As We Labor in the Bureaucratic Vineyards...

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.

Judging by the vigorous head-nodding I had struck a chord that resonated with their realities. Several came to me afterwards to say that I had finally identified why things were so hard for them. Many said they had initially looked for allies among those who already embraced corporate good citizenship and now they appreciated need to find some bureaucratic black belts who could help them.
So I bet there are many more examples out there of individuals who are not rebels by nature but are nevertheless drafted to do what is essentially rebel work in their organization. The diversity champion. The sustainability champion. I suspect any job role with the word champion attached to it is a rebel role.
We're probably not going to reach them through the rebel trunk line because they may never realize they are rebels. So we'll have to go door-to-door, identifying likely roles in organizations that need rebel coaching. If you have some suggestions where we can find some of these lost accidental rebels, do let us know.