The Rebel Life: Random Observations and Learnings

Last week I attended the MIX Mashup in San Francisco. The MIX is devoted to reinventing management for the 21st century and many of the presentations revolved around being mavericks and rebels at work. The titles of the first three sessions capture the general mood.

  • The End of Hierarchy: Natural Leadership
  • The End of  Bureaucracy: When Everybody (and Nobody) is the Boss
  • The End of the "Employee"

Gary Hamel also set the tone when he declared in his introductory remarks that he feared we are not mad enough about how bad our organizations are and not aspirational enough to fix them.  His fiery energy was inspiring and I tweeted his comment at the time, but, upon reflection, I'm not sure anger is ever a productive rebel emotion. (Please feel free to argue the point.) Aspiration is, however.

My Favorite Presentation...

...was by Japanese businessman Tsukasa Makino, who spoke movingly of how his company, Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance, had humanized their business. You can find several of his blog posts on the MIX. I particularly liked his discussion of the LIGHT and DARK side of the FORCE at work.

That's the slide he uses, which you can see more clearly here. I think one of the dangers rebels risk is that, if they become angry, they begin to flirt with the DARK side of the Rebel Force. I think maybe it looks something like this:

More Good Thoughts


Don't do pilots! Experiment instead. I hadn't ever thought of that distinction and God knows I was involved in lots of pilots during my career. But one of the speakers noted that when a change-oriented management team introduces a pilot to the workforce, the implied message is that the team has figured out the right thing to do and now they're going to test it on the employees, aka the guinea pigs. And employees love to make pilots fail. Boy, did that ring true!! There wasn't a pilot I was involved in that the emails and message boards weren't full of just about everything that was wrong with the pilot. And by launching a pilot, aren't you inviting relentless comparison to the status quo? Bad as the status quo may be, it at least benefits from some internal logic and lots of muscle memory. Think instead of encouraging experiments. When you encourage your employees/managers to run experiments, your message is that you're not sure of the answer and you want them to help figure it out.

The power of budgets. There was a good discussion of how companies need to free themselves from the tyranny of budget cycles because they stifle innovation. All true but frankly, as a rebel, if you are able to change how your company budgets, you've pretty much won the entire war. (more on that later.) But Bjarte Bogsnes of Norway's Statoil did describe how his company abolished traditional budget cycles and even the calendar to boot!! When you're dealing with the BBB's (bureaucratic black belts), there's no doubt in my mind that the power of the budget is their most powerful weapon.

Mobilizing the introverts. There was a lovely discussion of how, if you have a knowledge organization and it's a really smart one, then you likely have a lot of introverts. And mobilizing introverts to get behind change efforts can be awkward. You can't count on them to speak up in meetings. And they may not even do a good job proselytizing their work colleagues. Other than engaging introverts one-on-one, not many solutions or good tactics were offered. (Something for us to noodle at RAW.) I think the whole topic of how rebels and rebel managers in organizations mobilize support is underdeveloped. Perhaps it's something we can tackle at our first ever Rebels at Work Conference, which will be held 18 October. You can find more information on that here.

If you're explaining, you're losing. This piece of advice is not from the conference, but comes from a retired senior government official who was sharing lessons from his mentors at a party I attended last night. I'm sure all the rebels who visit our website have been in the meeting where they, or someone else, are trying to explain exactly how their idea will work. Once you go there, you begin losing your momentum and you're stuck trying to explain how the sausage will be made. A sausage that no one has ever tasted. A sausage, in fact, that you've never even cooked before.

The Integrity of the Rebel

I said I would get back to the Statoil example of an organization that's rethought it's budget process and many other sacred ways of doing work. This got me to thinking about the integrity of the rebel. In your workplace, are you suggesting a new way of making widgets that you think is better than the current way of making widgets? Or are you actually offering a fundamental rethink of how the enterprise operates and makes decisions so that it becomes permanently more agile, permanently more contextual, and permanently more sensitive to its own values. Both of these are appropriate but they are quite different from each other.  At first blush I'm tempted to say that the more tactical change effort is easier than the more strategic one, but I'm not so sure. They can both be difficult, and I find it completely believable that in some cases people will resist tactical changes more than they will oppose conceptual ones. Again, another topic for noodling. But it reminds me of something I always worried about as a rebel at work. What if I'm wrong? I cannot escape the fact that my ideas are creations of my ego and that therefore I can never be objective about them. Difficult as it is, I think the rebel must learn to maintain some humility about their beliefs, even if they are mano-a-mano with a status quo that is cock-sure.

Finally, here is a link to a presentation by Pam Weiss of Appropriate Response, who, along with Todd Pierce of, shared their story at the MIX Mashup of how they brought meditation techniques to the workplace.  The introduction of a meditation practice actually correlated with significant increases in productivity and employee satisfaction. First check out Pam's presentation and then read the details of the practical application at the MIX. Perhaps we really can change organizations by teaching people how to breathe.