Obsession and Controversy: One is a Rebel's Friend; the Other his Enemy

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.