies be understood. This has taken me from working in marketing positions, advising industry leaders, serving on non-profit boards, coaching sales executives on big pitches, and volunteering on community issues. The devotion is the same. The application is different. The meaning is always there.

One of my brothers owns a sand and gravel company. For years I thought he was devoted to making big buckets of money. But I have come to appreciate how devoted he is to helping his largely uneducated, immigrant employees live the American dream. He works so much because his work is a spiritual — though he would never probably be comfortable in talking about it in this way.

With the publication of the new book a co-authored with Carmen Medina, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within, many people have asked me why I got involved in this topic. Rebels? Really?

Helping people in big organizations have their often-provocative ideas be understood fits my devotion.

Spiritual prophets at work?

The other reason is that people devoted enough to speak up for important and unpopular ideas may be the spiritual prophets at our workplaces. They bring courage, creativity, commitment and a belief that there’s always a way to improve work, making things better for people..

It’s hard to change the world or even our companies. But maybe, just maybe we can make work more spiritual by bringing our best selves to our work and positively affecting others.

The Latin meaning of devotion is vow.

What might happen if more of us vowed to do work that brings us alive?

The elephant in the room

More than elephants jpeg

Do Something

solve problems vs fixateInnovation managers from two Fortune 50 companies got together a few weeks ago and the conversation devolved into just how frustrating internal barriers are to getting anything substantive done.

Yesterday nurses from a prestigious Boston hospital group talked about patient care and the conversation turned to how impossible it is to improve health care because vice presidents are making decisions without any input from the people working directly with patients. In other words, the nurses.

These conversations can be pretty intense. There are enormous barriers to getting things done inside large organizations.

But talking over and over again about all the obstacles, politics and bureaucracy doesn’t help make anything better.  Nor does it make us feel better. Dwelling on what we can’t do saps us.

I asked the nurses what they had suggested to the vice presidents.  In what ways could the nurses be part of the VP discussions about important decisions affecting patients?


The nurses are so stuck in thinking that the “hierarchy is the hierarchy” that they hadn’t even considered proposing possible solutions.  ” What if,” I proposed, “you suggested that the nurses and VPs get together every three months for a session to discuss the issues and talk about different scenarios to consider?  Maybe you suggest doing this type of collaborative session twice as an experiment to see if it provides more value. If it works, it continues.  If it doesn’t the VPs can go back to their old ways.”

Wishing that things were different is a waste of time.

Similarly, one of the Fortune 50 innovation managers finally said, “Aren’t we wasting time wishing things could be different. What if we recognize how it really is and work on a success plan based on that reality?”

People across industries are frustrated with how hard it is do change things at work.  The opportunity for all of us  is to create possible solutions — regardless of our title or “rank” in the hierarchy — and suggest ways to test them out.

And maybe a way to get started is to NOT to focus on “disrupt the industry, change the world, innovate the business model” kind of ideas.

Sometimes big change starts just by getting the right people together — like hospital administrators and nurses — to talk about the real issues.

Magical thinking may lead people to believe that their thoughts by themselves can bring about effects in the world or that thinking something corresponds with doing it.

Andrew Colman, Dictionary of Psychology




The World Is Fast: An Ode to Daring Work

The world is fast.

Viral diseases.
Natural disasters.
Pop-up stores.
Food trucks.
Trending tweets.
Viral videos.
Bull markets.
Bear markets.
Sudden death.
Market crashes
Medical miracles.
Random collisions.
Unexpected introductions.
The three a.m. eureka.

We are slow.

Looking for proof.
Seeking certainty.
Denying our yearnings.
Discrediting our hunches.
Waiting for someone else.
Hoping for a hero.
Worrying about mistakes.
Seeing things through a warped lens.
Remembering before.
Longing for the predictable.

Take one step.

Then another.
Let go.
Dive in.

Feel the energy.

The wind helping you go faster.
The unusual friendships.
The laughter from the unexpected.

The surprise that you are safe.
The surprise that work is different.
The relief that you are relevant. Running rather than being dragged.

The world is fast and furiously asking us to take our feet off the brakes.

We are all skidding.

Take your foot off the brake.

Steer into your work.

Into your life.
Into the world.


Avoiding backlash

horses drawingThe fear of backlash silences so many people with great ideas.

While talking about Rebels at Work yesterday  a regional manager of an automotive parts company told me, “Lois I have plenty of good ideas on how to improve things at work and I know how to position ideas and connect them to what the company cares about.

“But if I  if I say anything the backlash will be horrible.  People’s careers are ruined for speaking up at my company. I just can’t risk my reputation.”


So here’s the deal. Don’t go it alone.


Find some allies who also believe there’s a way to solve the problem and together take it to your boss.  If there’s a handful of people supporting a new approach the boss is much more likely to consider the idea than if it’s just you, and there’s less likelihood of personal backlash.

Unfortunately it’s easy for a boss  to discredit one person who disagrees with the way the organization is being run.  “He’s over his head.  He doesn’t have enough experience. He’s such a damn know-it-all. Etc. Etc.   But to discredit five or 10 people?   Now the boss is paying attention.

If you really want to avoid backlash, get 10 percent of the people in your organization behind the idea.  Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of a population holds a strong belief, the belief will be adopted. (Here’s the link to the study.)

When you have to play corporate politics, play with a team.

Change myths and privileges

SupergirlWe hear a lot of stories here at Rebels at Work.

Many people are angry at not being heard. Some are sad that their organizations are on a bad downward spiral, with management rallying around what no longer works. Others have checked out of work and checked into being complacent and “just getting the paycheck.”

For a while the complacent ones got to me the most. To go to work every day and not give a rat’s ass just seems like giving up on life itself.

And the cynicism? Scorching. It would be tough to work with someone with that kind of negative mindset.

But the stories that get to me the most are the people who don’t try to change anything because of the CHANGE MYTH. These people believe that if you’re going to try to fix problems you need to be some sort of crusading take-no-prisoners, storm the ramparts hero.

You might imagine the type. A confident Steve Jobs wannabe talking about disruption, not backing down, go big or go home. The kind of person who doesn’t worry about failing, whether that means getting fired or quitting to find the next gig.

How did this change maker myth become so ingrained in our culture?

Has the Silicon Valley “failure is good” entrepreneurial spirit been taken as “the” way things work at work? Are people with good ideas becoming intimidated about stepping up because they are not Steve Jobs wannabes and they are afraid to fail and lose their jobs?

Last week Jen Meyers sent these two tweets that acknowledged the myth and, more importantly, acknowledged the fact that most people making change are doing so thoughtfully within the rules and corporate culture.

Jen Meyers Privilege jpeg

Because that’s how so much change happens. Bit by bit. Working with our co-workers vs. leaping from tall buildings in superhero change-maker capes.

If you’re a disruptor and get fired, your big idea dies. So much for heroism.

Whereas if you get smarter about working within the existing organizational culture, your idea actually has a better chance of happening. And you have a better chance of keeping your job.

(Because if we’re honest like Jen, we know that most of us can’t afford to walk away from our jobs. It’s not that simple.)

So maybe it’s useful to remember that having a good idea is easy. Being able to work with people willing to do the hard work to shepherd that idea through corporate politics, budget conflicts, and the often-messy rollout is a privilege.

A Rebel Handbook

Have you heard that Lois and I have a book coming out this fall, published by O’Reilly Media, called Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within? Needless to say, we’re trying to act really cool about it. I, for one, only bring it up three or four times a day in the course of ordinary conversation.

RAW cover

When I mention it, I get some interesting reactions. Just this weekend a friend of a friend and  I were chatting about it; he’s a successful businessman and lawyer. When I told him the title  and described the content he looked confused and said:

“And so you think corporations would actually pay you to come in and teach their employees  to be rebels?”

After thinking about it for a bit he offered me a new title: “Provocateurs at Work.”

I’m not sure that’s any less scary to large organizations than Rebels at Work. But what  interested me most about the conversation is the fact that my interlocutor, who would  probably describe himself as a libertarian, would get so queasy about the idea of helping  rebels inside large organizations. There it is again–that, to my knowledge unproven,  assertion that corporations operate best when employees conform.

There’s clearly a lot of work to be done.

Another conversation was with a friend whom I mention in the book, Clark, who has always been much more comfortable with conflict than I have ever been. Learning to deal with conflict in the workplace is such an important developmental for rebels that Lois and I devote an entire chapter to it. Although Clark never really thought of himself as a Rebel at Work, he does acknowledge that his honesty in the workplace probably cost him some plum jobs in his career, assignments he wanted and deserved. Honesty at work is not career-enhancing, he said. But a need to be honest and say what needs to be said is a key driver for rebels in the workplace. As Lois and I write in our introduction:

Every day people in all kinds of jobs at all kinds of workplaces reach the point where they say, “Enough.” While every rebel’s reason for stepping up differs, almost all start with the same uncomfortable realization: “I have to do something about this.”

Train Wrecks

Train wreckAfter hearing about the release of “Rebels at Work” next month a friend told me that we should write a prequel called “Train Wrecks.”

“There are so many stories about messes at work that could have been avoided if managers had listened to employees.  It never fails to amaze me at how long managers can deny a problem.”

You don’t have to look far to find train wrecks at work — where good rebels warned that the train was going to go off the rails.

  • Financial train wrecks: How have big banks been able to get away with outrageous behavior, creating rippling financial shitstorms? The New York Fed, the chief U.S. bank regulator, created a culture where raising problems and asking questions was shunned. When Carmen Segarra, one of its regulators assigned to Goldman Sachs, actually went about doing her job — thinking that her and her employer’s  job was to fix the financial system — she got fired.  This September 26, 2014 ProPublica article is a great read about how culture, consensus, and discrediting good rebels have allowed our financial system to become a train wreck: Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash.
  • Automotive train wrecks: Yesterday General Motors issued its 76th recall of 2014, calling back 7,600 police vehicles because they could roll away when drivers thought they were in park.  Following an internal GM investigation earlier this year,  CEO Mary Barra said, “The lack of action was a result of broad bureaucratic problems and the failure of individual employees in several departments to address a safety problem.… Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch.”  GM knew about the ignition switch safety issue for 10 years before they issued a recall. My guess is that good rebels in GM raised the problems — and their bosses failed to act on that information.
  • Health care train wrecks: As reported by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, there were many instances where nurses at Rhode Island Hospital warned surgeons about patient issues and procedures only to be told to shut up.  “If I want your damn  opinion I’ll ask for it. Don’t ever question my authority again,” a doctor said to a nurse who questioned the appropriateness of a surgical procedure. “If you can’t do your job, get the hell out of my OR.”  Only after several reported incidences of surgical errors, like operating on the wrong side of a patient’s head, did the hospital address its corrosive culture, a culture where good rebel nurses were habitually dismissed by surgeons. Talk about a modern day caste system.

Being an optimistic type who likes to create solutions rather than muck around in problems, I’ll probably never write a book about train wrecks.  One reason is that it would a really long book to write.

The real reason, though, is that I think my time is better spent helping positive people inside organizations band together and get their ideas heard before the emerging problems cause real damage. Plenty of researchers, academics, books, and consultants help executives. Not many help employees on the front lines.

Here at Rebels at Work, we’re all about supporting the people who care enough to say,  “Houston, we have a problem.






If you’re not part of the problem….

“Bill Torbert of Boston College once said to me that the 1960s slogan “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” actually misses the most important point about effecting change. The slogan should be,:

“If you’re not part of the problem, you can’t be part of the solution.”

If we cannot see how what we are doing or not doing is contributing to things being the way that they are, then logically we have no basis at all, zero leverage, to change the way things are — except from the outside, by persuasion or force.”

Adam Kahane, author of Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking, Listening and Creating New Realities

Labor Day

I ran into a good friend yesterday at the grocery store. We were both off for Labor Day. This friend tells me about some advice a colleague had provided just the other day on leadership and management.

“The job of the worker” this person had said “is to make their management look good and succeed.”

We were both stunned that people still said that, let alone thought it. My friend said:

“The dignity of the worker is so often overlooked in today’s leadership discussions. Everything is about the leader setting the vision, but often the workers know better what’s going on and how to make things better.”

I told my friend about Rebels at Work and how we think of ourselves as a resource for workers. Dignity is often a concern for Rebels at Work, who don’t want to lose theirs as they try to get their ideas a fair hearing. Too often organizations act as if they’re doing workers a favor by listening to them.

“At today’s townhall, we really want to hear from you!”

My experience is such calls are usually met with prickly silence.

“If you always wanted to hear from me, you wouldn’t need to make such a big deal of it today.”

So, Dear Leadership, if you really expect workers to make you look good, you might try paying attention to them. Hear them. All the time, not on special days determined by the corporate calendar.

You know, they might just help you succeed.

Millennials at Work

Triumph-gabriele25    “I’ll never have as many new ideas as I do now, and yet no one wants to listen to me.”

“What really bothers me is the lack of honesty. When they interviewed me they said they  were interested in my creativity and new   ideas, and yet now that I’m on the job, I realize  that if I challenge the way things are done, I’ll just get slapped.”

“I really want to help the government do better, but I’m afraid of getting trapped in a  bureaucracy.”

“He told me to be quiet and wait my turn. And in 20 years I’d be in a position to change  things. And so I left.”

This is how many Millennials describe to us their experiences and fears about today’s workplace. They care about making a difference, but just aren’t prepared to sacrifice their souls in the process. They’ve heard all the talk about how they have unrealistic expectations and should just wait their turn and pay their dues.  But what should they do, they ask us, if they think they have good ideas right now? Why doesn’t the organization want to take advantage of new ideas and fresh thinking during such times of disruptive innovation?

Why indeed! Although Lois and I are decades past our entry points into the workforce, we both recall acutely how it felt when we first realized that the organizations we worked for weren’t necessarily interested in our best ideas. Some of our best ideas were horrible or naïve or both, but a few of them weren’t so bad really.

The cost for organizations of ignoring the ideas of your new hires seems much higher today. When I started work in 1978, the technology in my office hadn’t changed in 20 years, maybe not even since World War II. I wrote on an old typewriter that had been around for years. I used a land line. And a ball point, although if you were really cool you insisted on a fountain pen. Today, however, Millennials bring into most work places a native familiarity with new ways of thinking and doing that organizations say they really want and need. It really doesn’t even make sense to ask them to wait five years for their voices to matter, let alone 20.

You can even make the case that if organizations really want to boost their creativity and innovation, they should go out of their way to harvest the ideas of their younger, newer employees. After all, young men and women in their 20s have given birth to some of the most convention-shattering ideas in human history.

  • Einstein was 26 when he published his paper on the theory of relativity.
  • Isaac Newton postulated the theory of gravity when he was 23.
  • The founding generation of the United States was famously young. On 4 July 1776, Betsy Ross was 24, Nathan Hale 21, James Madison 25, and Tom Jefferson was 33. (Ben Franklin of course was 70!)
  • A 27-year old Coco Chanel opened her first boutique in France.
  • JK Rowling got the idea for Harry Potter at the age of 25.
  • By the time he was 25, Mark Zuckerburg had been running Facebook for five years.
  • And it was a 29 year-old Elon Musk who founded the company that would eventually become Paypal.

These individuals either worked outside organizations or founded them. I suspect, in fact, that a correlation exists between the growth and importance of organizations in the last 100 years and the popularity of concepts such as paying your dues and biding your time.

So while we have a tendency to write about individuals who have been struggling for many years to make organizational change happen, it’s time to acknowledge that you can find yourself a Rebel at Work within the first few weeks of your first job. Those “wiser and older” will tell Millennials to just cool it. But the better option for the smart organization may be to ask Millennials to “bring it on.”

Rocking the Boat without Falling Out

The Many Faces of Bureaucratic Black Belts

We’ve written about Bureaucratic Black Belts over the years, and even distinguished one subtype–the benevolent bureaucratic black belt. But we’re thinking there’s a lot more to be said about BBB’s and more subtypes to discover. We’ll start by identifying three archetypes we’ve been thinking about but we know there’s many more. We welcome your contributions.

First, let’s remind ourselves of who BBB’s are and what they do. Bureaucratic Black Belts are those individuals in an organization who have mastered all the ins and outs of both its bureaucratic rules and bureaucratic culture. They are frequently the Professor Moriarty to the Rebel Sherlock, a clever operator, a bureaucratic mastermind, who understands the bureaucracy much better than the Rebel at Work. Asked to figure out how to accomplish a particular goal, they can, like an excellent navigation system, identify multiple routes through the bureaucracy. What they’re usually not so good at is coming up with an original destination. Many BBB’s act as if maneuvering the bureaucracy is its own reward, like solving an English garden maze where, when you’re done, you’re right back where you started from. Most BBB’s believe, almost without thinking, that preservation, sameness, and symmetry are the ultimate purposes of organizational life.

Three BBB archetypes we’ve been thinking about:

The Wind-Surfers. Wind-Surfers are somewhat rare, we think, because they pair strong personal ambition with bureaucratic finesse. Unlike many BBBs who are support/administrative specialists, Wind-Surfers usually directly execute the organization’s mission. Their strong personal ambitions have led them to figure out every possible angle to ascend the hierarchy. Although early in their careers they often held convictions about how the organization could improve, over time and usually, in our estimation, without conscious awareness, their instincts for climbing to the top sublimated their desire to improve mission execution. Of course, they would deny this if confronted and insist they are just playing for the right time and opportunity. But the opportunity clock never seems to strike. And in the meantime their views on what the organization needs to do shifts with the prevailing leadership winds.

The organizational astuteness of Wind-Surfers is always prized by more adventurous leaders in the organization, who need the support of BBBs to get their own initiatives implemented. Wind-Surfers are always happy to do the bidding of those above them in the hierarchy, but are reluctant to back any new ideas that came from below them in the organization.

The Tugboat Pilots. These BBB’s make their mark in the organization through their ability to navigate any difficult organizational terrain, whether it be new leadership, bad publicity, or new administrations.  Like mountain goats, their first step, i.e. their first bureaucratic response, is always spot-on. They can recall every detail of the organization’s history and leverage it to their advantage.

Tugboat Pilots are masters of context and of reading people. They seem to have recognized early on in their careers that their innate skills were best suited to guiding others, and they embraced that mission with enthusiasm and sincerity. Tugboat Pilots are motivated to arrange productive meetings for the organization, thus Rebels at Work should always consider their advice. Unlike Wind-Surfers, Tugboat Pilots do not become BBBs because of their desire to advance their careers; most of them see themselves as the guardians of the organization’s well-being. They have watched several leaders come and go and so understand the damage that even good intentions could cause and know not to get too caught up in any one change agenda. Tugboat Pilots are among the best BBB’s for rebels at work to befriend. If they believe your intentions are good, that you too are motivated more by helping the organization than by ego, there’s a good chance they will try to help you. But beware, the instincts of Tugboat pilots are likely to be more conservative than yours. Taking a chance in dangerous waters is just not their style. Keep that in mind when deciding how much of their advice to take on board.

Bureaucratic Green Belts. We think this type of BBB, actually a BGB, can do more good than harm. We call them green belts because, while they are masters of one particular set of bureaucratic processes, they are not defenders of the entire bureaucracy and have not yet adopted a complete organizational mindset. In fact some bureaucratic green belts never become BBBs, and instead devote their careers to defending just the particular processes they own, sometimes from the rest of the organization.

Rebels at Work can too easily dismiss Bureaucratic Green Belts, who often can have important insight into the implementation risks of their proposals. Rebels at Work can assume that green belts won’t understand their vision but instead we’ve found that they can relish applying their knowledge and skills to an entirely new set of puzzles. If a rebel change agenda touches upon some of the processes that a green belt owns, some early conversations with that individual can win you some important insights and warn you of problematic aspects of your ideas.

OK–now it’s your turn. What types of BBBs have you encountered?

In a world without rebels

The Giver movie poster jpegWe teach our children about the importance of free speech and the dangers of group think, encouraging them to read novels about frightening futuristic societies like George Orwell’s 1984 where the Ministry of Truth’s real mission is to falsify historical events and spin propaganda.

Or Lois Lowry’s The Giver world where pain, fear, intense love and hatred have been eliminated and there’s no prejudice because people look and think the same.

And yet, in our schools and at our workplaces “group think” is subtly and not so subtly rewarded and those who question decisions and advocate for different and better ways are ignored, ostracized, or fired. (One of the most popular blog posts in the Rebels at Work community is “When You’re Thrown Under the Bus.”)

Our systems —  be they companies, schools, churches, government agencies or health care organizations — become rigid and brittle, sometimes even dangerous, without rebels with the courage to say, ”This isn’t the right way,”

Government managers obsess on protecting their budgets and headcount and lose sight of what citizens want or need. Religious leaders turn an eye to child abuse.People anesthetize themselves with alcohol or junk food at the end of the workday to dull the pain of feeling like a meaningless cog in the system, where “no one cares what I have to say.” Companies, even those “too big to fail,” fail every day, leaving people out of work and dashing the dreams of those who loved their work.

The dangers of a world without rebels are often more specific, as well.

Most famously, government agency managers from NASA refused to listen to engineers’ warnings and The Challenger space shuttle blew to smithereens killing seven crew members and shutting down the space program for almost three years.

Most recently, General Motors’ corporate culture suppressed the voices of concerned employees, who were alarmed about safety issues. Speaking up at meetings was just not safe. In 2014 the auto manufacturer was forced to admit that it knew about an ignition switch safety issue for more than 10 years before it issued a recall. While executives ignored the voices of its rebels at work, at least 54 crashes and up to 100 people died. As 2014 unfolded General Motors issued 47 more recalls covering more than 20 million vehicles.

How could this happen when people inside these organizations knew about the risks? Welcome to a world where rebels are shunned and the authorities’ desire to make the world adhere to internal plans and magical thinking rather than real-world realities can create irrational decisions, crazy behavior and very unfortunate outcomes.

Following an internal investigation into the safety issues GM CEO Mary Barra told employees, “The lack of action was a result of broad bureaucratic problems and the failure of individual employees in several departments to address a safety problem…Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch.”

This was not the fault of employees, but the fault of GM’s culture and leadership to make it safe for employees to speak up. The Bureaucratic Black Belts ruled the roost, focusing more on GM internal politics than on the safety of people buying its vehicles.

In a world without rebels broad bureaucratic problems like GM’s flourish, and the result is complacency, stagnant growth, and sometimes even worse things, like horrific accidents.

If our current workplaces were a novel or movie, we’d be looking for new protagonists

If our current workplaces were a novel, we might want to stop reading. “Good grief, people’s souls are being sucked dry, danger is lurking everywhere and no one seems to care. I can’t take much more of this.” As we tried to keep reading we’d be hoping that a hero or underdog would show up fast and help turn things around. “Please, please, someone get in there and solve the problems that are staring everyone in the face. Somebody do SOMETHING.”

Fortunately, there are more and more rebels  doing something where they work to turn things around —  with or without having positions of authority. Rebels are not heroes, because no one person can create change alone. But rebels have many hero attributes – optimism, courage, smarts, tenacity, and earnestness.

It’s encouraging to see so many communities springing up to help rebels — our Rebels at Work, Corporate Rebels United, Change Agents Worldwide.

Let’s write the next chapter about work where change makers are seen as vital to success as any technology or process or highly-paid executive. Maybe even more so.

Not everyone in an organization needs to be a rebel, but all organizations need their rebels.


Communicating new ideas

clarity illustration

Most rebels do a great job at bringing passion and enthusiasm when talking about their ideas, which is essential for getting people’s attention. In addition to this positive energy, there are a handful of communications fundamentals to master so that people understand your idea, consider its merits, and lend their support.

Show what’s at stake

To get people’s attention, frame your idea in terms of what people care about. Show how the idea relates to what they want.

If there’s nothing at stake, if there are no emotionally compelling risks or rewards for acting on your idea, people will probably ignore it. A common mistake we’ve seen is that people launch into the details of how their new idea will work before doing the much more important work of communicating why it matters so much.

So step one is jolting people awake to understand why your idea matters so much to what’s important to them. The more relevant your idea is to what everyone wants to achieve, the more likely people will consider it. The more your idea rescues people from a fear or frustration that is getting more acute every day, the more they will consider it. Similarly, the more widely and/or deeply felt the issue or topic, the more likely people will consider it.

Paint a picture of what could be

Emotions get people to consider an idea and influence decisions. Paint a picture of how your idea creates a better situation. Expose the gap between how things work today and how they could work. Make the status quo unappealing.

Paint a picture of how much better things will be with your ideas in place. You want to make the status quo unappealing and the alternative a much better option, so much better that it will be worth the work to get there. Walk people through how things will work differently with your new approach. Help them feel this new way of doing things, evoking a positive emotional response. Remember: people make decisions based on emotions, either the desire to flee from pain or to seek relief and rewards.

Show that the idea can work

Highlight what it will take to be successful and where the greatest risks lie. Show the milestones that will need to be achieved. This demonstrates that you’ve done your homework and thought through the risks, uncertainties, and practicalities.  People support ideas (and people) that they think will be successful.  

Show the gap between the ideal and where things are today, and briefly highlight the milestones for closing the gap and getting to the ideal. Avoid communicating all the details. You don’t want or need to drill down into specific details in a meeting where you’re trying to get buy in and support. We’ve seen too many great concepts die an early death because the blizzard of “how it will work” details buried big idea.

You do, however, need to have done your research so that the milestones you present are realistic, doable, and make sense based on how things get done where you work. This makes people comfortable. It helps them see that while anything new is fraught with uncertainty, you have been thinking about the risks and have thought about ways to minimize them.

Build support

Mobilize people to support the idea. If 10% of the people in an organization believe in an idea, it is highly likely it will be adopted.

Before doing any formal presentations, talk with people you like and trust at work about the “what’s at stake” and “what could be.”

Communicating a new idea is about developing relationships, learning from others, asking for their help in making the idea better, and enlisting their support to be able to make the idea happen. A mistake rebels make is thinking that the way to get an idea approved is to present it to the management team, which will either say yes or no.

The way to bring an idea to life is helping people see the value in the idea for them, and asking them to help be part of the effort. Socialize your idea with many people, and work hard to get those one or two first followers who will also take ownership of the idea and start to talk about it.   The first followers provide credibility to you and the idea and often can be more influential than anyone in positional authority.

Once the first followers get behind the idea, work together to influence 10 percent of the people in your organization.

Why 10 percent? Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of the people in a group believe in an idea, the majority of the people will adopt their belief

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” says Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

If there are 200 people in your organization, that means you need to get 20 people behind your idea, willing to stand up to the powers that be to say, “We should do this.” With just 20 people supporting an idea, it is likely to be adopted. That’s not so daunting, is it?

Even if there are 1,000 people in your department or community, 10 percent support means 100 people. Not all 1,000: you need just 100 to get leadership’s attention, interest others in considering an alternative new way,  and get funding for an experiment.

So create a tribe or community, not just a PowerPoint presentation. Being a rebel is not about being a hero or lone wolf; it’s about creating better ways to work with and for our co-workers. The energy, ideas and support from a collaborative group are much more

Be positive and succinct

Show enthusiasm, but don’t get so carried away talking that you fail to listen for others’ thoughts and good ideas. How we communicate is as important as what we communicate.

When you embark on your effort to change THAT WHICH REFUSES TO BUDGE, act as if success is just around the corner. Be cheerful! Be emotional! Show some enthusiasm. There’s nothing less appealing than a dour reformer.

On the other hand, don’t let your enthusiasm turn you into a boor. We’ve all probably sat through presentations where the person drones on and on. There are flow charts, project timelines, quotes, charts so detailed that you can hardly read them, and a running commentary that never stops for ideas or questions. Don’t be that person.

And if people don’t like what you have to say?

If you’ve communicated clearly about how to solve a relevant problem and people don’t like your ideas, it’s wise to pause and assess whether the issue is important enough to keep going, despite the lukewarm reception.

If the answer is, “Yes, this change effort can make a big difference,” or “The organization is at risk if it doesn’t move in this area,” it’s time to learn one of the most important rebel lessons of all: how to navigate controversy and conflict.

What else?

What else, rebel friends, have you found to be helpful in communicating new ideas inside your organization?

Jill Abramson: Rebel at Work?

Most of our focus at rebelsatwork.com is on employees trying to make change from below. They have it rough and don’t have many resources to help them. But we recognize that not infrequently the Rebel at Work can also be a manager, even a leader of an organization. Steve Jobs, of course, comes immediately to mind. Often leaders try to prod their organization to a better future by painting a vision of a new business model only to struggle to push everyone there. When I was in the Intelligence Community trying to do something similar, I would often refer to the Keystone Kops to illustrate our challenge. In the silent Keystone Kops one-reelers, there’s often a scene where a truck of Kops in pursuit of dastardly criminals turns a sharp corner and several of the Kops fly off. My goal, I would tell people, was to turn our sharp corner but keep everyone on the truck. We’re all getting there together.hungarian20cops1

Easier said than done. Last week the New York Times fired their editor, Jill Abramson, and charges have been flying around ever since as to the reasons why. I don’t know why, of course, but I was struck by the analysis provided by another prominent female editor, Susan Glasser, editor of Politico Magazine. In her article, Glasser posits that Abramson, and the editor of Le Monde, who was also forced out last week, were caught up in the strong backlash that can often beat down a leader trying to take their obstinate organization to a place it doesn’t think it needs to go. Glasser can’t prove her conjecture, but she writes convincingly of her own predicament when she tried to lead the Washington Post to a digital future. Glasser’s description of what confronted her is painful to read.

In the course of my short and controversial tenure in the job, I learned several things, among them: 1) print newspapers REALLY, REALLY didn’t want to change to adapt to the new digital realities; 2) I did not have the full backing of the paper’s leadership to carefully shepherd a balky, unhappy staff of 100 or so print reporters and editors across that unbuilt bridge to the 21st century;”

She goes on to write:

I have no wish to relitigate a painful past episode by writing this, except to say what I learned about myself: It was not the right fight for me, and I didn’t really have the stomach for waging the bureaucratic war of attrition that is the fate of the institutionalist in a time of unsettling change. I had always chafed at the constraints and processes and internal politics of a venerable and proud place. Was I the right person for that job at that time? Clearly not, and I was happy once the ordeal was over, and grateful for the support I received from so many people. I learned that I liked to invent more than reinvent, that it is a better fit for me to create something new than to try to save something old.”

That last sentence brought tears to my eyes. I would rather create something new than try to save something old. This realization occurs to so many rebels just at the moment they decide to give up. But I suspect most rebels, perhaps even Glasser, are not being completely honest with themselves. My guess is that they really would rather save, revive something old, but that the personal cost of it just becomes unbearable. Or they are removed because when it comes right down to it, too many people expect change to be easy and not controversial. Even when rebels get “top cover”, it is flimsy and easily blown away by the complaints from those who will not be moved.

Much of the criticism of Abramson reminds me of our now almost infamous Good Rebel, Bad Rebel chart. Lois and I have mixed feelings about the chart because it oversimplifies a complex subject. Many rebels have qualities on both sides of the spectrum. And sometimes rebels do have to employ the black arts. Lacking the ability to change minds, they focus instead on trying to create immutable facts on the ground. Rebels who are not also leaders almost never succeed this way. And what we’ve learned once again is that being a rebel leader doesn’t guarantee success.

gd. vs. bad rebels July 2012


Aarrr!! Talk Like a Rebel

If you follow me on Twitter, (@milouness) you may have noticed this great piece I linked to last weekend on The Origins of Office Speak. It appeared in the Atlantic and was written by Emma Green. It not only fills you in on Management Lingo but also serves as a quick tutorial on the history of scientific management and the consulting profession in general. One theme that runs through this history is the slow realization over the last 100 years by business managers and consultants that human beings are most productive when you treat them as real people, not resources. What a concept!! My favorite quote in the piece was from Professor Joanne Ciulla of the University of Richmond.

Attempts at engineering appropriate attitudes and emotions can actually undercut genuine feelings for a company.

The article got me to thinking whether there is such a thing as Rebel Lingo. You know things that Rebels at Work say when they are trying to win support for their change initiatives that actually have the opposite effect. As Lois pointed out on our Facebook page last week, it is vital for rebels to paint pictures of where they want to go in a succinct way that appeals to what is most relevant to the executives in your organization. That is not compromising your principles by the way; this is understanding human psychology and keeping it real.

So here is my short list of phrases rebels need to try to avoid. Do I avoid them all the time? No! As I’ve learned, most cliches became so because they contained a kernel of truthiness. But as a general practice, Rebels need to talk about specific ideas and changes, not high-falutin’ concepts. We welcome any additions to the list.

Burning Platform: Call the Fire Department! This phrase was born out of the belief that people will resist change until you give them a compelling reason to do so. But I’ve learned that what you think is a burning platform is often their sunny beachfront property The Rebel has to have some compelling arguments to prove that the status quo completely lacks feck. It rarely does. The truth is most people resist being changed…period.

Working Group: “Let’s form a working group!” is that seemingly innocent phrase that brings the 2+ hour meeting to a close when no one has any other good ideas for what to do next. Managers often resort to the working group tactic as well, which alone should give Rebels pause. Remember: Working Groups are groups that do NO work.

Ostrich, sand, head, butt: Never put these words together in a sentence. They don’t win you any supporters.

Change Agent: Never introduce yourself in meetings as a Change Agent. Don’t let anybody call you that either. Rebels at Work do not get a 10% cut off the top of all change initiatives. We aren’t agents at all. We actually believe in what we are doing.

End State: This always makes me think of Death. Also it reflects an unattractive hubris on part of the Rebel. The rebel’s ideas are not the end state of the organization; in a few short years (months) your ideas will be overtaken by much better ones. It is the way of the world. Innovation (another word to use infrequently) is not about a program to implement one new idea or even a set of new ideas; innovation means permanently removing the barriers to entry for all new ideas.

Think Out of the Box:  Aaargh! Please don’t ask people to think out of the box. I once heard a senior leader say that he enjoyed being in a box. It was a much safer place to be.

Paradigm Shift: It is a shame that Thomas Kuhn’s useful concept is now so tired and overused that its deployment in any meeting immediately chills the air and causes butts to shift in their seats as if perhaps an ostrich were involved. Remember: Change agents use working groups to shift paradigms.


Be prepared


“I read your bio and watched your video about rebels,” the CEO said to me yesterday during our first meeting. “I just want to let you know that we squash that kind of person around here.”

What an interesting introduction to a company hiring me to facilitate their growth strategy planning.  Like all good change agents, I was curious about why this executive disliked those brave souls who bring up new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.

“I just can’t stand it when people throw out these big, radical ideas and haven’t thought them through or done any research.  You can’t just say, ‘We should move into this market or expand into this new product category.’  What are the implications to operations?  What kind of sales support will we need? What will it take to hire and train the right people?  What will be the impact on cash flow?  When might we see a return? One year? Five years? Ten years?   I realize you can’t have all the answers, but when someone presents an idea they better have done some homework or they’ll lose all credibility.”

The lesson: rebels and change makers need to do their homework, be prepared, and understand how to sequence their ideas. As Carmen wrote in the post “Top Ten Mistakes of Rebels at Work:”

Mistake #2. Putting things in the wrong order.

Ironically, successful Rebels at Work must be able to mimic good bureaucrat behavior. Specifically, they have to approach their change agenda in a disciplined fashion and make careful and thoughtful decisions about how they will sequence their activities. What do they need to do first; what can come next; what can only be attempted after they have reached a critical mass of supporters.

A common rebel sequencing error, one in fact which I’ve been guilty of more than once, is advertising your reform intentions before you have assessed the organizational landscape in which you are operating. In the government making your goals public before you have a firm action plan only gives fair warning to all those who will oppose you.  They will sharpen their passive-aggressive claws to stop you before you even get started. There’s much for a rebel to do before they give fancy speeches or—God forbid—put together their Powerpoint deck.


How to be a rebel in the workplace and survive

This post was written by Tom Siebert for Aol Jobs.

Rebels are sexy. Rebels are cool. Rebels are not always welcome in the workplace. In fact, if you’re a rebel in the workplace, it’s often a small step to becoming a martyr for the workplace, says Lois Kelly.

“Rebels’ velocity scares people,” says Kelly, an author (Beyond Buzz) and former PR professional, who runs the website RebelsatWork.com, with the former deputy director of intelligence for the CIA (!) Carmen Medina, now a Deloitte consultant.

The pair appeared together at South by Southwest last month to “show rebels how to lead change from within [a company or organization] without committing career suicide.”

Kelly and Medina offer these 20 ways “to be a more effective rebel,” and effect positive change without ending up roadkill for a cause:

1. Be positive: People may listen to a nag, but no one will follow them.

2. Frame it: Don’t just make a point. Build a narrative around it.

3. Stay out of drama: Life isn’t a television show. The more straightforward your cause, the less you dramatize it, the better off your message will be.

4. Judge ideas, not people: Someone you dislike may well have good points to be made; listen to them.

5. When angry, stop and wonder why: Are you angry for the right reasons? Are you personalizing what’s made you angry?

6. Strive for influence, not power: In the end, influencers carry the greater power.

7. Start the flame, tap into the collective brilliance of others to fan the flame: The whole object of being a rebel is to draw others to your cause; when you do, don’t be greedy.

8. Share the glory: See above.

9. Communicate in ways that create clarity from complexity: Keep your points simple and easy to understand. Once the basic points are grasped, you can go deeper.

10. Address the cost/value tradeoff: There’s no free lunch. Even if your idea is genius, there will be repercussions. Don’t flinch from them; people will appreciate the honesty.

11. Let ideas breathe: A good idea can be made better by room to roam.

12. Pick the right boss or executive sponsor: A powerful ally is a wonderful thing. Conversely, a manipulative or weak ally can sink you.

13. Ask good questions; become a good listener: Hearing people out builds alliances and may evolve a good idea to a better one.

14. Learn how to facilitate messy collaboration: Working together ain’t easy, but great things can come from it.

15. Address the fears: Change scares people. Reassure them.

16. Show how success can be measured: This puts your money where your mouth is, and can provide indisputable proof that you should be heard.

17. Learn how to have constructive conversations: Get to the point. Take criticism in good faith.

18. Be thoughtful in all you do: Rebels need to watch their words and actions, because there’ll always be someone looking to trip them up for the status quo.

19. Know when to walk away: You’ll live to fight another day.

20. Believe you are enough: No one’s perfect, but you can be your own hero.

3 D’s of Change: Dream, Discover, Deliver

Don’t Worry. Be Gritty!

By now almost everyone has seen or heard Pharrell Williams’ infectious, monster song “Happy!” But as I mentioned to our audience at the recent Rebels at Work panel at South by Southwest Interactiverebelsatwork, 25 years ago there was another infectious song about being happy–Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry be Happy. It was just as popular as Pharrell’s monster hit and probably even more infectious.

What kind of advice was that for rebels, I thought. Don’t Worry Be Happy. Pretty pollyannish if you ask me! Likely to be met by hollow, derisive laughter. Real Rebels at Work determined to make change are unlikely to just whistle away their setbacks. Instead they’ll look for another opportunity and try to learn from their mistakes.

Or as Angela Lee Duckworth–the University of Pennsylvania professor who just won a MacArthur Foundation fellowship for her psychology research–puts it, successful people in any discipline or profession share one common quality–GRIT! In her view grit has two important dimensions; first is the positive habit of being resilient in the face of failure or adversity. But grit without a cause is rather pointless. According to Duckworth, the other half of grit is having focused passions over a long time. Resilience and passion–the two defining characteristics of a Rebel at Work.

Grit clearly is an admirable quality but in my view it doesn’t have the happiest of auras. Being gritty conjures up clenched teeth, sweaty palms, and a touch of anxiety. Can a Rebel at Work be gritty and happy? I think so and here are some ways how:

Have more conversations about solutions than about the problems. Too many Rebels at Work, including me, fall in love with the problems of their organization and can’t stop obsessing about them. Do an inventory for yourself–I think you’ll be surprised by your own positive to negative ratio. Resolve yourself to talk more about solutions than about problems. Just try it sometime. Even think about divorcing your ideas for change from any discussion of the problem. When you introduce your change idea, don’t connect it to what’s negative in your organization. Connect it to a more prosperous future. (I know this is the opposite of a burning platform but I’ve never been too fond of that metaphor myself.)

Do your homework about your ideas for change. There is nothing worse for a Rebel at Work than to introduce an idea only to be informed that the same initiative was tried years ago and failed miserably. Not knowing the history of reform in your organization is a rookie error for rebels. If you think the idea still has merit, by all means pursue it. But being gritty should mean avoiding unforced errors by taking care of the details ahead of time.

Have a trusted ally who can help you be gritty. We’ve written often about the need for rebels not to go it alone. Having colleagues who support you is essential. But to succeed at being a gritty rebel, it’s important to have someone who can talk you down when you’re about to go ballistic. Grit means you don’t indulge your temper, no matter how good it might feel in the short term. Before you tell people what you really think of them, talk to that trusted ally first. You’ll be much happier.

Know how to pivot. Rebels at Work invariably have more than one idea for how their company or agency can improve. Moving on to a new idea when your first one hits too many roadblocks is a much more effective “gritty move” than continuing to pound your head against the organizational granite.

Develop a realistic timetable. How long will it take to get your ideas accepted in your organization? Well, that’s a function of both your organization’s resistance to change and your idea’s distance from current norms. But knowing how long your change initiative might take will make you more patient and help you be gritty and happy at the same time.

Laugh it off. When I think back on some of my rebel episodes now, they’re just kind of funny. I wish I could have had that perspective at the time. It would have been healthier for me. Finding the humor in your rebel journey is a powerful way to gain the perspective that will allow you to be gritty. Pick a trusted ally who can help you do that.

Don’t worry. Be gritty!


Bad rebel doing good

BoomIs there a place for the “bad” rebel — the person who storms into an organization and bulldozes his or her change agenda?

Usually, no.  But there are exceptions. Like the superintendent of an urban city school system.

Rather than slowly roll out his change initiatives by building relationships and developing coalitions of support, this educator introduced a dizzying number of reforms and new practices in a very short time in what some would say was an autocratic way.

Rather than be humble and patient, introducing change in small bites, he pushed forward big, bold ideas that set off bureaucratic fireworks among school administrators, teachers, parents, unions and the public.

That he was perceived as an “outsider” didn’t help, either. “He doesn’t know how things work in our part of the country,” many of his opponents told me.

“Why are you alienating so many people with your ideas,” I asked him.

“Superintendents of large urban school systems have a tenure of about three years  — at most,” he said. “If I want to have any impact on improving education in this city I need to get as many important initiatives going as possible in the hope that something will stick before I’m asked to leave.’

Sure enough, 18 months later there was a shift in politics and he was no longer superintendent.

Have some of his ideas stuck?  Yes.  As much as he would have liked? No.

If we want to create change and keep our jobs, building support and sequencing our change programs is essential.  If your position is precarious and the cause important, you may need to move fast and bold, trying to get as much “good” adopted, knowing that many will try to block your efforts and discredit your intentions.


Making change real after SXSW

Carmen and I enjoyed leading a conversation among Rebels at Work who attended our session at SXSW, all of whom worked for organizations with 100 or more people. Making change as an entrepreneur is challenging. Making change inside organizations is difficult, with many more obstacles.

Though Twitter crashed during our session, here are some of the Tweets and topics that resonated among the change makers at the session.

Do your organizational homework

  • Does your idea actually jive with the values of your organization?
  • Rebels at work need to understand what makes the organization work, what actually makes it tick. Listen for the secret code.
  • You need to link your ideas to what’s important to the organization and answer the SO WHAT?
  • Do your homework: will the idea actually work? And will it work within my organization?
  • What ideas most align with your company’s values? Go for a quick win to spur positive change.

Don’t go it alone

  • Rebels at work can’t be lone wolves. You need to build support for your ideas. You need 10% of the organization to back you.
  • It’s important to do your homework when trying to effect change. Who will support you? Who will join you?
  • Rebels don’t do it alone. Find your team when introducing your ideas – the thinker, the doer, the planner.
  • Make friends with the Bureaucratic Black Belts.

Getting ideas adopted

  • Context, relevancy and emotion create meaning and can help your ideas get adopted.
  • Ideas alone are not enough. They need to be followed up with a “so what” and “now what.”
  • Change happens in 3 steps: dreaming (coming up with ideas),  discovery (external and internal research), and determination (seeing it through)
  • Avoid falling in love with your idea. When you’re in love with an idea you don’t see its flaws.
  • Sometimes long-hanging fruit is rotten. (Why the adage of starting with the low-hanging fruit is not always wise.)

Useful habits and behaviors

  • Rebels: our velocity scares people. Be patient with people who move slower and bring them along gradually.
  •  Focus on positivity, and remember that all change starts slowly.
  •  Rebels need to do homework. Get smart. Expect challenging questions. Know what people want.
  •  Spend enough time staging your ideas. Sequencing uber important when introducing an idea.
  •  Sometimes you need to cut your losses.

Conflict and obstacles

  • Work for a micro-manager? Figure out if they’re afraid of uncertainty or afraid of risk, and respond accordingly.
  • Uncertainty and risk aversion are not the same. Need to understand what’s motivating the fear and get past it.
  • How to work with micro-managers: usually they’re insecure about not knowing what’s going on. Build their trust.
  • A good question to ask when your idea gets shot down, “ What part of my idea did you like the least?” Opens up conversation.
  • Whens someone raises a concern in a meeting, it means they are at least engaged.
  • How to get buy in from someone who always says no? Link to something they care about.  Develop a relationship with them.

Here is a link to the handout we shared at the session.

Working without an agenda

firefliesA danger for everyone at work — particularly us rebels — is becoming obsessed with our own agenda.

When we’re focused on pushing our agenda forward come hell or high water, we get blinded from taking in potentially valuable new information and from enjoying and learning from  our colleagues.

When our agenda has us, we are handicapped from being effective change makers.

This morning the wise  Pedra Chodron sent out this message. It reminded me to work without an agenda.

Living without an agenda

Could our minds and our hearts be big enough just to hang out in that space where we’re not entirely certain about who’s right and who’s wrong? Could we have no agenda when we walk into a room with another person, not know what to say, not make that person wrong or right? Could we see, hear, feel other people as they really are?

It is powerful to practice this way, because we’ll find ourselves continually rushing around to try to feel secure again—to make ourselves or them either right or wrong. But true communication can happen only in that open space.




The Rebel Penalty Box Revisited: Avoid Becoming a Bruiser!!

The text below is from our friend and fellow Rebel at Work Curt Klun. He posted it on the Google+ community Corporate Rebels United and kindly agreed to let us repost it over here. You can always tell a good metaphor when others can mine it for additional insight, and that’s exactly what Curt did. And just a reminder–the metaphor is not mine but from yet another Rebel at Work.


Olympic/professional players have to expect to endure the box, and from experience, it sometimes feels more like a “hot box” in Cool Hand Luke. While you can also take advantage of the penalty time to add new tool sets for the next opportunity of engagement, I’d recommend using the “down time” to decipher what sent you to the penalty box in the first place, for each set of referees (status quo keepers) have different rule sensitivities and histories. Did you receive the penalty because a) you were executing your coach’s plan too aggressively and outpaced the system’s ability to cope; b) were you receiving too much limelight chafing authority in power, overly threatening sacred cows, or clumsily revealing ugly truths; c) were you excessively operating outside your assigned role on the team; and/or d) did you forget that this is a team sport in that change requires official and covert partners and buy-in?

Learn from my burnt fingers, for I have unwittingly ran afoul of all of these offenses. The risk of becoming an unrepentant or repeat offender is receiving the reputation as being a dumb oaf or even worse, “a bruiser” — One, who like a raging bull in a china shop, runs over others towards what they see as their own goals or even intentionally hurt others. If one receives a reputation like that, the organization’s referees will be hyper-vigilant over the most minor infraction in order to perpetually neutralize you. You may even become a disposable hatchet man for other leaders; be marginalized back to a junior league team in Siberia, where you will do no harm; or be slated for rejection from the team, when politically convenient.

Our goal is to return to the ice with a greater understanding of the environment and a refined set of change finesse tools. Finesse is that much more important in order to keep the organization moving forward, while leading change. Surgical finesse is especially vital, when the sensitivities of others and risks appear that much more dire. For instance, when we have been asked to change the corporate engines while flying full throttle and at altitude.

We must also remember that as much as we love the mission and the organization that we serve, that we operate in a system of official and unofficial rules, and that there are consequences/opportunities, when we work the edges of these rules. The one thing to always keep forefront is having a keen knowledge of what the rules are, the reasoning and equities behind the rules, and how one needs to behave in order to work the seams and processes to advance the organization in the right direction, while avoiding being called out for a penalty or doing harm. In honing such skills of finesse, we will hopefully increase success, engender trust, and open opportunities for advancement into positions of greater influence.

The Rebel Penalty Box

The other day I was having lunch with a friend, a rebel at work and she was telling me that she was finally out of the Rebel Penalty Box at the office. Immediately I knew what she meant.

“How did you get in the Rebel Penalty Box?”Alexander_Sazonov_2011-09-26_Amur—Heftekhimik_KHL-game

“Well, actually the year it happened I thought I was doing the best work in my career. I thought I was really getting things done that would make a difference, implementing change. But I guess my boss didn’t see it that way. And I received a lesser ranking in my performance review that year.”

“Whoa!! What did you do then?” I asked.

“I decided to just go low profile. Just do exactly what was expected of me. And wouldn’t you know it, that worked I guess. This year, my performance rating was raised to its previous level. So I guess that means I’m out of the penalty box.”

That story was so familiar to me and I bet to most of the rebels reading this post. At some point in your work life you will get a minor penalty or a 5 minute major, and you will need to find a way to get through it without losing your sanity or your rebel core–they’re kind of one and the same thing, right? In my friend’s case, it came as a complete surprise–she thought she was excelling at doing the right thing and was jazzed up about her performance. Only to find that, in her case, a change in upper management meant a new definition of success. My time in the penalty box was longer, I think. Most of a decade. A five-minute major. And I kind of knew it was coming. I wasn’t doing the best work of my career. I had let myself become cynical and negative and eventually people just became quite tired of me. I deserved that time in the rebel penalty box.

So, if you find yourself in the penalty box, how should rebels think about it? What can help them get through the period?

Try not to dwell on the fact that it’s unfair. Of course it’s unfair… in a way. But you’re probably in the penalty box because you broke a rule of the organization–either explicit or implicit. In my friend’s case she did not factor in the likely behavior of a new boss. They almost always reconsider the priorities of the previous regime–it might as well be a rule. We’re not saying don’t ever break the rules, although we do think changing rules is a much better strategy for the long term. But just keep in mind that if you’re out doing something new, the chances rise that you’ll be called for a penalty. It’s the risk you run.

Take your helmet off and cool down. In ice hockey, players are advised to remove their helmets so they can release more heat and cool off from the exertion of the game. Not a bad idea for us rebels. The relative peace and quiet of the penalty box can be a great opportunity to think things through, replay the moves you made, and think about how your future strategy. In my friend’s case, she minded her p’s and q’s to regain her footing with the new boss. We know some rebels might find that distasteful, but remember that in ice hockey, fighting when you’re in the penalty box will probably get you ejected from the game.

Be thankful you weren’t ejected. Unless of course that’s your goal. Maybe you’re so tired of trying to make people listen to your ideas that you’ve decided to leave. Getting thrown out is your grand fireworks finale. But just be careful how that plays out. Your firing might be the example that sets back change efforts in the organization for years to come.

Look for an opportunity to score when you leave the box. There’s no more exciting play in ice hockey then when an aware teammate passes the puck to the player leaving the penalty box. It usually creates a scoring opportunity. Perhaps you can look for a new position where there’s more tolerance for new ideas. Or maybe new leadership arrives that’s more amenable to change. Having been in the penalty box, the rebel is more likely to observe larger patterns at work that he can begin to take advantage of.

This blog, of course, was also inspired by the Olympics and the exciting men’s hockey game between Russia and the USA this weekend.


Innovation is Common Sense

I’m in Bilbao, Spain right now (a very pretty city home to some very innovative Basques) getting ready to speak at the third annual Global Innovation Day hosted by Innobasque–the Basque Innovation Agency. It’s just a wee bit daunting getting ready to give a talk in Spanish, even though it’s my first language I have almost no education in it. But my spirits were hugely lifted yesterday when I received the following message from a fellow Eastwood Trooper (my old high school).

Your “rebels at work” writing has really changed my life and my business. It has made me, instead of firing a rebel for insubordination, allow him to move forward with his “crazy newfangled ideas”. It’s changing my company drastically for the better. I am backing off and working less and letting the rebel lead. Without having read your articles and knowing enough to trust you, this would not have happened. I’ll keep you posted on our success. So far, so good! Thank you for opening my old eyes and mind to an ever changing business world. Common sense and innovation. I get it now!

Thanks so much for that message, that vote of confidence, and the affirmation that sharing what you know and have learned can actually make a difference for others.It’s very exciting to hear that the ideas behind Rebels at Work can help small business as well. Some of the most interesting innovations I’ve seen personally in the last couple of years is occurring in family-owned businesses eager to show that they too can prosper on the leading edge.

Rebels at Work is first and foremost intended to be a community where we can all learn from each other. I’m looking forward to learning from the audience later on today in Bilbao. Maybe, with any luck, we’ll receive our first Spannish Rebel stories from members of the audience. Adelante!!

Messengers at work

A lot of people don’t like the word rebel, which I latched onto because it gets people to pay attention and it conveys people with the courage, conviction and commitment to stand up for change.

“Messenger is a much better word,” my friend Maria has been telling me for several months. “It’s positive. Rebels are angry fighters.”

Last week Maria and I got together for our annual two-day marathon where we help one another set our goals and intentions for the year.

As I launched into talking about how to help the Rebels at Work tribe, Maria listened intently and then said, “ Remember the idea of messenger instead of rebel? Well I looked up the Greek meaning of messenger. Messenger means angel. And angels’ first words are, “Be not afraid.”

 Be not afraid.


Perhaps one of the greatest responsibilities we have in bringing new ideas to our organizations is helping our colleagues and bosses not to be afraid.

  • To show the path to a new and better way with kindness and purposefulness.
  • To help people understand the difference between risk and uncertainty.
  •  To balance experimenting and acting recklessly.
  • To acknowledge grief being about letting go what we once excelled at, and which is no longer relevant.
  • To recognize fear and lead fearlessly despite uncertainty.

As messengers of change our responsibility, like angels, is guiding influence.

And making it safe for people to step into new ways.


Angels purpose jpeg

Rebels Everywhere!!

Often something happens or I have an encounter and I think I should blog about this, but then it strikes me as too thin for an entire blog post. And so these ideas bounce off my head, like poorly struck soccer balls, never to be seen or heard from again. Not this time!!

Rebel Miscellany:

1. The Diagnostic Power of Laughter. Almost two months ago now I attended a great workshop on creativity from Brice Challamel and his company Act One. His content contains many useful hints for Rebels at Work, but my favorite and one I have turned to again and again in the weeks since is the importance of paying attention to when people in a meeting laugh at an idea. Laughter occurs when your brain hears something that disrupts its normal way of thinking, what it has anticipated would happen. Thus, the eruption of laughter tells Rebels at Work that the audience views their idea as disruptive and unusual. If you can, call out the significance of that laughter right away. Point out that the laughter means that the audience finds the idea particularly unusual, indeed…rebellious. Ask people if they can explain why. Even if you don’t feel comfortable doing that type of instant analysis of a room’s reaction, take account of it as you move forward. The idea they laughed at has tremendous power and potential. And if there is no nervous laughter in your meeting, well then maybe you aren’t being rebellious enough.

2. Uncertainty and Risk: Not the Same Thing. This insight comes courtesy of Richard Boly, who just left government after setting up eDiplomacy at the State Department. We were catching up just before Thanksgiving and Richard reminded me that often times people oppose a new way of doing things just because it is uncertain. But they don’t usually describe their concerns as being about uncertainty. They will say instead: “Your idea is too risky.” It might be useful for Rebels at Work at that point to gently remind their interlocutor that uncertainty and risk are not the same thing. Exploring a new idea is one of the ways in which you determine whether there is indeed any risk involved. Not being willing to pursue a new idea just because it is uncertain is just about the dumbest thing really–OK…don’t say that! If something is not uncertain, then it ain’t new.

3. The Bitcoin Rebels. Yesterday I spoke at the Future of Money and Technology Conference in San Francisco, which was dominated by discussions about the virtual currency Bitcoin. This is not the place to talk about the very complex new phenomenon of virtual currencies except to say that I left the conference much more intrigued about its world-changing possibilities. But I was struck at the rebel energy in the room…and the visions. Listening to the heads of startups talk about how they could change the course of humanity with their ideas must have been what it was like listening to individuals in the early 1990s chat talk about what the Internet could become. If only we could bring such energy inside existing organizations. If only…

4. The Hacker Ethic. Finally, and also brought home by the Bitcoin discussions, I was struck by the similarity between Rebels at Work and the Hacker mentality. Both want to explore the art of the possible and do it because of their passion for the work, the mission, and for just trying to figure out how great things could become if we just pretended there were no boundaries and precedents. Just like Rebels at Work, you can have Good Hackers or Bad Hackers. And just like Rebels at Work, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.


Your faithful correspondent,


Happy planning season!

FocusIt’s that time of year — business planning, which means this is a great time to show how your idea supports whatever your organization’s 2014 mantra may be.

I’ve been fortunate over the past few months to facilitate strategic planning sessions in several very different industry sectors. Yet all shared a common theme:

How can we better focus, collaborate and simplify work?

If you were trying to get a new idea approved  in one of these companies or universities, a useful strategy would show how your idea simplifies work, develops greater collaboration, and focuses on the organization’s most important goal.

What topics are creeping into conversations where you work?  Can you link your  idea to one of those topics? Show how your idea is a way to achieve what executives are yearning for?

Ideas that support what an organization most wants to achieve are ideas that gain traction.

“Tis the season to get your idea positioned and approved.



How Obamacare Fell into the Athena Trap

We here at Rebels at Work have never been afraid of courting conspiracy. Heck, as a Rebel at Work, you pretty much decide to marry controversy. That’s why we are writing today about the Affordable Care Act. Yup, we want to discuss Obamacare.

As change efforts go, the Affordable Care Act, is of Olympian proportions. And so are its problems–most of them centered around the non-usability of its website. Even the supporters of  the ACA concede that multiple things went horribly wrong.

But we think that trying to find exactly what went wrong–or what two or three things went wrong–misses the point. The Affordable Care Act, like so many change efforts, was destined to start off very badly, because of the single most powerful dynamic that affects change initiatives–the Athena Trap.

We’ve written often about the Athena Trap or Syndrome. Athena, you may recall, is the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, just war, mathematics–lots of really good, powerful stuff.  Most of our readers probably already suspect that being a Rebel at Work has a lot of similarities with Greek tragedy–although the reason why Lois and I maintain this blog is to make that less so. But we think Athena, in an indirect way, offers the most important lesson for rebels and individuals seeking to make humongous change.

According to her legend, Athena arose fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. Fully armored, fully functioning, and just about perfect. And that’s where the trap part comes in. The status quo almost always reacts to a change idea by demanding that its architect, the mastermind of the new idea, know exactly how it will work from Day One.  Like a good architect, the change agent, the rebel at work is supposed to know where every nail will fit. More often than not, the advocates of change accept that challenge, and to be fair they usually have little choice. Unless they exude oodles of confidence that they know exactly what they are doing, they are unlikely to get beyond the visioning stage. The new program is launched with great hoopla and, with almost tedious predictability, fails to meet expectations. Healthcare.gov appears to have followed this plot almost to the paragraph.

The opponents of change of course are delighted when the Athena trap is sprung. They rarely ponder the origin legends of their own status quo, which of course did not arise fully formed from the foreheads of congressional committees. Or even from the foreheads of our founding fathers. As we wrote almost two years ago, the status quo also started off as “half-baked ideas and almost always took turns and detours unanticipated by their originators and early supporters.”

“And, this is the important point, we shouldn’t want it any other way. For only through a process that allows a “thing” to react to the environment around it, change and adapt, can we hope to produce organizations, processes, customs, and institutions that actually work, that deliver most of their promise, that are organically one with their environments.”

I have no hope that government will be able to avoid the Athena trap at any point in my lifetime. Our ideology-based political process doesn’t seem to want to deal with the reality of uncertainty. (Although it should be obvious to all of us that writing a piece of legislation is probably a crazy way to try to do something new and complex.) But rebels should take heed. Don’t pretend you know what you’re doing when you really don’t.

But the people in the best position to avoid the Athena Trap are in fact the managers of organizations who approve change initiatives. As we said last year:

Don’t be the senior executive whose expectations for neat and orderly change are so…well..delusionary that you force your enthusiastic future-thinkers to become hypocrites and to package their proposals in Power-pointless slide decks. Because if you demand certainty, you not only will buy into intellectual fraud, you will also eventually tear the heart out of your change champions.

The appeal of subtraction

Erasing a path

You may have heard the self-help gurus talk about how paralyzed people have become by all their stuff, jammed into their houses, garages, storage units.  It’s overrunning people’s lives and making them miserable.

The same thing is happening at work. We have so many programs, processes, special initiatives, goals, strategic mandates, task forces, and focus areas that people are overwhelmed.

I recently met with a company task force that was trying to figure out a way to communicate  the brand messages, corporate vision, company purpose, employee values, and four new “pathway to success” programs, all with their own titles and acronyms.

“What should we do,” they asked.

“Subtract,” I said.

No one cares about all your messages and programs.  It’s too much.  What are the one or two, maybe three things, that will guide and possibly inspire your tens of thousands of employees in their work?  What matters for what you’re trying to achieve?

The kill your babies message is never popular, but to move forward we have to look at what we can let go — and do far less of.

This is especially important when rebels are trying to introduce big new ideas.  Leaders are reluctant to keep adding without some subtracting.  There’s not enough budget and the “add add add” mentality creates bloated bureaucracy that slows everyone and everything down.

A new library director at a major United States university presented an inspiring vision for what the library could become.  The vision, the value, the thinking were superb. The funding needed to realize the vision was $12 million.  The provost said, “No.”

The library director went back and found a way to cut $7 million from the existing budget. When she went back to the provost he said, “Here’s the other $5 million you need.”

If your big change idea is stuck in budget approval limbo, ask yourself,

“What can we subtract to get the support to do what’s most important?”

The Courageous (im)Patience of Rebels

Recently in the vast Twitter river, but so quickly that I do not remember details, I ran across a phrase attributed to Admiral Hyman Rickover:

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience.”

COURAGEOUS PATIENCE. What a great phrase I thought and how it captures an essential virtue of rebels. COURAGEOUS PATIENCE.

Lois and I have written frequently about optimum rebel tactics. We have learned from many of our rebel profiles that perseverance and persistence are key rebel traits. Great rebels never surrender their visions to the bureaucratic swarm. We may suffer setbacks but we bide our time waiting for our opportunities, preparing for them.

Not all rebels, of course, believe in biding their time. Many launch themselves into frontal assaults against the bureaucratic landscape, usually without fully understanding the pitfalls that lie ahead. They stumble; some fall. Many observers think these individuals are the courageous ones, brave enough to take the establishment head on. And in many respects they are.

So who was Admiral Hyman Rickover? I imagine most of you under 50 have no idea who he was. The one sentence biography is that Rickover was the father of the nuclear navy. Soon after the development of nuclear power, Rickover came to understand what it could mean for the Navy, but most Navy thinkers did not agree with him. As the Wikipedia article notes:

Rickover’s vision was not initially shared by his immediate superiors: he was recalled from Oak Ridge, and assigned “advisory duties” with an office in an abandoned ladies room in the Navy Building. He subsequently went around several layers of superior officers, and in 1947 went directly to the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, by chance also a former submariner. Nimitz immediately understood the potential of nuclear propulsion and recommended the project to the Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan, whose endorsement to build the world’s first nuclear-powered vessel, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), later caused Rickover to state that Sullivan was “the true father of the Nuclear Navy.”

And now for the really odd part.

What I also learned from researching the Rickover story is that the quote attributed to him, COURAGEOUS PATIENCE, is  a misquote. He actually said exactly the opposite.

“Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience.”

Check it out for yourselves. Internet Quote sites have the Rickover line one way, the way I prefer it honestly and think is most provocative, but if you visit the US Navy’s virtual museum, you learn presumably Rickover’s correct insight.

So which is it then? Do good ideas need courageous patience or impatience?

I suspect the reason the quote is so corrupted is that both statements are true. The passion of rebels drives many to want to act immediately; they are impatient for others to see what they see. Others choose to wait, looking for their best opportunity to advance. They evince patience and the courage of self-control.

Quote confusion aside, Admiral Rickover’s life story captures the complexity of most rebel stories. Govleaders.org has an excellent summary of his leadership principles in his own words. I particularly like this paragraph below, which describes quite accurately how the worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity actually works.

A major flaw in our system of government, and even in industry, is the latitude allowed to do less than is necessary. Too often officials are willing to accept and adapt to situations they know to be wrong. The tendency is to downplay problems instead of actively trying to correct them. Recognizing this, many subordinates give up, contain their views within themselves, and wait for others to take action. When this happens, the manager is deprived of the experience and ideas of subordinates who generally are more knowledgeable than he in their particular areas.




Top Five Plays of Intrapreneurs in Government

For those of you who participated in our 24-hour Rebel Jam in May, you may remember hearing a presentation from two Deloitte consultants who were just completing a research project on being successful intrapreneurs in the public sector. As you know we rebels go by many names–mavericks, heretics, troublemakers–but one of our favorite labels, if you insist on putting one on us, is intrapreneur. The two authors, Liz Arnold and Shani Magia, have summarized their paper’s findings for us to post on Rebels At Work. Lois and I think it will resonate not just with you who work in government but with all Rebels out there.

Please feel free to contribute your ideas in the comment section.

Intrapreneurs in Government

Government intrapreneurs can be visionaries, armed with strong communication skills, the ability to persevere in the face of uncertainty and opposition, and a deep passion for public service. But even this array of talents often isn’t enough.

Earlier this year, we interviewed individuals who have successfully achieved meaningful change in government. We talked with more than 20 civil servants across the federal government, from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Labor, and collected some of the best “plays” intrapreneurs have used to overcome barriers. Although their strategies are wide-ranging, these intrapreneurs all share a common quality — they are tough and scrappy, reflecting their need to make the best of suboptimal or difficult circumstances. 

  • Find an advocate: Many intrapreneurs face a predicament when they try to make change happen in government: they may find that their initiatives violate existing agency rules and/or they could risk their careers by being change advocates. To help them handle these risks, they can find managers or sponsors in the organization to help navigate organizational processes and procedures to achieve change.
  • Connect seemingly unrelated dots: Potentially big impacts don’t always require the invention of something new. Intrapreneurs often bring ideas from outside their organization to address an unmet need.
  • Identify Allies: Building a team can be a way for intrapreneurs to gain support for important initiatives. Team members can help generate and validate ideas, and provide and collect feedback. Extra hands help anchor the effort and foster a culture of bottom-up commitment to change.
  • Look for detours: Intrapreneurs don’t let rules get in their way of creating positive change. Intrapreneurs can leverage their networks, build new connections and become salespeople for their ideas to find the detours that make progress possible.
  • Adopt a “beta” mindset: When introducing a new idea or approach, there can be a tendency to have a “ribbon cutting” to celebrate its success. Intrapreneurs can use pilots to test new ideas, and get stakeholders to buy into new ways of doing work.

What are your best plays?

Different approaches may work better at one organization than another. It’s up to the intrapreneur to decide how best to push an idea through. The passion intrapreneurs have to improve the way their organizations work is what drives their creativity — their toughness, their willingness to fight for an idea – their scrappiness. It’s what makes them successful.


What strategies do you use to create positive change in your organization?


To learn more about our research about Intrapreneurship in Government, please read our study “Intrapreneurship in Government: Making it Work” on Deloitte University Press.


Jerry Maguire, Rebel at Work

Here’s the famous scene from the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire where Jerry writes a new mission statement for his sports agency “The Things We Think and Do Not Say: The Future of Our Business.”

For so many clients we had forgotten what is most important to them…I had lost the ability to bullshit. It was the me I’ve always wanted to be.

After distributing his mission statement to everyone in the company, Jerry walks into a company meeting to wild applause from his colleagues. They love that he spoke the truth about what they know is wrong with the business and how it could be better.

But Jerry still gets fired.

Lesson: courage and great ideas aren’t enough for a Rebel at Work to get change adopted. It’s only the start.

A Rebel at Work changes and empowers women at Sanofi Pasteur