It's the problem

Photo by  Marek Okon  on  Unsplash

Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash

“The secret is to find the important problems and focus on those,” explained Monique Savoie, founding president of the Society for Arts & Technology (SAT) in Montreal, which some call the MIT of Canada (although it is so much more), and a visionary on the interdisciplinary challenges of bridging science, art and technology.

Monique was responding to a Fortune 100 executive’s question about how to better prioritize resources and talent, cultivate more creative, flexible organizational cultures, and attract and keep talent.

While the response may seem simplistic, it is not. Great solutions result from of getting the problem right, and then focusing work on solving that problem. Acting like scientists in challenging our assumptions and then developing and researching hypotheses with the people who might benefit from a new approach.

Solving the right problems, the most important problems, also motivates team members. It is “employee engagement” at its best. Almost all of us want to be working on something that matters.

“What is the most important problem for us to take on?” may be one of the most helpful questions to consider in this annual planning season.

Another wise leader, Meg Wheatley, also urges us to more clearly see what needs to be done and then go do it.

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

Some people want to put us into a category.
Some people only feel good when they know where they fit.

Are you an optimist?
A pessimist?

Really, there’s only one right answer. You have to be an optimist.
Otherwise you’re a drag. No fun to be around. Dr. Death.
And a new term, you’re from the “Doomsphere.”

In the past, we were taught to note our worldview by looking at a glass of water.
Is the glass half empty? Is it half full?

Your answer defines your identity: Gloom and doom or hopeful and great to hang
out with.

What a nonsensical question this is. Is the glass half full or half empty?
Who cares?!

The right question for Warriors is:
Who needs the water and how can we get it to them?
What is the work that needs doing and how can I contribute to making it

No labels. Just seeing clearly what needs to be done and stepping up to do it.

Margaret Wheatley ©2019

Is This the Time?

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Budget, planning time

This is the time of year most organizations do planning and budgeting. Are you looped into how to get your idea into the budgeting and approval cycle?

Important for the time being

Brilliant ideas go nowhere unless people in the organization feel the ideas are relevant, important or urgent. Are there signs that this might be the time for your idea? Have you clearly shown why and how the idea supports the 2020 strategic through-line?

Time for a through-line?

Does your organization even have a strategic through-line, a connecting theme that ties together every department’s goals and plans? If not, is this the time to help create one? It may be one of the most helpful and under-used leadership planning practices. Unlike quantifiable goals, through-lines provide a narrative, human thread that paints a picture of the adventure the organization is taking on for the year. Good through-lines are about 15 words. One way to jumpstart your thinking is to fill in the rest of this sentence: “This is the year we’re going to ……”

An idea for the times

External factors -- like climate change, sustainability, equality, employee wellbeing -- are so vocal and visible that many leaders are asking, “How do we balance profit and humanity?”  If the economic system that puts profit ahead of humanity is not sustainable, what can we do?  If conversations like this are happening, this opens a door for Rebels to step in and propose new ways. Or even propose a way to think about new ways. 

Our Rebel value is not just in our ideas, but in our skills in helping our colleagues think in new ways.

Time for others

Is this the time to help and support other Rebels in your organization? What might you be able to do, however small or large, to help your teammates make their ideas successful? 

Our Rebel value is not just in the ideas we develop, but in our compassion and generosity helping others with their ideas and projects.

Down time

Would some down time rest that big brain of yours? Would stepping back from relentlessly pushing your ideas help you gain some helpful perspective? Effective Rebels practice self-care – taking walks outside, turning off notifications early in the evening, making time for friends and family, reveling in small pleasures, from seeing a local band to reading a novel or watching a movie.

Disruptive times are fraught with fear and despair for most.

I urge you to rebel against fear and make your possibilities real.

Hold on to optimism.

Create small moments of joy at work. The energy from joy is infectious, positive, and makes the adventure – and its inevitable slogs and organizational land mines – worthwhile.

When we started Rebels at Work 10 years ago Carmen and I said that the world needed Rebels more than ever.

Maybe our timing was off.

Because now is the time.


Adelante, dear Rebels.

Lois, co-founder, Rebels at Work

Creating a Safer Workplace

Workplace-related suicides have increased in recent years, and organizations and businesses need to ensure they are doing right by their staff by sustaining healthy work conditions and providing appropriate resources for colleagues facing difficult times. The RANE network just published an advisory for its clients about mental health in the workplace and interviewed me (Carmen) for the piece. Rebels at Work, of course, encounter stress in the workplace; the chapter in the book Rebels at Work on rebel self-care is among the most popular. Here are some excerpts from the article and at the end a link that will download the PDF file of the complete text.

My comments emphasized that the default way organizations function creates tensions in the workplace. One example is the stigma against rocking the boat. Even when organizations do not specifically state it, employees often perceive that “companies do not like it if they challenge the organization in any way, including by offering a new idea or by stating that they have too much work.” A related dynamic is the value that so many organizations place on “smoothness.” Managers that let employees know they value stability and smoothness are also making it harder for individuals to tell you they perceive a problem or need some time off to deal with personal issues.

Organizations also promote stress by creating a work plan and objectives that require 100% of workforce time to achieve. There is no flex in the schedule to deal with personal emergencies, unexpected work load, or hiccups in the supply chain. Businesses that consistently run at the red line are guaranteed to burn up their employees.

I suggested that companies instead design their annual goals in such a way that the organization retains some excess capacity that can be used to deal with contingencies or to allow staff to pursue new projects. Companies interested in creating a psychologically-safe work environment should conduct cultural audits to reveal all the subtle ways they impose unnecessary stress on employees—from how they talk about performance appraisals to the way they run meetings and the expectation to answer emails during non-work hours. The introduction of artificial intelligence to knowledge work will be a new stress point for staff, some of whom may find that what they are good at is now done better by a machine.

There’s much more good content in the article including some specific information about preventing suicide in the workplace from Dr. Sally Spencer-Thomas. Download the complete text here.

For Active Adults Only

Employees seeking empowerment.

Employees seeking empowerment.

There’s a new development under construction in my neighborhood and a big sign at the construction site advertises the new complex will include an “active adults” community. And every time I walk by I ponder how the phrase “active adults” means almost exactly the opposite of what the individual words signify; I’m anticipating that many not-particularly-active adults are already queuing up to lease or buy.

This has led me to reflect on several terms that appear almost every day in the business literature—terms I have grown to dislike and which usually end up meaning the opposite of what the words signify. So here’s a few of them.

EMPLOYEE EMPOWERMENT. Some of my favorite recent “headlines” on this topic (along with my parenthetical, snarky asides) include:

The Ultimate Starter Guide to Employee Empowerment (So you want to empower your employees, but don’t know where to begin…)

Don’t be Afraid to Give Employees Real Autonomy (I guess as opposed to fake autonomy.)

Corporate America’s New Flexible Dress Code is Indicative of a trend toward Employee Empowerment (I just don’t even know where to begin here!)

These headlines reveal what I think is the problem with the discussion around employee empowerment. Empowering the staff appears to be a tactic the manager/leader can use if they want. Rather than what I think it should be: a fundamental principle at work. Talking a lot about employee empowerment is a telltale sign that there isn’t any.

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION. Aaargh!! Where to begin? I know that the usage of this term is often well-intentioned. Leaders recognize that just increasing the diversity of their staff is insufficient; they need to ensure that diverse voices have meaningful (equal?) impact in the workplace. But the use of the word inclusion is, I think, a mistake—actually counterproductive.

The use of the word “inclusion” just leads me to wonder how come I don’t naturally belong. Why does there have to be a “special” effort to include people who for whatever reason differ from the corporate norm? Why do we have a corporate norm in the first place? I can’t put it any better than Aubrey Blanche who wrote in a recent post that

Inclusion is like someone calling you saying: Hey, I am having a party and the people I wanted to come over are not joining, so you can come now. I am not interested in being included in spaces designed for specific groups of people who have no interest in what I can bring to the table. 

COLLABORATION. I remember a young man I knew briefly in college—not well—who was agonizing over how to acquire “class.” I guess he suspected he was lacking in it (although I have no idea why he thought I might be helpful in this regard.) And all I could think (but not say) was that trying to think of ways to acquire class was itself kind of classless.

And that’s how I think about collaboration. Trying to make collaboration happen when it isn’t occurring naturally is not very collaborative. Adding steps to a process to “promote collaboration” doesn’t usually work; at best you get deconfliction, which is sadly what many organizations settle for.

Collaboration is a naturally-occurring phenomenon in healthy teams. An organization is likely to make more progress achieving collaboration by working on creating a positive and psychologically safe environment. You can design a process that requires Team A to coordinate with Team B on Issue Zed, but if the two teams don’t trust each other all you will get is box-checking.

Just some closing thoughts on a term I’ve grown tired of—LEADERSHIP—but not because it has an ambiguous or contradictory meaning. We all agree that individuals who are leaders are responsible for motivating the team, setting the vision, anticipating the future, solving cold fusion, and quantifying dark matter. And that’s the problem, isn’t it? Business, much more I think than other disciplines, still worships enthusiastically at the altar of the Great Man, and it is still usually a man. There are currently 27 female CEOs among S&P 500 companies; indeed, there are more men named Jeffrey than women.

I’m convinced the cult of leadership still does more to hinder rather than advance excellence in organizations. Or rather let me put it a different way. Every organization needs more people who behave like leaders. Leaving it up to one or two exalted individuals is just asking too much from flawed human beings. Each of us has the potential for an important contribution. So go and make it! Be an active adult!

Perseverance loves to party

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After 2.5 hours of an intense 5Rhythms dance training I was about to literally collapse. The music started to slow, and I thought, “Finally, we’re winding down.”

But no.

Our wonderful teacher Heeraa paused the music and told us that in our exhaustion we would dance our best dances. Our judgmental heads were too tired to interfere with how our bodies really wanted to move.

She might have even said something about being too tired to give a shit how we danced. But I may have been hallucinating.

I do clearly remember that she assured us that our best insights come from listening to what our bodies tell us.

Then she cranked up the trance music.

My bossy pants head said, “Stop now, you don’t have to keep up with people 30 or 40 years younger.”

My body said, “C’mon girlfriend, stop playing that age excuse card. Let’s fly around the dance floor. Perseverance loves to party.”

A weird way to up my tenacity

I think I kept going until the end.

That night I felt exhausted and content, kind of peaceful, and maybe numb because not a bone in my 63-year-old body was complaining.

There’s a lot of wisdom from conscious dance practices.

But this weekend I reflected on perseverance, especially as it’s one of my weakest character traits, like a lot of Rebels at Work.

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When we persevere, too exhausted for our brains to get all emotionally wound up in situations at work, we often see things and people in new ways.  It’s like those aha moments while we’re dozing off to sleep. We’re not thinking anymore and all of a sudden, a brilliant idea pops.

Or as we’re persevering new people join us. If we care that much to keep going, the least that they can do is help get us/our projects to the finish line.  As my body moved on the dance floor it picked up energy from everyone else. One guy even took me in his arms, and we did a quick little waltz to the drumbeat of trance music.  He gave me new energy.

Most of all, I was reminded that if we practice, we can get better, even at things that we’re not innately good at, which for me is perseverance.

And the payoff of tenacity?

I’m sure there are many. Playing the long game to finish difficult challenges can be especially fulfilling and meaningful.

But for me it was something quite simple and luxurious: my body rewarded me with the soundest sleep I’ve had in years.


Rebels, You are Needed!

We can gain some insight about the domains that desperately need some rebel energy by checking out the demographics of our Twitter followers at A strong plurality if not a majority work in the health industry. Check out this word cloud generated by followerwonk derived from our followers’ twitter bios.

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Another large group of followers are government workers from all levels— state, local, regional and federal. Of course in many countries health workers are also government employees, most notably in the United Kingdom where the National Health Service has recently become interested in promoting positive change agents. By the way, here is a map showing the global reach of @rebelsatwork.

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An interesting subset of our government followers are individuals who work for the US Intelligence Community. That’s where one half of @rebelsatwork learned their lessons, mainly me! Although I no longer hold any security clearances, I still attend the occasional intelligence-related conference and that’s where I was earlier this week, attending the 2019 GEOINT symposium, devoted to all forms of geospatial information and analysis. One of the more interesting panels, for example, dealt with using geospatial intelligence to help fight California forest fires.

But I digress. A highlight of the annual symposium is the presentation of a lifetime achievement award to a geospatial pioneer. This year’s awardee is Dr. Annette Krygiel, a woman who helped create modern geospatial analysis. She shared her most important best practice with the audience:

Humans solve problems or accomplish complex tasks by collaborating—by working together in teams.
My lesson learned is it can be beneficial, even NECESSARY, to employ teams that are composed using
diversity as an organizing criteria…think REBELS AND WILD CARDS.

(You can catch her comments here.)

After her talk, Dr. Krygiel told me she was going to order the book Rebels at Work, although it sounds to me that she could have written it. Just goes to show that society has always had and needed rebels. It seems to be a lesson that is in constant need of relearning.

Create Your Rebel Alliance

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“Change happens one lunch table at a time,” Carmen has often said referring to her informal Rebel Alliance at the CIA.

The point is that to move new ideas forward at work we need help from others. We can’t do it alone. The best “experts” on how to make change and move new ideas forward in our organizations are almost always the people in our organizations.

The people inside know how the organization really works. The hidden gatekeepers. The risks and trends the execs are secretly obsessing about. How to streamline contracts through Purchasing and Legal. What helps IT to respond more quickly.

Like-minded Rebels can help us figure out how to get things done within the quirkiness of our particular organization, how to make our ideas better, and when to hit the pause or go faster button.

As importantly, our Rebel friends can offer support, empathy, and, if we’re lucky, sick humor to keep everything in perspective.

Tips for starting online Rebel community

Some of us we can have regular lunch or after-work get togethers. There is nothing better than being together in person. But for those spread across geographic locations, an online Rebel community might be helpful.

We asked Rachel Happe, co-founder and chief wonk of The Community Roundtable, for suggestions on how to create a stealth Rebel Alliance. (ps -- No one knows more about communities and networked communications than Rachel. An added bonus is that she is a good Rebel.) 

Here’s what she suggests.

PURPOSE: start by establishing the purpose and value of the Rebel Alliance. What do you want to do together and why? 

When Elwin Loomis started a secret invite-only Rebel Alliance at Target the purpose was to get help and provide help to people who want to get sh*t done. Members were invited based on their track record of taking action to get things done and done fast, and their knowledge of the rules at Target and their experience circumventing the rules to get things done for the betterment of the company and team.

In starting the Rebel Alliance, Elwin explained its value this way:  “Large companies are hierarchies. But while the people at the top of the hierarchy tree seem to be the most important, they often are not the ones who are the most influential (or most impactful) to get stuff done. More often, it is the guy off in the corner of the org chart who has the access to the systems that you need, or the assistant to the president who can get you that info that you need. The Rebel Alliance members are the company’s “do-ers. Let’s care and feed people who are makers, who can create, and who ‘do’. Continue to ‘get sh*t done’!”

Challenge coins are created for elite organizations to recognize and prove membership. Here are the Rebel Alliance coins given to members of the Target Rebel Alliance, a secret support group, not endorsed by Target.

Challenge coins are created for elite organizations to recognize and prove membership. Here are the Rebel Alliance coins given to members of the Target Rebel Alliance, a secret support group, not endorsed by Target.

BASICS: figure out who will loosely manage the community, who to invite and what validating questions to ask people who want to join, what platform to use, and who’s in charge if someone misbehaves.

START SMALL and SIMPLE: Rachel suggests starting really small and uncomplicated. Maybe the Rebel Alliance starts with just five people. And you could start small and inexpensive by using a Facebook private or secret group.

GET TO KNOW ONE ANOTHER: This is hugely important for any group, especially one where you need to trust one another and be able to talk candidly. 

Have  a simple but interesting format for rich profiles: some serious information, some quirky. For example: what you do in the organization, your superpower, three things people can ask you about, and or whether you’re a cat or dog person. (See the bios on The Community Roundtable site as examples.)

Adding photos is hugely helpful in getting to know one another. Beyond a personal photo, consider asking people to share a photo of their desk, or of their favorite Rebel in history.

WEEKLY SHARE: to orchestrate serendipity get into some simple weekly habits, like posting the three big things you’ll each be working on this week. This helps people get to know who knows what, which helps you know who to turn to for specific help. Consider, too, what regular prompts might be helpful in encouraging people to share about what they know and what they’re experiencing.

For more in-depth ideas about creating and running a Rebel Alliance, check out the many resources at The Community Roundtable.

And if you’ve created some sort of stealth way to support Rebels in your organization, please SHARE your experience in the comments.

Rebel on, dear friends.

Game of Thrones Reminder: You've Got the Power

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Watching Games of Thrones Sunday I was reminded that we Rebels often have the power we need to act. We don’t have to “get permission” from bosses or the hierarchy within which we work.

Now, back to Winterfell, that cold, dark castle in the north. As the old gang was sitting around the fire and sharing war stories over wine Tormund Giantsband was shocked to learn that Brienne of Tarth wasn’t a “ser” like her male peers. He boasted that he’d make her a knight if he was a king.

Jaimie Lannister chimed in to point out that it doesn’t take a king to make someone a knight.

A knight can make someone a knight.

And then Jamie knighted Brienne. Knight to Knight.

Do we mistakenly tell ourselves we can’t do things that are within our power?

As importantly, are we helping and supporting our peers to claim their power? To act like the Knights they are even though the Kings and Queens have not bestowed fancy titles?

“In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave.”

Innovation is the Opposite of Policy

Lois Kelly and I are regularly amazed and humbled by the resonance that Rebels at Work continues to have. And just when we think there aren’t any new wrinkles out there for us to share, we come across a new voice.

Daniel Hulter is in the US Air Force. He is writing about innovation on LinkedIn. And he shared a piece recently that made a wonderful and necessary distinction between innovation as the glamorous endeavors of Mavericks and the almost routine actions of individuals who figure out the right thing to do in any given situation. Like the individual in a bureaucracy who has the wisdom to see that a policy, written forty years ago by individuals perhaps no longer on this mortal coil, cannot be followed in a particular human situation.

Hulter has the hunch—and we agree—that if organizations worried more about encouraging the latter and less about their flagship innovation projects, they would improve just as quickly with less sturm und drang. A simple and meaningful definition of Innovation is the Opposite of Policy. Policy incorporates what the past has told us about the best way to do something—and let me just say that the “best way” incorporates a whole set of assumptions that merit examination. For example, organizations often think that smooth operations are the BEST operations; the desire for smoothness, however, can trample over other good things such as diversity of thought and trying out new ideas.

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But let me add a qualifier. Not all policies are bad and not all innovation is good. Amy from Minneapolis (not his real name) wrote me to complain that it’s not a good thing when employees in a large organization ignore security policies and thus open themselves to malicious hacking. Some policies are worth having and some innovations are just stupid. It is an annoying fact of life that to navigate it successfully you must learn to maneuver through the grey. Shades of grey are difficult to distinguish from black or white. What I thought was a simple matter turns out more nuanced. That’s why you need allies, disagreeable givers, a wild pack, and, yes, even opponents to help you see.

Meg Wheatley on Sane Leadership in an Insane World



What if you went to work every day knowing that your boss was devoted to helping you and everyone in the organization become more generous, creative, and kind?

That she made sure that the team met quarterly to sit around and think together about problems and opportunities? And that she valued creating a sense of community and contribution in your organization as much as meeting the demanding corporate measures and metrics?

Despite the crazy, destructive world we live in, a work environment that believes in our essential goodness and potential just might make life more bearable. Maybe even joyful on many days.

In an insane world, we need this kind of saner leadership,  explained Margaret “Meg” Wheatley in a webinar hosted yesterday by the Institute of Coaching. Meg is a teacher, co-founder of The Berkana Institute, and author of many books including the most recent “Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity.” 

(Full disclosure: I have been a Meg Wheatley fan for years; she’s brilliant, kind, generous and oh so creative and prescient about emerging trends and their implications on work.)

Rediscovering generosity, creativity, kindness

“We need leaders who have an unshakeable belief that people can be generous, creative and kind, and who will create the conditions to help people rediscover the basic human qualities of generosity, creativity, community and kindness,” she said. “This is leadership sanity.”

Without this belief, organizations default to bureaucracy, which kills the human spirit and causes us to retreat into self-serving behaviors.

To be able to help others rediscover their capabilities, Meg believes that leaders* today need a spiritual practice to take themselves out of themselves and become more aware of a greater reality. This might be a contemplative practice, meditation or absorption in making art, playing music, participating in sports. Anything that takes us into a zone of life on a grander scale than us and our work.

She also suggests leaders reflect on their own experiences where the best of the human spirit was alive and well. What conditions existed that made that possible?

(*And we’re all leaders if we so choose.)


Other highlights from Meg’s talk:

 For others: Putting service over self and working on behalf of others is the only true fulfillment. The relevant question today is not “What is my purpose or passion?” but rather “How do I serve others based on what the world needs?” Focus on others, not ourselves.

 Time tragedy: The greatest tragedy at work is that we’ve lost the time to think. We act from reactivity, not intelligence. Restoring thinking at work is a revolutionary act.

 Thinking together: People love having an opportunity to think together.  We feel motivated – and less anxious and fearful -- when we rediscover what thinking and working in community can add to our lives. Leaders need to build in regular time for people to sit around and think together.

 Hope addicts: We are a culture addicted to hope. When you bring in hope, you bring in fear because they come from the same source of energy. Organizations are full of fear and anxiety, which generate self-protective behavior, anger, and conflict.  

 Expectations: Clarity is the other side of hope and fear. There is often serenity and joy when we clearly see the work that needs to be done and step in to do it without any expectations of failure or success.  It’s work worth doing no matter how it turns out.

 Joyfulness: There is a sense of joyfulness when people come together to do work worth doing and have time to think and develop meaningful relationships.

It’s our turn

And I leave you with this from Meg’s book “Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future”:

“Several years ago, I read of a Buddhist teacher who encouraged people filled with despair over the state of the world. His advice was simple and wise: ‘It’s our turn to help the world.’

“Because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders. Some people ask, ‘Where have all the leaders gone?’  But if we worry that there is a shortage of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place, usually at the top of some hierarchy.

“Instead we need to look around us, to look locally. And we need to look at ourselves.”

The commmitments: self-compassion, wild packs, finding the good

Choose your wild self by @LoisKelly

Choose your wild self by @LoisKelly

“The most insightful conversations about leadership are not coming from leadership conferences,” I tweeted after reading some uninspiring Tweets about the leadership presentations at the Global Drucker Forum in Vienna.

The irony wasn’t lost on me that I had just wrapped up facilitating a leadership retreat for women executives.  Not a conference. No experts. No thought leaders. (Geez, I hate that term; it’s so 1990s. Just like a lot of assumptions about leadership that we Rebels at Work detest.)

Instead, it was a time for these CEOs, CFOs, and COOs to reflect, have honest conversations with one another, quietly consider what they might want to let go of, and frankly and often boisterously wonder what they might want to do very differently.

I suspect that perspectives shifted because these women had the courage to go deep into themselves and not simply assess their “performance” from the safe context of titles, labels, board assumptions and financial measures. (Another aside: performance seems like another outdated work word. How about contributions instead?)

I’ve led this type of retreat many times this year, in many parts of the world, for people in many kinds of professional fields and industries. Every individual comes away with different priorities. But three practices especially resonated this year.

More self-compassion

The first is the need for greater self-compassion.

“I am so, so tough on myself” is a recurring theme. (Especially among women and those who self-identify as Rebels at Work.) Our drive and ambition often become internal demons. These nasty demons hold our brains hostage, blinding our ability to see clearly and sucking away our positive energy.  We become too self-critical and judgmental.

When we practice self-compassion the demons go away – or at least get quieter --  leaving us with more positive energy and a clearer view of our work, according to Professor Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

Self-compassion is not self-absorption, self-pity or being selfish. It is simply treating ourselves kindly, as we would treat a good friend.  An interesting research finding I like to share with skeptics: self-critics are less likely to achieve their goals.

 Find the good stuff

The second theme is appreciating what IS working well.

In Positive Psychology there is a practice called “hunting the good stuff,” where you write down three things – however small -- that went well in the day, rather than defaulting to what went wrong. This daily practice of noticing positive experiences builds gratitude and optimism.  We begin noticing the good more than all the problems that need to be solved. (Side note: The U.S. Army uses this practice as part of its Army Resilience Training.)

In addition to doing this as a personal practice, I suggest teams do this at the end of the week. Everyone simply shares the three good things about her/his work week in your online community or via email. As the week wraps, you see what you collectively have accomplished, which is always more than you realize.

Run with your wild pack

The third practice most leaders commit to is their wild packs.  (Thanks to branding consultant Jeffrey Davis for introducing this phrase to me.)

While most of us have supportive friends in our lives, it’s harder to find those who challenge our thinking and assumptions, inspire us to take risks, urge us to take creative leaps outside our comfort zones. These are the people who stretch us because they care about us. We don’t necessarily get “atta girls” from them, but we get intellectually and creatively challenged. They stir us up in good ways.

Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, says that disagreeable givers are some of our most valuable colleagues at work.  And, I would suggest, as friends.

"Disagreeable givers are the people who, on the surface, are rough and tough, but ultimately have others' best interests at heart," Grant says. "They are the people who are willing to give you the critical feedback that you don't want to hear--but you need to hear. They play devil's advocate. They challenge the status quo. They ask tough questions.”

The 2019 big commitments: self-compassion, looking for the good every day, and finding more time for people who bring out our wild and wondrous selves.

Wiser, wilder, more joyful

As for me, I’m committing to practices – and people – to help me become wiser, wilder, and more joyful. The more joyful part seems especially rebellious for me because it seems almost too pat or superficial. But then I remember the research that says positivity and joy open up our pre-frontal cortex to better see possibilities.

I’m also committing to helping people break the cycle of old-boy, alpha leadership so that more people can work in togetherness cultures. Where every voice is heard and valued, and where we respect intent and contribution more than titles and status.

Wishing you a season of joy -- and the courage to commit to one practice that will make you a more brave-hearted, compassionate Rebel at Work.




Stay in the swamp

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People are fleeing the swamp of synthesis – that terrible, magical, challenging place where we birth new ideas.  It is a swamp filled with discomfort where we look at our research and the hundreds of Post-It notes on the wall and search for patterns and insights that lead us to the “aha” solution.

In IDEO’s project “mood map” this is the synthesis phase. And as depicted in the map, it is where our spirits are the lowest. This is the hard, hard work of design and problem solving.

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And because it is so difficult, many of us rush through it. We want to get out of the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty – and the feeling that we may never get it right.

Is this why we “fail fast”?

When we rush this phase and the initiative turns our mediocre or a bust, we have logical reasons to justify the “fail.” Not enough budget for research. Unrealistic deadlines. Customers aren’t ready for that much innovation.

The most popular and ridiculous excuse is putting on the badge of honor of “failing fast.”

I speak at conferences around the world and this year it seems as though every speaker is urging people to fail fast.  Aside from this meme starting to sound trite, I have a hunch that a lot of the fast failing is because we spend too little time in the swamp of synthesis.

The beloved Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has famously written that “suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

Similarly, suffering through the synthesis phase of ideation is necessary to grow our ideas. There can be no innovative ideas without wading through the mud in the synthesis swamp.

How long to slog, when to get out?

But how do you stay in the swamp long enough, despite the discomfort, and how do you know when it’s time to get out?  I have no definitive answers here, only observations from facilitating creative teams and doing my own creative work.

First, it’s important that leaders understand the importance of the synthesis swamp and that they need to allow time for this phase. Most are too impatient.

 A CEO once said her company hired me for “creativity on demand.” At first, I was honored by the compliment, but then I realized why the company’s people were so frustrated and exhausted. Creativity on demand is not sustainable, nor is it sufficient for complex problem solving.

Perhaps we need to educate executives on what to expect. Maybe it’s a 30/40/30 model: 30 percent research, 40 percent in the swamp, and 30 percent testing.

My personal challenge when I’m lost in the swamp is beating myself up. “I’m not creative enough. I take on projects that are impossible. Maybe I’m just getting too old for work this intense.”  You get the gist.

Borrowing advice from Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight, I speak to my brain as though it’s a group of children, and tell them, “Stop it. You’re making a racket and not being helpful at all. Whining solves nothing.” A little self-compassion and shutting down the “whining children brain” helps me think clearly.

With that clarity, I ask questions like:

·      Are we trying to solve the right problem?

·      Asking the right questions?

·      Looking at the right research? (Often there’s too much.)

·      Have the right people in the swamp with us? (Groupthink often blinds our ability to fully see.)

Call your wild pack

I also call people in my wild pack, those friends and colleagues who are what Adam Grant calls “the disagreeable givers.”  They interrogate my thinking, challenge my assumptions and ask difficult questions that jolt me out of my critical thinking and creative rut.

Like the synthesis swamp, these wild pack friends make me uncomfortable.  And they are invaluable because the stretch my thinking, point out sloppy work, and dare us to take different approaches.  

Most of us have plenty of colleagues in our support pack -- people with compassion and kindness urging us on – and not enough in our wild pack.

When I was writing my first book I asked a well-known author and brilliant and cantankerous consultant to read the first draft. I was in the swamp and knew something was off. He told me that the first two chapters were so boring and ridiculous that he frankly couldn’t stomach reading any more.

I was crushed. And he had done me such a favor. The book eventually won awards, but it could have been a disaster if I had rushed the manuscript to completion.

Document your time in the swamp

My final observation is to write about your time in the swamp after you’ve once again emerged from wading through the mud, self-doubt and frustration, and developed an excellent new idea.

What helped you stay in it? Who and what helped you get through it? How and when did the “aha” s emerge?  Keep these notes so you can refer to them the next time you’re in that synthesis phase.

And when you’re really stuck, try to extend the deadline, turn everything off, go for long walks, and have your support pack give you a little TLC.

No mud, no lotus.

Trust is a Muscle!!

“How do I know when I can trust a Rebel at Work?”

 We often get asked this question. A manager or team leader hears Lois or I present, agrees with our message that the people who work for him often have solutions for the team’s problems or can identify new opportunities, but double clutches at the point of empowerment. Can I trust her?

In this instance, the manager is using the word trust to mean: Can I rely upon her to execute successfully? Can I be completely confident? Admittedly that is one of the dictionary meanings of the word. But there’s another sense of trust that is more relevant to the manager/rebel relationship. To quote from a short paper prepared about ten years ago for the Canadian Department of Defense by Dr. Barbara Adams:

A trust judgement…is characterized by a specific lack of information, and by the need to take a “leap of faith” from what is known to what is unknown.

(Here’s a link to her short monograph which is well worth your time. Isn’t the internet wonderful?)

Trust, according to Dr. Adams, is only operational in situations with risk. But when managers want to know when they can TRUST rebels at work, what they really want to know is how can they make sure that their empowerment of a rebel is risk-free.

Which is the wrong expectation!! Fundamentally, trust is a judgment call. The leader is making a decision even in the absence of some data—such as previous experience with an individual in a similar circumstance. But the leader can reason that the risk is justified by the potential gain. And that potential gain is not just measured by whether the idea works or not. When a leader trusts an employee with a new initiative, they not only send a signal to that individual but to the rest of the team that it’s not just experience that matters; new ideas have value too.

In fact, it’s kind of circular.

The only way to determine whether you can trust a Rebel at Work is by trusting one. Trust is a muscle. It benefits from being used. The first time you provide space for team members to work on their new ideas you can’t be sure how it will turn out. But by doing so you gain experience that will inform your next trust moment and the expectations of your team.

At some point, particularly if you rarely use your trust muscles, one of your decisions will misfire. (No pain, no gain!) And you will have learned something important about the individuals involved, including yourself. As Dr. Adams notes, “a trust decision typically involves the formation of an impression about another person rather than merely making an estimate with respect to a discrete and specific task.” Trust is an investment in your team and an engagement with them as individuals.

The only way to strengthen it is by using it!

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