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.
We 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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, rebel friends, have you found to be helpful in communicating new ideas inside your organization?
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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:
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 Interactive, 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!
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.
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.
Here is a link to the handout we shared at the session.
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.
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 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 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.
“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.
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!!
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.”
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.
As messengers of change our responsibility, like angels, is guiding influence.
And making it safe for people to step into new ways.
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!!
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,
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:
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
We’ve written much about Bureaucratic Black Belts, those defenders of the status quo who try to stop rebels from achieving change. But there’s another type of person at work who can slow you and your project down too, The Benevolent Bureaucrat.
These kinder, gentler bureaucrats tend to be people who see that your change idea is becoming a Big Deal with senior leadership and want to be associated with the Big Deal in some way. Yet they don’t know enough about your initiative to provide substantive value so they pick on small things.
For example, HR may step in and say that to succeed you should use their new interactive training methodology and world class learning platform. Or the former journalist in the marketing department may nit pick language describing the initiative. “Is this really the right word to describe what you’re trying to achieve?” Or the IT people want more meetings to discuss how to establish baseline Intranet analytics so that the program measurement will be as accurate as possible.
Before long a rebel is stuck in bureaucratic meetings that can slow the project progress WAY down.
What to do?
Ask people for to give you their recommendations in writing by a certain date, the sooner the better so that you can stay on track and focus on the most important next steps for advancing your initiative. Often they’ll miss the deadline.
Thank them for their ideas and tell them you’ll circle back to them when you think the timing is right to focus on training or wordsmithing or analytics.
By all means keep going. Don’t let the Benevolent Bureaucrats’ desire to be somehow involved slow you down.
Your success is about achieving results important to your organization Going to unnecessary meetings with nice people whose ideas aren’t especially relevant slows down the time to success and results.
The other day I was in a conversation with a long-time rebel (first-time caller) who has been tirelessly constructing a radical new work practice for an organization. For years. Except that now he’s gotten kind of tired. Perhaps you might even say fed up. His ideas are not really moving beyond the prototype stage and it’s been…years.
“People keep telling me that ‘Change Takes Time’ but my question is: How much time is TOO LONG?”
As a card-carrying member of the “Change Takes Time Fraternity”, I realized I had never asked myself that question. Sure, real change takes time but when does that truth become just empty words for the Status Quo to hide behind?
My friend had worked some of this out for himself.
“Many organizations realized the need to move into a different model at around the same time. A decade ago. Most of them now are well underway into making the transition. Some have completed it. But we’re still futzing around.”
“That’s how I know our change is taking too long.”
Rebels need to have an idea (maybe even a timetable?) for how long it takes to complete certain types of change in comparable organizations. They need to use this information (cleverly) to establish expectations not just for themselves but also for the organization around them. Because in most change initiatives, the Status Quo remains in fact the most important player.
I can imagine it would be quite effective to let the bureaucratic black belts know what the typical transition time is for comparable change initiatives. Status Quo leaders may not always buy the idea for change but they are quite inclined to support the need to keep to a schedule. And talking explicitly about how long you expect something to take and “how long too long is” will also prevent the passive-aggressives in your organization from availing themselves of one of their favorite techniques–using the unmonitored passage of time to wait the rebels out.
Finally, having a clearer framework in your mind to help you determine when change is taking too long will help you avoid rebel burnout. Rebel self-care is essential and yet most rebels are horrible at it. We really do suffer from the sunk costs phenomenon, particularly because our sunk costs usually represent emotional and psychological investments.
Rebels sometimes also need to think about whether they are prepared to stay in their position long enough to see a particular change through. Are you strong enough to hack away at your organization’s undergrowth for let’s say five years to make something happen? Be honest when you answer that question. Because change takes time.
Her 13-hour non-stop filibuster on Tuesday to stop a piece of legislation being passed is an example of how rebels create change. Regardless of your views on the issue, Senator Davis’ strategy is an example of how to take on the Bureaucratic Black Belts at work, in government, in our education and health care institutions. (Hint: if an organization is referred to as an institution, rebels are especially needed and need to be especially canny.)
Tuesday’s example in Texas showed that:
I’ve always had a hunch that Texan women are especially good rebels. They can be sweet and mean, getting their opposition comfortable and then bringing out a formidable no-nonsense will to get things done. It’s only a hunch, but Wendy Davis sure convinced me that I may be on to something.
As Carmen and I have written here so often, don’t go it alone as a rebel at work. You need allies, to both accomplish change and stay positive.
While I know this to be true, I have been guilty in trying to go it alone. I am the fire-starter, the organizer, the person who gets things done. My husband has a similar mindset. So when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease two years ago, we found one of the most renown Parkinson’s neurologists, got the medication, read the books, and decided that we wouldn’t let Parkinson’s define our lives.
It was with great apprehension that we went to a five-day a “wellness retreat” with 57 other people with Parkinson’s and their care partners last week at Kripalu, the yoga and spiritual center in the hills of Western Massachusetts. Since the program was sponsored by the National Parkinson’s Foundation, we thought that we would learn a great deal from medical experts about research, symptoms, medications, resources, and what to be aware of as the condition progresses. And we did.
But what I really came away with is less anxiety and more confidence that I can do this, no matter how wonky the disease may affect my husband. The wisdom, practical know-how, and generosity of those 57 people in the retreat was a stark reminder that it’s better not to try to take on difficult situations alone. There’s always much to learn from people who know more and have experienced worse. One self-less act really brought home this message.
Selfishly I wanted my husband to participate in a noontime event called Yoga Dance, open to everyone at Kripalu not just the PD folks. It’s like a wild-ass dance party with great music and free form dancing. Makes me feel like 19 again. I asked each man in our PD wellness workshop if he would go to yoga dance, explaining that if a bunch of guys went my husband would too. They all agreed, including Ray who was having a particularly tough day with his PD.
Ray and his partner Richard went into the big dance room, music blaring, lots of athletic yoga people dancing like joyful fools. Feeling very uncomfortable Ray told Richard he needed to leave, his body just couldn’t move to the music. They left the room for a few minutes and came back, where Ray tried again. He and Richard soon left a second time, and then they came back in for a third try.
Ray was upset that he couldn’t move. Richard was upset that Ray was upset. It was a horrible, unsettling incident that reminded them both of the realities of Parkinson’s.
While they struggled my husband and I danced like young lovers. Ray and Richard didn’t know, but it was our 30th wedding anniversary.
Genuine collaboration is what Ray did coming to that lunchtime yoga dance. He came from a deep well of thoughtfulness and wanting to help me. Even though it was so, so hard for him.
I participated in two days of new employee orientation for a financial services client. About 70 percent of the 40 people in the class were women, the rest men. As part of a group exercise the instructor asked for a representative from each table to stand up and share the group’s work. A man spoke for every group but one, that being my table where I stood up.
I was shocked and saddened. Why are women letting men dominate, even in non-threatening situations like work orientation games?
When I was in my 20s we women boldly stood up and spoke up, knowing that our views were as valuable as the guys, oftentimes even more so. We weren’t very good at slinging the bull shit like some of our fearless men friends. So our responses were often more considered and thoughtful. My guy friends admitted this to me on many an occasion.
We women knew we had to speak up. Trailblazers like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzeg had worked hard and sacrificed much to help us move into the corporate world. We wanted to pay it forward by succeeding and helping other women in their journeys. Having a say and being heard was essential.
When I was working at AT&T early in my career I was promoted into a job where I made $22,000, taking over for a man who hadn’t been performing so well at the job but had been making $48,000. More than double what I was paid for the same responsibilities. I raised this disparity with HR, which told me that the man had more experience, and, confidentially, “if you keep speaking up like this you could hurt your career.” I loved telling that story, and I more loved seeing the pay gap between women and men shrink.
We’ve made such gains over the 30 years, but apparently not enough.
Aside from my fear that women will continue to not get promoted as quickly or make as much as men if they do not speak up and believe in themselves, I worry about businesses being able to adapt and grow. Research shows that the more diverse the thinking in an organization, the faster and better it can solve problems. That’s why we need rebels. That’s why we need women, and women rebels. Without diverse thinkers, organizational performance will suffer.
I was recently planning a conference with a wonderful, enlightened European man. He recruited the first 12 speakers. Eleven of the 12 were men. When I pointed out this imbalance, he was taken aback. He hadn’t even noticed that he had invited almost all men. I am pleased to tell you that this conference is now equally represented.
Today the Fast Company blog had a story that caught my eye, “Eight Successful Entrepreneurs Give Their Younger Selves Lessons They Wish They’d Known Then.” When I clicked on the story all the entrepreneurs were men. Really? The writer couldn’t find one successful female entrepreneur?
Let’s call the media on this imbalanced view of business.
Let’s also get back to more consciously supporting and encouraging women in the workforce.
I don’t know about you, but I thought we had come farther. I thought my diligence in helping and promoting women had worked and now I could move on to new issues.
Those women in the financial services company looking down when the instructor asked for volunteers will stay with me awhile.
Just as Sheryl Sandberg is doing with her LeanIn.org, we need to help women stand up and be heard for their considerable talents and perspectives. If they don’t speak up confidently they will be overlooked for promotions and for increased compensation.
Worse, we won’t be able to solve today’s issues without the equal voices of diverse thinkers. This Rebel at Work movement is really about empowering diverse thinking at work. Organizations desperately need people — women and men –who think differently from one another. Diverse thinkers are the way to solve complex problems.
PS — this Hay Group study just came out yesterday. Female and male executives should be concerned about the scoring on the last item.
Looking over our posts at Rebels at Work, we have captured many lessons from the community’s experience, written about many mistakes and offered suggestions for how to avoid or minimize them. But perhaps it would be a good thing to capture most of them in one place. What follows is a list of what we think are the most common rebel mistakes. In some ways the list is an unpacking of the Good Rebel/ Bad Rebel chart, although I think we all know from painful experiences that “good rebels” can make audaciously bad mistakes.
There’s one issue I haven’t included in this list that we have written about often elsewhere: dealing with conflict. We think avoiding conflict at all costs is a mistake; if your idea is meaningful and significant it will engender conflict. But the complexity of conflict can’t be captured by viewing it just through the lens of mistakes.
And now for our list, presented in an order of sorts.
Most Rebels at Work have some unfortunate strain of DNA that forces them to speak up when they think something needs correcting. They then assume, I know I have, that those at work who aren’t as vocal don’t get it, don’t want to get it, or just want to get you! Don’t make this assumption and certainly don’t act on it. There are many good reasons why people stay quiet, having to do, for example, with temperament and personality. Some perhaps need to see more evidence before they can commit to a particular course of action. Others choose to defer to authority or existing practices, but, when a new course is set, get wholeheartedly behind it and offer sound improvements.
Sometimes rebels can get so disgusted with the bureaucratic nonsense in their organizations that they start ignoring certain rules that particularly offend them. Of course, there is no dearth of such rules to ignore; bureaucracies create rules the way urban freeways create traffic jams—and pretty much to the same effect. But deciding unilaterally that you are not going to follow certain procedures is a reliable way of getting identified as a troublemaker in your organization—and thus being denied the maneuvering room and credibility you need to make something really important happen. Rebels need to learn to carry their indignations lightly.
I always thought of myself not as a rule-breaker but as a rule-changer.
A common rebel mistake particularly at the start. You can easily see the problems in the current situation without having any idea of what you would do differently. Many rebels never get beyond the “diagnosing the problem” stage. In fact they appear to fall in love with the problems, admiring their many intricacies, reveling in their history. This is always a fatal mistake. The news flash here is that most of the defenders of the current system are painfully aware of its problems. They are not blind to its faults. Far from it. They have made a career of getting the work done regardless of the brickbats the status quo throws at them. The rebels’ tattoo of criticism just seems silly to these scrappy realists who have learned to just get on with it.
By always talking about what’s wrong, you also paint yourself into the pessimist’s corner. People will dread hearing from you at meetings. You become Dr. Doom. Nobody follows a pessimistic rebel.
A close cousin of Mistake #8, frothing at the mouth is what happens when you as a rebel become so impassioned (or captured) by your change agenda that it becomes your only topic for conversation. You become not unlike a narcissist, only instead of being absorbed with yourself, you are obsessed by your vision. There is no conversational dynamic you cannot turn into an occasion to lobby for change.
A variation of this condition is when the rebel becomes a policy wonk. So even if you focus your attention on solutions rather than on making love to the problem, you can still be off-putting if your dialogue sounds like someone reading an operations manual out loud. Although at some point you will need to lay out how your alternative vision works, it is more important to spend time addressing the values and aspirational nature of your proposals. Linking your aspirations to the values already dear to your colleagues is a good first step.
This is a classic rebel error born out of enthusiasm and misplaced optimism. We all know this scenario. After years of ignoring calls for change, the organization one day announces a strategic refresh. Perhaps they even appoint some known rebels to the working group that will devise the recommendations for the corporate board. A dangerous moment indeed. Although obviously some organizations will be sincere in gathering the input of rebels, others will either be going through the motions to deflect mounting criticism or—more likely—balk once proposals involving real change are tabled. Proceed cautiously. Don’t assume this is the moment to tell everyone exactly what you think. This is a situation where your befriending of bureaucratic black belts can really come in handy. Before you go all in, gather some good intelligence about how far the organization is really prepared to go.
In those cases when the strategic change effort does amount to something legitimate, then another trap emerges. Rebels can end up with programmatic responsibility for a change initiative. In these situations I have seen rebels get drunk with bureaucratic power. (A particularly bad drunk.) Usually in an attempt to test the organization’s commitment to the new agenda, rebels demand that their initiatives be fully funded, even though the organization has already had to do some uncomfortable shifting of resources to free up the monies for the new initiative. In our experience, organizations that have decided to proceed with an important change effort are in a delicate mood; doubters probably still sit on the corporate board just waiting for an excuse to shut this silliness down. Our advice: be a good corporate citizen. Only take on the resources you absolutely need to prove your concept. Think lean and mean.
Watching baby videos can help.
Things get dark for rebels when their only goal is to advance their own agenda. Of course, your ideas are important, but more important than any single idea is the creation of an ecosystem in your organization that is permanently hospitable to honest reflection and change. Perhaps the greatest calling for Rebels at Work is to help organizations evolve from what they are now—protectors of accepted orthodoxy—to what they can become—discoverers and promoters of new ideas.
Rebels can also come to believe they own the change agenda in their organization. Their experiences and the way they like to do things become the new orthodoxy.
Avoid these behaviors at all costs.
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.
And the last and arguably worst Rebel mistake is
At some point we hope all rebels get several chances to speak to an important audience about their core beliefs. Or perhaps write an important memorandum that will be read by people with influence. When that opportunity comes, don’t fritter it away with an ill-prepared brief, particularly one that just feeds into the preconceived notions many in the organization have about Rebels at Work.
Be organized and substantive. Each organization has a different template for briefings that are to be taken seriously. A Rebel at Work is unlikely to be 100% compliant but don’t go so far off the norm that people aren’t comfortable listening to you and get lost. You don’t want your medium and media to obscure your message. I always want to inject some emotional value into my briefings and talks—often through compelling images, buts at some point I return to what the organization considers “serious.” It’s just a question of respect. Each of us can find a way to communicate our ideas that preserves our integrity. We just have to think about it and prepare.
Do your homework. I cringe when I think of briefings I’ve attended where the proponents of new methods just didn’t have their facts straight, got critical details wrong, or can’t answer the most fundamental question about what they’re advocating. Aaaargh! How do you expect me to care about your ideas if you don’t care enough to get the facts straight? Consult with everyone you can so that you anticipate likely questions.
Don’t try to fool your audience. Another cardinal sin. Oy! Have you been involved in preparing a briefing where you knew you didn’t have a good answer to a question, so you tried to orchestrate the briefing to avoid having that question come up at all? Is that ever a good idea? NOOO! I particularly enjoy asking the question the briefing team doesn’t want to have to field. I actually think you’re better off admitting up front the questions you still don’t have answers to. After all, change is a work in progress. (For more on this topic see avoiding the Athena trap.)
Tell stories. Have a narrative. Speak to people. See the discussion above about not being a policy wonk.
Take as much time as you need and not one second longer. My rule of thumb: the better you understand your idea, the more concisely you can explain it.
We promised one more mistake for good measure and it’s this:
If you’re still reading at this point, thanks very much for your attention.
Can you guess which is which?
I was reflecting the other day about how, once we become seized with the need for an important change in our organizations, the issue can become all-encompassing. You can’t stop thinking it about. You become obsessed.
You start bringing up the topic in almost any conversation at work. Any meeting that doesn’t address it just seems like a colossal waste of time. I know when I was a rebel at my old agency I had a tendency to bring up my existential angst at what really where the most inappropriate moments. Perhaps we were having a modest conversation about reforming the performance appraisal system. It didn’t matter. I would find a way to inject some comment about the need for fundamental change.
You know, people can get pretty tired of that. They start avoiding you. Before you know it, you have a reputation for being cynical and negative. This is not a guess. It’s a fact. I lived it.
Here is my depiction of The Rebel Arc–the stages of being a rebel. (This is a Beta version, so all ideas, as always, welcomed.) The line between advocacy and obsession is admittedly a fine one, but only for the rebel herself. Her audience immediately senses the difference between the two, and reacts accordingly.
So be sensitive to how often you talk about your big idea. Rebels will have more credibility if they are seen as still functioning members of the team, and not as one-trick ponies. Choose your opportunities to talk about your ideas judiciously.
Now to the topic of controversy. It’s not up on the chart because it’s a consequence of rebel actions–not a rebel stage itself. I’ve often spoken about how rebels need to understand that handling conflict well is a necessary skill they must develop. The precursor of conflict is, of course, controversy. As soon, if not before, you reach the top of the Rebel Arc, you will, if you have an idea that is truly challenging to the Ways Things Always Are Done, engender controversy.
Controversy is your friend! Honest! It means people have begun to pay attention.
But how rebels handle this controversy will be a key determinant of how their proposals and careers will fare. These moments of controversy offer rebels opportunities to gain new allies (and new opponents) and will help temper their ideas. Just like the status quo, your ideas are imperfect. Dismissing others’ suggestions is the first step toward obsession.
One last word on the Rebel Arc. OK, so it makes being a rebel look pretty miserable. I know, I rode it all the way down during the middle part of my career.
But there are several exit ramps available. The ideal takeoff point is just at that moment when your proposals become controversial, i.e. you have captured the attention of your organization and people are energized negatively or positively. Like anything important in life, not every factor determining the outcome is under your direct or even indirect control. Rebels that have surveyed the bureaucratic landscape will be better equipped to take advantage of the controversy by, for example, having anticipated some of the issues and by lining up key supporters who can make the rebel’s argument on their behalf. But rebels need to realize that if their ideas don’t begin to gain traction, the rebels will be viewed as obsessive. That’s not fatal, but negativity usually is.
Working in a bureaucracy trains us to give up on our ideas prematurely. But the danger for rebels is the opposite: hanging on to your ideas long after they no longer have a future, at least for now, in your organization. There is nothing as weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.
“The Cardinals are tired of reading about financial corruption, sexual improprieties and infighting at the Vatican. They want a Pope who can get things under control,” explained Father Thomas Reese to Tom Ashbrook on his NPR “On Point” radio show today.
When there are calls to “get things under control” there is no hope for control.
Whether it’s trying to control clergy in the Catholic Church, parents angry over school policies, or customers tweeting unfavorable product reviews, there is no control.
When I hear “get things under control” I know it’s a situation that can only be addressed by getting at root cause issues. It’s not a “handling” or crisis communications issue, it’s a systemic issue requiring that the real problems be addressed.
No new Pope can get the Catholic Church “under control” without addressing some deep seated issues.
No business leader can get customers under control if customers hate the products or customer service.
No school official can get parents under control if they feel their children are not being served.
No politician can get voters under control if they believe the politician is more interested in getting elected than representing their views.
No good can come from trying to control.
I had two bosses at the agency, and both tried to keep me in the box of being what they viewed as “business like and professional.” They wanted me to be able to follow in their footsteps, making it from account executive to account supervisor to vice president.
Both were planners, conservative, careful and deliberate. They rehearsed client meetings and presentations for longer than any of the meetings or presentations ever lasted. They liked to be sure about things. As was their boss.
All were really nice people. Committed to helping young professionals learn the skills to get promoted to the next level. Caring and considerate when people had family problems or health issues. Always good to their word. If they made a promise, you knew they would keep that promise.
They were in the office early, worked late, and diligent about making the monthly and quarterly earnings forecasts.
During the eight years I worked for them, I, too, learned how to make the numbers and become more business like, for which I will always be grateful. For five years I commuted two nights a week from Rhode Island to Cambridge to take graduate business classes at Harvard’s Extension School. Financial accounting. Market research. Computer science. Organizational management. Though a few years earlier I had decided not to get an MBA after being accepted to the University of Virginia because I feared it might be a slog, I was now slogging to do what I was told was necessary to become a respected business person.
I learned to read financial statements and write annual reports. My team’s utilitization rates were some of the highest in the agency. My monthly client reports were chock full of results and proactive activity.
I was promoted to senior account executive, account supervisor, senior account supervisor, and then the coveted vice president title. All before I was 30, which my bosses said was quite an achievement.
And I was miserable. I was suffocating in the box that they told me was necessary to be successful.
The new VP title emboldened me to start leaving the conservative cocoon.
My first act was telling the bosses that I could not, would not be able to rehearse client presentations and meetings. I was fine with being clear about what we wanted to convey to the client, what the agenda should be, and what we wanted the outcome of the meeting or presentation to be. But I couldn’t stand up in our conference room and word for word practice the words that I would then repeat word for word in the client’s conference room a couple of days later.
I then told them that they needn’t come to my client meetings. My team and I had things covered. In fact, I loved my team and my clients, and the feeling was mutual. Without my bosses the conversations were free flowing, veering all over the place from talking wild–ass ideas we might try to what Plan B we should have in our pocket if our big ideas fizzled to what we were all doing on the weekend.
I sort of, kind of followed an agenda in those client meetings. A good client meeting outcome to me was not whether we got through the agenda, but whether we all felt energized by whatever we were trying to do, and whether we had a game plan for getting done what we REALLY thought would make a difference.
Without my serious bosses, there was much more laughter in meetings. The ideas got wackier, veering off from the typical definitions of what public relations was suppose to be. I started forging partnerships with advertising agencies, speaking at conferences, and selling more and more business on my own.
My bosses and their boss hired a famous new business development expert to come to the agency and teach us how to sell more strategically and create presentations that sold vs. told. This expert had been a former Shakespearean actor, who exuded passion, charm, and curiosity. His laughter was infections. I loved that class. I applauded my conservative boss team for bringing in such a character. At the end of the week-long training, Toni asked me if I might be willing to work with him and his team to better market his business.
What a blast. Who knew work could be so much fun.
My annual performance review was scheduled for a Friday, with just one of the bosses, as two seemed overkill. “How about we go out to that new place on Dorrance Street for lunch and do the review there,” one of the bosses asked.
“Sure, great,” I said, believing that I was now free of the performance review anxiety of my youth, where I was told to improve on so many things. Now I was running more than half of the agency’s business, and had sold in three of the four major new accounts that year. This was going to be more about reviewing the new restaurant’s food than me.
So I guess by now you’ve got a good inkling of what happened.
My boss acknowledged “my contributions” and then got serious.
“We think that you’re too passionate in client meetings. You get too excited and it’s distracting for clients,” he said.
“What are you talking about?” I said in complete and utter disbelief. (I was not as self-aware then as I am now.)
“Well, at the Acme Company meeting you started talking about ideas that were unrelated to the topic and the clients were confused, having a hard time following your logic.”
“But in the end we came up with a couple of great new ideas,” I said defending myself. “Of course the conversation went off the agenda and rambled a bit. When they gave us their business update it was clear that there were new ways to help them. I was excited about the possibilities.”
“Yes, but that’s not the way a vice president should conduct herself.”
“Okay, let’s move on,” I said. “I don’t agree with you on this, but it’s my opinion vs. yours. We’re not going to agree.”
“Well,” he said. “We think you need to improve your presentation skills.”
“Wait,” I said cutting him off. “You do know what happened last week during the presentation training? I have tons to learn, I’m sure, but even the big time expert thought that I’m pretty good in the presentation department.”
I don’t remember what my boss said next. My brain had shut down. Furious. He was devaluating my passion and energy and those things where I performed well, the very things that helped me win new business and have such great client relationships. If he had talked about improving process management skills or even proofreading, I would have been receptive.
What I do remember about what happened next is that he slid the performance review with both boss’s critique across the table and asked me to sign it, part of the company’s performance review process.
“I’m not signing that,” I said without having to think. “I don’t agree with it. I don’t accept it. I think it’s wrong.”
He pushed his glasses up his nose, the anxiety of dealing with me causing him to sweat. This was not how these things were supposed to go. Lois had always been agreeable and pleasant. The train had gone off the rails, this wasn’t what he and the other boss had rehearsed.
Within two months I took a new position with another agency. Many of my clients followed. The old agency tried to sue me, but eventually backed down. Clients could work with whomever they wanted.
I had found my real self, my creative self. I was never going to rehearse success again, I told myself.
Of course, as happens with rebels, I would eventually slip back into work situations that felt somewhat stifling or slow to change. But I would never again let my passion be up for review.
Not so. Most of us focus on the things that get in the way of achieving things that matter, and suggest better ways. We are not anarchists or people who want to reinvent every wheel. We’re much too practical to change what’s working well.
We do, however, put a lot of effort against eliminating bureaucratic rules and widely accepted business practices that slow down progress without adding any value.
Bureaucracy creeps in slowly. Consensus bloats processes. The “need to know” inflates what needs to be included in standard reports. Legal and quality control “extra safeguards” minimize risk and maximize time to completion, often putting companies at competitive risk. Insecure or inexperienced people add more layers instead of revising what exists. Some duplicitous types create bureaucracy to confuse and hide unscrupulous business practices.
After a while few people inside the organization can see what’s dragging things down or maybe can’t even understand what the regulation or rule means. Or, they don’t know how to fix it. That’s where the value of rebels comes in. Unlike troublemakers who rail and rant about how screwed up things are, we are often bureaucratic fixers.
As a lifelong rebel, one of my personal mantras has been, “Create clarity from complexity.” With clarity you can better see what matters, clear away the extraneous bureaucracy and useless processes, and get to valued outcomes faster. When I look back over my career as a rebel at work this is the thing I do best: creating clarity.
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure to spend a couple of hours talking about rebels with Lars Bjork, the CEO of QlikTech. (FYI: Lars considers himself a rebel and is a CEO who values rebels.) His mantra: “Love order, hate bureaucracy.”
“Order is where you put a process into place because you want to scale the business to a different level,” he says. “Bureaucracy is where nobody understands why you do it.”
Order is necessary for organizations and systems to function. But what we need is provisional order. In other words, the order works for now but will be changed as circumstances evolve and change as they always do.
One role of rebels is of simplicity analyst, diagnosing how the order — rules, processes, regulations, systems, cultural norms — needs to change to serve the organization’s desired outcomes, and recommending new types of order that can help rather than hinder desired outcomes.
This morning I was thinking of the “Ghostbusters” soundtrack and started to think of rebels and bureaucracy.
If there’s something strange
Who you gonna call
(Ghostbusters) Your rebels
If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call
(Ghostbusters) Your rebels
I ain’t afraid of no
I ain’t afraid of no
So I’m hearing lots of people these days talk about the need for organizations to innovate. It’s on everyone’s lips. Innovation is the medicine for whatever ails you.
And Rebels at Work, of course, are all about Innovation. We often define ourselves in the context of what we want to change.
But as the term Innovation has become ever more popular, it has begun to sound funny to me, nonsensical. The way any word will lose meaning if you just say it over and over again.
And so these are my questions to those who speak of Innovation: Exactly what is Innovation? and, What are you trying to Innovate? Are all new things innovative? Do we have to innovate everything we do?
If you dismount from the Innovation Bandwagon, I think you’ll realize that Innovation in and of itself doesn’t solve anything. Coming up with a new idea may or may not solve a problem you have or advance your organization’s mission or make something better. The issue is not so much whether you are innovative as it is whether you are thoughtful about what you’re doing.
Innovation is not, let’s say, like process re-engineering or Lean Six Sigma. It’s not a series of steps that lead to a magical outcome. It’s not a board game.
Innovation is one possible outcome of being thoughtful about what you and your organization do.
Instead of talking about Innovation, let’s unpack the term and have different conversations around these questions, all of which ask us to think about what we do.
“Don’t climb, lift,” said veteran analyst John Bordeaux in his Rebel at Work story.
There’s much to take away from this advice. One question might be, “What allows us to lift?”
I remember my first week on a new job talking with a team of discouraged people, demoralized because their client was unhappy with their work.
“Let’s try to show the client how much we’re accomplishing. How about we change the monthly report formats and list everything that we’ve accomplished each month in bullet points, right at the top,” I suggested.
“Yeah, right,” said Cindy. “What happens if we don’t achieve those kinds of results?”
Though I had only been at the agency a couple of weeks I was optimistic that we’d be able to achieve more, especially if we changed a few approaches to the work.
“If we do these two things every month I really think we’ll be able to report some results that will make the client happy. Let’s just try it for a couple of months and see what happens.”
This optimism accomplished two things. The team didn’t resist my new ideas, although they were contrary to the way most teams did things at the company, and the team did in fact achieve results that surprised them and the client. Someone genuinely believing they could succeed lifted the team, and they achieved more than they thought possible.
Optimism has a powerful influence on people. It helps us to take a chance, do something new, invest in an alternative approach.
This is not about chirpy, fake platitudes and those motivational “Dare to do the Impossible” posters posted on bulletin boards near the lunchroom. I’m talking about adopting a mindset focused more on possibilities than problems.
In a world where the voices of the skeptics and naysayers seem to shout the loudest, we optimists quietly and persistently keep going. We do so because we believe that our idea is possible. We see the reasons why it can work and the value it will provide. We follow our passions, know and use our strengths, are open-minded and open-hearted, and we often reflect about what is working and where we can do things differently.
Sure we fall back and get frustrated, too. Big time. But it’s how you respond to setbacks that influences how likely you’ll be able to find the energy to get up and continue on.
The science backs up these views on optimism.
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, a scholar in social and positive psychology and author of Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the 3-to1 Ratio That Will Change Your Life, has found that positivity opens our minds and hearts, making us more receptive to ideas and making us more creative. Positive emotions helps us to discover new skills, new knowledge, and new ways of doing things – and to recover more quickly when things don’t go well.
She suggests that we try to achieve at least a 3:1 positivity ration.
“This means that for every heart-wrenching negative emotional experience you endure, you experience at least three heartfelt positive emotional experiences that uplift you,” Dr. Fredrickson explains. “This is the ratio that I’ve found to be the tipping point, predicting whether people languish or flourish.”
You can’t force optimism and positivity, using insincere, gratuitous gestures and words. That will backfire. You have to really feel it and mean it. No platitudes and smiley faces. People see right through that.
In fact, the subtle difference between positivity and optimism is action, according to Elaine Fox, a psychologist at the University of Essex in England and author of a book on the science of optimism, “Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain.”
“Optimism is not so much about feeling happy, nor necessarily a belief that everything will be fine, but about how we respond when times get tough,” she writes. “Optimists tend to keep going, even when it seems as if the whole world is against them.”
Two weeks ago I was leading an American Marketing Association workshop about how to gain approval and adoption of new ideas. We covered the first four items on the following list through a series exercises and then I asked everyone which of #5 – 10 they most wanted to spend time on.
1. What’s at stake?
2. Make the status quo unappealing
3. Use the SCARF model
4. Uncover the hidden motives
5. It’s an experiment
6. What’s the real issue?
7. Move away from drama
8. Befriend the Bureaucratic Black Belts
9. Stay under the radar
10. Know when to quit
People loved #10. I have to confess I was surprised and perhaps not prepared enough. How do you know when it’s time to let an idea go? Or stop trying to get a project funded? Or get people interested in adopting a new way? Or even leave a job?
Here’s what I suggested:
Yogi Berra allegedly once said, “If the people don’t want to come, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”
Sometimes the time isn’t right for an idea. We rebel thinkers work ahead of most people, and it takes a while for them to catch up with our ideas. Sometimes you just need to wait a while and reintroduce the idea.
Sometimes you may need to more clearly communicate the value and relevance of the idea. It’s easy after a while to get so down into the weeds of how a project or idea will work that people have forgotten why it’s such a good idea in the first place. (Go to #1 on the list: show them what’s at stake, what the idea makes possible and how that’s so much better than what exists today.)
Don’t beat yourself up or take on all that failure language or people will begin to see you as a problem person vs. the creative person who knows how to come up with great ideas.
Even if this was the greatest idea you think you’ve ever developed, know that there will be more great ideas. Creativity doesn’t stop.
Unless, of course, you spend all your energy hanging on too long to an idea no one cares about.
This meant I had to maneuver around Bureaucratic Black Belts (BBBs) and move people off assumptions that they were willing to fight (me) for. All very congenial, but intense nevertheless.
It also meant that I had to find ways to help people see a better way, be confident while also being honest about the uncertainties, and remain steadfast and open-minded.
Talk about paradox. Can I also say once again how exhausted I was?
Two themes I find about change: there can be no progress without paradox, and leading change is often exhausting. Not always. But often.
On Friday afternoon a good friend was kind enough to listen to me talk about what had happened, and ask good questions to help me clarify the best next steps. She also said, “You know, being a rebel is a lot like what Terry Pearce said in his book Leading Out Loud.”
“There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.”
Real rebels are not afraid stay in the ring.
Many of us also take long naps on the weekend.
I was cleaning my office (!) and came across a speech that a former Bell South leader gave to MBA students at Dartmouth’s Tuck School 18 years ago. Theses truths seem as relevant as ever, and perhaps especially relevant for leaders of rebel employees.
Happy New Year (from Carmen!!) Friday Lois shared some great ideas about how to handle disagreement vice just ignoring it. I’ve had a couple of experiences recently that offered some similarly good and practical advice/insight about the rebel life.
Run toward Controversial Projects. This follows on nicely to Lois’s piece on leveraging disagreement. On Wednesday I sat in on a panel that was evaluating proposals for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Here is a link that describes their innovation program. I had a lot of fun, by the way, and learned a lot about environmental science.
About 8 outside reviewers had gone through the proposals beforehand and given them preliminary ratings. On many of the proposals we reviewers pretty much had similar reactions, scoring in a tight range. But on some proposals the range was huge. Some of us would give a proposal the highest score possible–a 5, even as others gave the exact same proposal the lowest score possible–BIG FAT ZERO. As we talked we realized that these proposals were often the most intriguing. Perhaps the inability of panelists to agree on its value was actually an indicator of a proposal’s high innovation potential.
This is important both for rebels and managers who want to help rebels succeed. Or indeed organizations that are starting an innovation process. I know from my vast experience toiling in the bureaucratic vineyards (NO SARCASM THERE!) that organizations have a tendency to go for proposals that everyone agrees upon. This is like a mistake when you’re trying to do something new. The new should invite controversy. Of course, this scenario requires someone to make a decision about how much risk the organization is willing to entertain. Which reminds me yet again that Consensus is a way to AVOID making decisions.
Which highlights why innovation is so hard for organizations. Bureaucrats are individuals who fear Controversy and Disagreement. I had this epiphany recently when I ran across a former colleague who wryly remembered all the controversial issues I had been involved with. I could all but see his shudder as he considered how distasteful such controversies would have been if they had involved him.
The Accidental Rebel. Most of the time we are writing for people who can’t help but be rebels at work. But in mid-December at a conference in Israel I was exposed to the concept of accidental rebels. Nonintentional rebels. Let me explain.
The conference was hosted by Maala, Israel’s leading NGO on corporate social responsibility. About a couple hundred individuals were in attendance representing both other NGO’s and Israeli businesses. They invited me to speak because they believe people who are advocating for corporate social responsibility in many ways are perceived as rebels and also need to use rebel best practices to survive.
I started my talk by speculating that the room was divided into two groups: people who had wanted to work on corporate social responsibility for some time and a second group of folks who had been drafted into this work once their company realized they needed to tackle the issue or at least appear to be doing so. What this second group probably had never anticipated was that they had also been drafted into becoming a corporate rebel. They were being asked to do something that was at least foreign if not unpopular in their company. To succeed they would have to be both good rebels and effective ones.
Many people think disagreeing means that we’re being unkind and insensitive. Or impolite. (Egads!) “Let’s take this off line,” they say.
What’s unkind to me is pretending an uncomfortable issue doesn’t exist when everyone knows it does. There’s a tension at work when this happens. Nothing is moving forward, corporate inertia is draining us, and we’re becoming ever more skeptical about the cry for greater collaboration.
Furthermore, the longer an issue is ignored, the more frustrated and demoralized people become. Even worse, trust and respect among people erode. And when that’s gone, the organization gets crippled.
“When someone comes to a meeting and states an opinion or makes a suggestion that his teammates don’t agree with, those teammates have a choice: they can explain their disagreement and work through it, or they can withhold their opinion and allow themselves to quietly lose respect for their colleague,” says organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni in his excellent book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.
“When team members get to choose the latter option — withholding their opinions — frustration inevitably sets in. Essentially, they’re deciding to tolerate their colleague rather than trust him.”
More than most, we rebels see healthy dissent as a team sport, where everyone with something to contribute is expected to contribute. If you don’t speak up your silence can be interpreted to mean that you agree and have nothing to add.
We view dissent as a way of together getting stronger, like a team preparing to hike Mt. Everest. All the potential issues are honestly discussed and worked through to increase the likelihood of a successful expedition where no one gets hurt. We’re fed by the positive energy around these conversations. We appreciate and value what our colleagues have to say.
We also listen fiercely and ask frank questions. It’s about inquiry vs. preaching. But most organizations practice advocacy instead of inquiry in their conversations, say Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea Mayfield in The Thin Book of Naming Elephants.
“Advocacy is a win-lose form of communication…each person is trying to convince the other that he or she is right and there is only one right answer. Dialogue assumes people see the world differently…each person assumes he or she can learn something new from others.”
So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates? Here are some suggestions.
- How did your thinking on this issue shift?
- What one thing did you find most useful from the discussion?
- What was the high point of this discussion for you?
For more helpful ideas on facilitating healthy dissent, read Carmen’s post, “Advice for Managers: Do You Make It Easy for People to Disagree with You?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “All that screaming and headbanging and moshing. Do you know how old I am?”
Later that night I thought, why not? What might I learn if I went? Who might I meet and what kind of story might emerge?
The next morning I read a post by Seth Godin, “Ridiculous is the New Remarkable,” in which he wrote:
We can view the term ridiculous as an insult from the keeper of normal, a put-down from the person who seeks to maintain the status quo and avoid even the contemplation of failure.
Or we embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.
Generous, daring, creative and silly? Mmmmm.
Then yesterday a big city mayor’s chief of staff called and asked if I could lead a retreat the Saturday after Christmas for front-line city managers who are burned out and frustrated. “Their jobs are never going to get easier, but maybe you could help them get re-energized and see that they’re part of something bigger.”
Again, my first thought was, “That’s ridiculous. I planned on taking a week off. I have no time to get my head around this. I don’t know any of these people, and I’d be giving my time away.”
So I agreed to do it.
This afternoon I have a call with a former editor at Random House about editing a book that I’ve been too afraid to push out into the world, and yet feel needs to get into the world. I’ve decided to self-publish the book, which seems ridiculous. Will anyone take it seriously if I self-publish? With Guy Kawasaki’s new book as my guide, I’m going to do it. (The books is APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How To Publish Your Book.)
You see, I’ve decided to make “ridiculous” a strategy for 2013.
When presented with situations that my gut screams “RIDICULOUS!” I am going to say yes. Ridiculous will be a filter for making decisions on how I spend my time, how I learn, and how I challenge my own assumptions. You see, though I am a rebel at work, it’s easy to fall into business and life as usual, holding on to assumptions and unconsciously rejecting new perspectives.
Since I made this decision yesterday, the year ahead feels quite exciting. Perhaps even liberating.
I don’t know where this ridiculous adventure will take me, but I am confident I will learn much, laugh much, and become a more creative and empathetic person.
Warmest wishes for a holiday season that’s ridiculously happy and rich in possibilities.
In his book “It’s All About Time: How Companies and Innovate and Why Some Do It Better,” John explains the three mindsets:
- Past thinking gathers as much data as possible and is concerned with accuracy and truth. It is reflective.
- Present thinking seeks some measure of control over unfolding events. It is primarily practical.
- Future thinking is open to possibilities, seeks out new opportunities and intuits what the future might bring. It is essentially imaginative.
When we understand how we think — and how our colleagues think — we can better manage ourselves, ensure the right type of thinkers are collaborating for the objective at hand, understand organizational culture dynamics, and pinpoint thinking types we may need to hire to achieve organizational goals.
For rebels, understanding the thinking mindsets of colleagues and bosses can also be useful in helping to overcome obstacles and make people comfortable with adopting change.
We invite you to take this quick survey to see your style, and to help all of us understand the mindset of corporate rebels in a more scientific way. All responses are private; you’ll get a snapshot of your individual thinking style, see a map of where other self-identified rebels fit on an overall map of past, present and future thinking, and have access to 39 specific questions related to organizational culture, leadership, innovation, and morale.
We’ll summarize the results right after the holidays and talk about the practical implications for rebels at work.
The Petraeus affair is a tragic story, of which all I know is what I read in the “papers”. It does, however, provide a “good” bad example of what I observe way too much of in organizations: the turning of a “leader” into a “hero”; the love of a strong hand at the controls; and the conflation of an idea with the person carrying it.
Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. Repeat after me. Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. I remember once when I was attending a year-long leadership seminar about a decade ago–right after 911. We would occasionally take trips together and the instructors would show films about leadership during the bus rides. EVERY SINGLE MOVIE was about a leader in war. The favorite of course was the Henry V film by Kenneth Branagh. Honestly, I have nothing against Shakespeare; in fact most of his dramas actually speak to the foibles of the Leader as Hero myth. But the emphasis in this and other courses I took was always about the importance of YOU the LEADER as a visionary individual, as the person who could make everything happen, and as the essential individual in extraordinary situations. How about leadership in normal times, I asked? Could you show a movie about something a bit more relevant to our likely experiences?
Petraeus, it seems to me, fit the Leader as Hero paradigm. And if you read his biography, with his apparent emphasis on always being the best, you get the impression that the Hero mantle was one he himself took off the coat hanger. The problem with the Heroic Leader, of course, is that there ain’t no such thing. Not for long anyway. And the organization becomes overdependent on the individual as the wise decisionmaker, which as we all know carries considerable risks. The person anointed as the Hero is also at considerable risk of believing what people say about him. As former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said earlier this month: “There is something about having great power…that skews people’s judgment.” (Full quote appeared in this great piece in the Washington Post.)
The lessons for rebels here is that Heroism is not a Rebel Strategy either. There are perhaps some rebels that are still storming the ramparts in hopes of overwhelming those who don’t “get it!” How’s that working for you? In my experience most organizations become wiser slowly; people start having “aha” moments here and there; the rebel is often just the person who gets to the “aha” moment more quickly. And if the organization wants to anoint you as a hero, RESIST!
Closely related to the Heroic Leadership model is the desire for a Strong Hand at the Controls. Clearly there is something deep in human evolution that leads us to want someone who will just tell us what to do. There is a reason why so many small children want to be Darth Vader on Halloween.
History (by which I mean many individuals doing difficult and time-consuming analysis and research) will eventually tell us how much the “surge success” in Iraq can be traced back to decisions made by General Petraeus and how much were the consequences of complex interactions and chaotic lucky bounces. But I am certain that two analytic lines will emerge: 1. the decisions of any one individual were always buffeted by the dynamics of the situation, and 2. the strong decisionmaker was unable to anticipate the many downstream and often adverse consequences of his decisions. Which is why that nice feeling we get knowing there is a strong hand at the controls inevitably becomes, at some point, an illusion.
This is not so much a lesson for rebels as for organizations who tend to breed them. Without Darth Vader (and the Emperor), there would have been no need for a Rebel Alliance. If you find yourself confronting mini rebellions all over the workplace, then you too are suffering from the Strong Hand at the Controls disease. Stop pulling so hard at the levers. Step away from the controls.
The final lesson illustrated by the Petraeus affair is the constant danger rebels run of conflating themselves with the ideas they are advancing. Petraeus became synonymous with the US military’s new insurgency doctrine. In this case, the concepts he advanced will likely survive his scandal. But I think we’re all familiar with ideas that become so identified with the individuals who espouse them that any doubts about the individual end up besmirching their ideas as well.
I think ideas have their own trajectory independent of the individuals who come to believe them. Rebels are the carriers of new ideas; rarely are they the owners. Just making the mental shift from being an idea owner to an idea carrier could be helpful to rebels in large organizations. If you are carrying an idea then your Number 1 goal should be to get someone else to share the burden with you. Infect others as soon as you can. Let your idea mutate as it makes contact with other ideas. Make the idea independent of you as soon as you can!
I attended an informal meetup of Rebels at Work earlier this month. About 15 individuals all working in the same outfit gathered to share ideas, particularly about strengthening the rebel and innovation spirit in their organization. It was a great meeting judging by how well over schedule it went and the quality of the ideas we harvested. Here are a few of them; I bet many of you will find one or two useful.
Which reminds me of this old Stevie Winwoodsong:
Happy Thanksgiving to all the Rebels at Work.
For governments a narrative is like a clothesline, and you hang your policies from it, says David Gergen, communications adviser to four U.S. presidents. Similarly, companies hang its products and services from the clothesline. Doing so helps people understand what’s important and how the pieces of the puzzle fit together.
If your idea supports the organizational narrative, people will likely be more open to considering it, or at least paying attention to it.
Narratives are simple explanations.
Here are a few examples:
These narratives can be like North Stars — a fixed point in the sky that can be used to guide decisions, serve as a organizing prompt for telling relevant stories, open up thinking about new products or ways to work.
Narratives can also be a quest. I like John Hagel’s view in this Forbes article:
Story chronicles the path and progress of a limited set of protagonists – from the beginning, through the middle, to the end of a story arc. Narratives, in contrast, are designed for a growing number of protagonists — many of whom are yet to be defined — who share a common quest or journey that is yet to be fully resolved or completed.
To help companies find their narrative, I like to invite people to think of their organization as a cause or movement and speed write a rallying cry, starting with a verb. Or quickly write many responses to the “I believe that ….” prompt about their organization or company. No over-thinking, self-editing or corporate speak. Just ideas, beliefs and aspiration, from the gut.
I’ve also been suggesting to people that they NOT make this a formal process. Take some narrative possibilities and insert them into casual business conversations. Then into some presentations as a way of setting context to your ideas. See how people react. Ask them, “Does this help you better understand our strategy? Do you see how this new product line fits with our overall business? Can you imagine how this policy falls outside of our focus? Is this something you’d like to be part of?”
See how well the narrative serves you. If it works, quietly seed it so it can grow and serve others without bringing in committees, copywriters, lawyers or naysayers. Insert it into the CEO’s talking points. Use it to frame the next acquisition or product launch. If it helps, then make it better known and part of the company’s leadership strategy.
And if it doesn’t resonate? Keep experimenting.
Finding a narrative gives your organization meaning.
Showing how your maverick idea can manifest this meaning opens opportunities and helps disarm the naysayers.
This Friday I was telling a story about an experience I had in a meeting many years ago. I was new to these meetings; I had just been promoted to a new position. A serious decision was being made and as I listened to the discussion it became clear to me that one important aspect of the decision was not going to be discussed. I knew this was not a trivial issue but I also realized it probably fell in the category of “elephant in the room people had probably long decided not to talk about.” At the time I weighed two considerations:
And so I said nothing. It has always troubled me I said nothing.
As I told this story one insightful young man asked me:
“Could the leader of the meeting have done something to make you feel comfortable enough to ask the question?”
As a leader, particularly during challenging, change-infested times like these, it’s your responsibility, your obligation to ensure people feel comfortable in saying what they really think about the decisions you want to make and the opinions you have. I know this runs counter to the “strong personality as leader” archetype many of us carry around in our heads, but it is nevertheless essential if you want to ensure your organization considers all points of view. (This archetype, by the way, provides a convenient excuse for individuals in the workplace not to be more proactive in offering up their suggestions.)
So what could the leader of the meeting have said or done:
I’m not, by the way, fond of the idea of the leader turning to the new person in the room and asking them what they think. That puts them in the hot seat in precisely the way they want to avoid.
I’m sure there are other good suggestions for how managers can make it easy for people to disagree and offer rebel opinions. Please add yours!!