Useful Tactics for Rebel Managers

During my government career, I had probably about a 5-year period when I was in positions that offered me broad influence within my Agency. During this time I thought hard about how to gain support for the ideas I cared about, but thinking hard, while essential, is not sufficient to make change happen. Doing hard is better. Reflecting back on that time, I can’t help but think that I squandered didn’t optimize the opportunity. Which means that many of the tactics I share here are the insights of hindsight. These first two are most important.

Before you do anything else, Master the Bureaucratic Landscape. This could just about kill most rebels, I think, because I have met few who are bureaucratic natives. But rest assured, the defenders of THAT WHICH REFUSES TO BUDGE are bureaucratic black belts. They know every trick in the book of regulations that--like mortar—holds the status quo together. My advice: before you announce your great vision, before you share your ideas with others, spend as much time as you can developing an understanding of how the bureaucracy works and of all the ways previous reform efforts failed—and believe me there have been previous ones. (Six months for this pre-work sounds about right to me.) Perhaps you can find a lawyer in your organization or one of those individuals who are professional chiefs of staff and executive officers: you know these people, the ones who may not know the substance of making better widgets but they know every process and admin trick to get things done. Spend some time with them anticipating who will fight your efforts and what venues and tactics they will use. The military has a great term for this: preparing the battlefield. In short, anticipate everything. Anticipation is the essential lubricant of good management.

The second equally important and quite related tactic.

Sequence, Sequence, Sequence. As a rebel, achieving a position of influence in an organization is rare. You will almost certainly not get an opportunity to reboot or do over. Therefore the order in which you tackle things is key. After you prepare the bureaucratic field for battle, then you need to think through the optimum order for the actions you will take. There is no school solution to how one should sequence, methinks, because local conditions vary.  But take the time to think it through. Are there some people you need to get on your side before you make the big launch? When is the optimum time to make a play for money in your organization? Should you start your reforms in one part of the organization first and then seek to grow from there? Or will that only give the enemies of change more time to organize their defenses?

Start Small, unless you think it best to Start Big! OK, I know, that’s a total copout. But my guess is that more often than not, but definitely not always, starting small is not a bad innovation strategy. I wrote about the principles of disruptive innovation in government in a Deloitte Perspectives post recently. Disruptive innovators, according to Clayton Christensen, 1) serve underserved customers or markets with 2) new technologies that initially provide a lesser product or service but 3) are less expensive than their competitors.

Now let’s say you’ve got your reform Radio Flyer rolling along. (That’s actually a term I used once to describe a change effort I was spearheading. I used it to make the point that I wanted to be able to carry everything people needed to know about the new widgets and processes we were building in a Radio Flyer wagon.  It needed to be that simple.) Now what are some things you can do to ensure your reform effort keeps chugging uphill? (And Comrades, it will be uphill all the way. There is no downhill run when you’re in the change business. In fact one way you know you’re making headway is when it becomes harder and harder to pull or push. The forces of gravity grow just as you’re about to crest the hill.)

Make sure your Calendar Reflects your Priorities. If you’re in a position of authority and you’re talking about the need for change, all the other bureaucrats will be watching your actions carefully to be sure you mean what you say. Even those who want to support you will not want to identify themselves prematurely. So be sure the meetings you attend and the people you have time for are consistent with your stated priorities. This hearkens to one of the points I made in last week’s blog post: don’t let the status quo capture you with their battle rhythm. Spend your time doing what you say is important. For example, one of the ways diversity initiatives can fail in organizations is if the only time the issue is discussed is at the once-a-year diversity meeting. If diversity is important to you, then it should permeate everything you do and be discussed ALL THE TIME.

Speaking of meetings, one of the things I learned too late is that

Conflict-free Meetings should Rarely be your Goal.  If what you’re doing is important, people should be objecting and arguing with you. The way ahead often has poor signage.  But too often in bureaucracies, we’re taught that conflict in meetings is bad and we should seek consensus.  Remember:

Consensus is just a way to Avoid Making Decisions. Consensus is not a decision-making strategy. In fact it is the opposite. It’s a technique to avoid making difficult choices.

And my last piece of tactical advice is actually a riddle.

What do the organizational rebel and the NFL running back have in common?

Cue music….

They both need to hit their holes quickly. React like a Running Back! Just as in football, bureaucratic holes open and close quickly. If you’ve thought through and sequenced your strategy, you’ll be more likely to recognize a bureaucratic opening when it happens. When you spot it, don’t dawdle. Run through it as quickly as you can.

If you’re lucky and good, you’ll score!

Next week:  Helping Rebels Help Themselves!