The Rebel Gardener

 I didn’t come easily to gardening. In fact, until I was about 55 years old (and that was almost 9 years ago) I paid gardening no mind at all. Zilch.

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All I could see in gardening was way too much physical labor, almost all of it during hot Washington D.C. summers. Just a lot of sweat.

But somewhere in my body lurked the gardening gene just waiting to express itself. Geneticists have determined that for some genes, expression is indeed a function of age. And clearly that was the case for my gardening gene. In the spring of 2010, it began to stick out its tendril-covered head. I began modestly with a few tomato plants. But in just a couple of years, I was starting most of my plants as seedlings and slowly reclaiming the ivy-infested parts of my lawn. It’s an ongoing project.

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I wish someone had told me sooner that gardening was a learning activity. Only by paying attention to how the plants behave under different conditions can you improve your gardening success rate. If you get into it, gardening is a deeply analytic activity. 

And, of course or I wouldn’t be writing about it here, gardening offers a series of lessons for Rebels at Work. Being a Rebel at Work calls upon your analytic talents. And the more experience you have as a Rebel, the smarter you will be about advocating for change in organizations. But beyond that…

Failure is an essential component of gardening and of being a Rebel at Work. It’s only been in the past year that, as a gardener, I’ve become comfortable in ripping out plants that didn’t work out where I put them. I used to think such bad outcomes were an indictment of my underdeveloped gardening skills. Now I understand that only through experimentation can I learn what works and what doesn’t. Now Rebels at Work probably can’t afford too many bad ideas, but if you can master the art of tiny pivots—small experiments that can test some aspect of a proposal, you can learn to leverage “failure.” Before gardeners invest real money in a new flower bed, they should first test just a plant here or there to see what works in the soil and light.

The shady spots are never as shady as you think and the sunny spots are never as sunny. This partly explains why failure is an essential component of gardening. Just a few feet of separation can produce significant changes in light. I once planted two rose bushes within three feet of each other on the southeast exposure of my lawn. One prospered but the other faltered because of the dappled sunlight that reached it through overhanging trees. When I moved the laggard to what I had previously thought of as the too-shady side of my lawn, it doubled in size. Rebels can sometimes make facile assumptions about what parts of the organization would be most receptive to change. The team you think is ideal for your prototype because the leader is so friendly may actually harbor bamboo spikes underneath its surface. Go beyond superficial appearances.

Some things just take time. Plants have to settle into their new environments. Weather varies year to year. My transplanted rose bush only gave one weak flower the first year in its new location. But now it’s a reliable producer, if still not as robust as its sun-blessed twin. And so it is with organizational change. Expecting immediate results should be a rookie mistake, and yet we see it everywhere. I often think the most successful change efforts are the ones that people don’t quite realize are happening. Tiny pivots accumulate and without sturm und drang the organization finds itself in a better place. Rebels who want instant ego gratification normally aren’t willing to take the tortoise approach. And so their garden doesn’t grow.

Do the work. I’ve always had a problem with routine tasks. I’m just downright lazy about them. But gardening has knocked some sense into me on this front. Unless I do the work, nothing good happens. Failing to do the work is lethal to gardeners and Rebels. The Rebel who enjoys talking about her vision but doesn’t come up with a viable implementation plan is failing to do the work. If the Rebel isn’t into details, then she needs to ally herself with someone who is. 

Someone has to sweat the details!

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Do You Have a MAC?

Do You Have a MAC?

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No, this isn’t another installment in the PC/MAC wars. What we want to know is whether you, the plucky change agent at work, know your Minimum Acceptable Change, that first step—or perhaps just a half-step—that you believe will put your organization on the path to progress. I was introduced to this idea just a few weeks ago at a leadership seminar for civil servants in the Federal Government.

We put considerable emphasis on the tactics Rebels at Work need to use in meetings to be successful. For example, rebels should be parsimonious in the time they take to lay out their change ideas, and generous in the time they allot to discussion. The primary purpose of the meeting is not for the rebel to hear himself talk but rather for the rebel to listen to what others have to say. And that’s why obsessing over a “perfect” presentation may not be such a good idea; less perfect presentations provide more openings through which others can contribute. The worst aspect of wonky presentations is how closed they are to other people’s suggestions. When confronted with a slide chock full of bullet points, you have a hard time justifying adding one more.

By the way, on the topic of slide decks, have you all caught the clever commercial where a “Bond villain” tortures his prisoner with a slide presentation on his plans for world domination?

 

But I digress.

Another excellent preparatory step you can take before you present your change ideas is to have in mind your Minimum Acceptable Change. The MAC is that action, or series of actions, that you believe moves your group in the direction of improvement, toward goodness. The MAC will be different for each organization. In a sclerotic bureaucracy, the MAC may simply be an agreement to present your idea to the next bureaucratic layer. Because often in bureaucracies, climbing the hierarchy is a type of progress.

Knowing your MAC is useful in a couple of ways. First, it forces you to be realistic in considering what type of change your organization is likely to accept. It is rare indeed for a Rebel at Work to part the waters at her first meeting. But often that’s the only contingency she’s planned for so when the audience is not blinded by her brilliance, she has no alternative to offer. With a MAC in her back pocket, the Rebel at Work has a better chance of directing the discussion toward a viable interim step. A rebel I talked to last year told me that she’s all about Tiny Pivots, one quarter-step after another that eventually add up to change

Also, having a MAC allows you to avoid unsatisfying compromises. Indeed, your Minimum Acceptable Change can be quite different from a compromise. In passive-aggressive organizations, compromise is often a type of off-ramp—a way to get the rebel off the road where he can do less harm. So, for example, the clever bureaucratic black belt in the meeting might suggest that you go talk to the Talent staff about your idea, calculating that it will be months before he’ll hear from you again. But if you’ve thought about your MAC, you might be ready instead to suggest a small change in HR practices that could test your new idea.

The MAC strategy works best when everyone can agree that “We need to do something!” Often, we can all see that the status quo is unsatisfactory, but we can’t agree on how to fix it. A MAC proposal should have several characteristics:

·       The change advocate should believe it would be a useful first step.

·       At least one or two individuals who oppose dramatic change should be willing to support it. (This requires some discussions and prework before the meeting.)

·       It should not require significant changes in regulations or large amounts of new funding.

·       Its potential impact should be apparent early on, and the Rebel at Work should have an idea for how to observe/measure it.

During my CIA career, I pushed for the Agency to embrace digital publication methods and move away from the once-a-day “newspaper” format. But that was not my MAC. My initial starting point was a database that we populated with intelligence articles as soon as they were deemed ready. A small number of individuals had access to the database, but they soon testified to its utility. An unanticipated but essential benefit of the MAC was that it revealed many of the other issues that would need resolving before we could embrace digital media.

So before your next meeting, decide for yourself what the best small step forward looks likes. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else!

The Lazy Manager

When I was but a pup, still going to graduate school, a professor came to me and said:

"Carmen I can tell that you're going to be a manager some day." {This came as quite a shock to me!} "And I have only one piece of advice for you?"

"What's that, Dr. Stearman?" {His name was William Stearman and Wikipedia tells me he is still alive. I always considered him a pro's pro in the national security realm.}

"Be lazy!"

Well that wasn't what I was expecting to hear and it took me years, if not decades, to understand what he was getting at. But as my own work style developed, I found that I -- and more importantly others -- had more success when I delegated, perhaps you might even say abdicated, and just let others do what they did well. Not fake delegation when you ask someone to handle a task and then hover around pressing them to get it done at your pace, not theirs. That's not delegating; instead it's a type of manipulation that comes second nature to many. 

Nope, when a manager is effectively delegating and appropriately lazy, she begins to entertain doubts as to whether she's needed at all on a work team. That's the indicator that you're lazy enough.

I reflected back on Dr. Stearman's advice recently upon reading this article about how procrastination is an effective management technique. The author contends that managers who are over-eager to answer employee questions and help them solve problems are getting in the way of their development. The author urges managers to procrastinate more, delay in being helpful. Dr. Stearman would have gotten right to the point: Be Lazy!

This discussion also gives me an opportunity to share a clip from my favorite movie about teams and management, Galaxy Quest. Ah yes, you may only know this movie as a humorous send-up of the Star Trek/Wars genre. But I have long wanted to organize a leadership seminar around the lessons of Galaxy Quest. In the movie, a group of aliens intercepts the transmissions of the Planet Earth television show Galaxy Quest and are so inspired by the brave crew that they successfully replicate the TV show's technology. Mayhem ensues when the aliens, unable to deploy the technology effectively against their evil enemies, "kidnap" the crew--now unemployed actors doing the "trekkie" convention circuit--to come help them fight the war. 

The lessons in the movie for organizations are many. Tim Allen plays the egotistical Captain Kirk character, and his fellow actors hate him. They only begin to succeed when they start operating as a team by respecting each other's contributions. We also learn about the importance of emotional resonance and how "being corny" can be an effective quality for leaders.

The clip below illustrates the value of procrastination/laziness by a manager. Tech Sergeant Chen, played by Tony Shalhoub, has been asked by the aliens to troubleshoot a problem with their reactor. Of course, Chen don't know nothing about beryllium reactors, but, by asking open-ended questions, he prompts the crew to solve the problem themselves. (If you Galaxy Quest devotees aren't familiar with this scene, that's because it didn't make the final cut of the movie. But it should have!)

 

In Defense of Meetings

Many years ago a leadership team I was part of took a personality test that evaluated our styles against four attributes:

  • ·       Motivated by Big Ideas
  • ·       Motivated by Human Relations
  • ·       Motivated by Completing Tasks
  • ·       Motivated by Analytics and Method

In the day-long feedback session, we sat with our fellow style peers—the Big Idea people all sat together, those who loved to get things done were all at one table, and so forth. I was sitting with the human relaters—we really liked people. After a few minutes of conversation, each group reported out what they most liked to do in the office and what they hated.

My people-lover group was stunned when the “Get Er Done” folks reported that the aspect of organization life they hated most was meetings. Us touchy-feely types had all agreed that we actually enjoyed meetings.

I remember that day every time someone disparages having to attend meetings. I most recently heard a young friend of mine do so. His work is technical and scientific and he briefed it recently to a group of colleagues in nonscientific support roles. He described the meeting as a waste of time so I asked him what he believed to be the purpose of providing the briefing to support staff. He thought about it for a second and said

“Well, they’re not going to provide me with any substantive suggestions.”

“Correct.” I said “so the purpose of the meeting is to…”

“Let them know what I do so they understand better the support they can give me.” He finished. With that context, he realized he described the meeting as a waste of time because he misunderstood its real purpose – the meeting was not about him as much as it was about them.

So meetings often get a bad rap because participants are confused about their purpose and/or because several of those attending had different agendas. My friend the scientist was used to sharing with his peers to gather their substantive feedback. But with the support group, it wasn’t about substance; it was more about camaraderie and creating bonds of trust and respect. Once he understood that goal, he realized he could be more lighthearted in his approach, sharing fun stories and even bloopers. (Although us people-people think story-telling is always a good communications strategy.)

Some common sense lessons I’ve learned about having better meetings – perhaps some readers may even grow to like meetings – or at least tolerate them better.

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Be clear about the purpose of the meeting—not the written agenda but what’s really going on. In general, you should have face-to-face meetings when there’s an important human dimension to the issue at hand. And us human-relater types think there almost always are important human dimensions – so that’s a real blind spot we have. But most other personalities in the workforce tend to think things like “the facts speak for themselves” or, much worse, “I already have the answers” and so they devalue the utility of meetings. (And by the way they also overestimate their own brilliance!) And when they do agree to a meeting, they conduct it like a standardized test or a fire drill. (a little more on that later!)

Don’t hold lengthy meetings just to update people or gather specific comments. Of course, updates are necessary but I’m sure you’ve been in work situations where the weekly update meeting is held even when there is nothing to update. It’s better to provide updates, according to business consultant Paul Axtell, as a sidebar to a meeting where some substantive issues are being discussed. And one of the worse types of meetings, I think, are what we called in the Intelligence Community “coordination meetings.” Ten people need to sign off on some type of content so they’re force-marched into a room where they wait their turn for their five minutes of air time. AAARGH! Often the person who came to the meeting with not much to say ends up droning on in some type of perverse payback for being forced to listen to everyone else. There are of course many occasions when a group discussion of a topic is useful—the topic is particularly controversial, for example, so everyone on the team needs to hear all perspectives. But determine that beforehand—ask your collaborators if they think it’s necessary to coordinate as a team before you put it on the schedule.

Recognize the socializing importance of meetings. I know this is the aspect of meetings that drove my more “efficient” colleagues crazy, but the small talk, the banter that occurs at the start or end of meetings is not trivial. It’s when colleagues catch up with each other as humans, when we share some funny story, when we perhaps reveal what’s really on our minds. Humans don’t establish trust by following orders or reporting out the latest numbers – they learn to trust by getting to know each other. That’s what happens during banter and small talk in the work place. One more point – the conversations that occur as meetings end can be quite revealing. We advise Rebels at Work to pay attention to those conversations—that’s when some people may finally mutter what they really think and when introverts who haven’t spoken up during the meeting might be more willing to share their thoughts.

Many of the meeting haters and efficiency experts have over the years recommended the ten-minute and/or standup meeting as a way to stop wasting time. I’ll concede there are scenarios where such fire-drill approaches are called for—in a hectic environment where every minute really is precious. But my suspicion is that they’re used more by managers who haven’t thought through the message they’re sending. When you tell your staff that you only have ten minutes to meet with them, you’re also telling them that you don’t have time for their ideas. It better be a life or death matter for a team member to bring up an issue, and it better be something that can be resolved in a minute or two. What complex, important issue can be resolved in 120 seconds? Not many I know of. We put standup meetings in the same category as “open-door policies” and “no problems without solutions”—management best practices that aren’t!

 

On the Rebel Road

I've been on the road for the last few weeks. The second half of October saw me in Spain, my favorite destination in Europe because of the deep intermingling of several world cultures--ancient Rome, Catholicism, the Moors just to mention the top 3. My last stop was Barcelona where a real rebellions of sorts is underway as the Catalans seek independence from Madrid. I don't have an informed view on the issue of Catalonia's independence, although I'm never much impressed with the argument that stability is good for its own sake. In fact, arguments from complexity science tell us that the healthiest organisms live on the edge, in a state of almost constant adaptation. 

But it was interesting to observe how rebel behavior manifested in Barcelona, at least the three days I was there. The city seemed calm; people went about their business and/or pleasure as per normal.....except when they didn't. You would turn a street corner and run into an impromptu gathering. Catalans would rush by with their flags--which they seemed to have with them at all times just in case--to join the demonstration. And then they would disperse, probably to enjoy a bite to eat and a glass of cava. 

 Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators   

Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators

 

It appeared natural and spontaneous. There's a lesson in that for Rebels at Work: sometimes small moments of serendipity provide the best opportunities to mobilize your supporters. You don't need to wait for the big offsite next month to discuss your new idea; maybe your new method is so simple you can bring it up while you're standing next to a colleague in the lunch line. And unlike you--the rebel mastermind, your supporters don't have to live your rebel manifesto every waking moment. (Actually, we don't think that's such a good idea for the rebel leader either. Obsession is a pathology, not a strategy.) Everyone trying to make change happen at work needs to remember to breathe!

Speaking of the latest headlines, how about the shift change that's occurring in society around the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace? Actually shift change is an understatement: we're witnessing a volcanic eruption. In the future, historians will try to figure out what triggered the explosion. But for now, recent events lead me to reflect on two of my legacy Rebel truisms.

Everything stays the same until it changes.

and 

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.

Indeed, everything stays the same until it changes. Rebels ALWAYS tend to underestimate how long a sclerotic Status Quo can linger, expecting change to happen much faster than it ever could. And Traditionalists always assume that when the rebellion doesn't materialize, that they've beaten back the pressures for change. Both parties are wrong at different times.

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come has a critical corollary. There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time is NOW!

Breaking the Soil

The book on my nightstand right now is Willa Cather's My Antonia. I've come to Willa Cather way too late in life. Cather writes compelling novels, mostly about pioneers, that brim with insights about people doing hard things. In My Antonia, she describes the tribulations of the settlers of the vast Midwest prairies, focusing on an immigrant family from Bohemia and their daughter, Antonia.

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I had occasion to mention the book recently when I was chatting with someone who has so far been unable to change the conversation in his organization. He described a group of people so set in their ways that their skin had the bluish tint of rigor mortis. Agendas of meetings are so tightly controlled that it's impossible to introduce new ideas. What could he do?

"Break the soil" I said, channeling my inner Willa Cather. In My Antonia, Cather describes the difficult process by which the farmers prepared their soil after the frigid winter. Before any seeds could be planted, the settlers trudged behind their oxen or horses to break and turn the cold soil. Unless this work was done, sowing seeds was pointless. Seeds don't grow in ill-prepared soil.

And that's what needs to be done in frozen organizations where change seems impossible. Unless the Rebel at Work steps back to "break the soil", his seed ideas are unlikely to take root. So what does breaking the soil look like in organizations and businesses? We'd love to hear your ideas but here are some of ours.

  • Take advantage of any extracurricular activities, such as a "giving back to the community" days or the annual office picnic, to improve your relations with others, understand what makes them feel good, and perhaps gently encourage some reflection on how things are going.
  • Share articles, videos, etc. that promote interesting ideas. Don't pick negative articles; don't editorialize! Just share! And try to find ideas that the organization can claim it is already implementing--whether it's true or not! The group's perception of itself is key. If people start thinking of themselves as modernizers, they're more likely to consider other "new" ideas.
  • Engage in reciprocity. Do favors for others. Help someone advance an idea you're not that fond of in hopes they will do the same for you some day.
  • And one of our favorite evergreen ideas: have lunch with a bureaucratic black belt in your organization. Ask them about what's most important to the group and why. Have them talk about previous successful initiatives and what has worked in the past. When planting your new seeds, it's best to start with those that will thrive in the current soil.

 

Rebel at Work or Reactionist?

Last week was the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death twenty years ago. The Wolf Hall novelist Hilary Mantel remembered Diana in a long article for The Guardian in which we learned that Diana thought of herself as a rebel. Mantel writes that Diana described herself “as a ‘rebel,’ on the grounds that she liked to do the opposite of everyone else.”

And then Mantel makes this key observation:

Throwing a tantrum when thwarted doesn’t make you a free spirit. Rolling your eyes and shrugging doesn’t prove you are brave…That is reaction, not rebellion.

Oh, I thought. Mantel has put her finger on a phenomenon Lois and I see all the time when we talk to groups about being more effective Rebels at Work. In the question and answer period, we always hear from several people who pose a question that goes something like this.

How do I get people to listen to me when I know they are wrong? When I speak up at a meeting I can see them all rolling their eyes.

Now, thanks to Mantel, I can explore whether their problem might be that they are just Reactionists and not really Rebels at Work. If you know your Russian history—and who among us doesn't—Reactionist sounds like one of those anti-Tsarist groups. Nihilists, Bolsheviks, Anarchists, and Reactionists. And like all of those groups, Reactionists can sometimes be just as destructive. They often disagree just for the sake of it; no matter what anyone says, they’ll take the opposite viewpoint.

It’s always easy to find fault with however your boss or your organization is running things. It’s much easier to mock a decision than to make one. But you know, that gets old quickly and your teammates will soon just start tuning you out. 

I know this from personal experience. During the 1990s at the CIA, I acquired a reputation for being cynical and negative. As one friend commented, “Carmen, I think the only thing that will shut you up is if we all acknowledge that you are right” I had to admit she had nailed it. I wouldn’t be satisfied until everyone acknowledged I knew more than they did.

Let me just say this is not a path to success.

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So if some of this is ringing true to you, the reader, let me offer a regimen to contain your inner Reactionist. (And none of us is immune to the Reactionist tendency, by the way.)

  1. At your next team meeting don’t say anything until the last ten minutes. Just listen. If you’re a veteran Reactionist, your very silence will shock your colleagues and provide you an immediate tactical advantage—the element of surprise!
  2. Because you’ve been quiet for most of the meeting, no doubt you will have generated a long list of stupidities that you want to comment on. Reflect on that list. If it’s particularly long, you can be confident that you are either A) on the worst team of ALL TIME, or—and more likely— B) A World-Class Reactionist, sort of an Eeyore and Cassandra wrapped up in one package.
  3. Assess your list of stupidities and decide to bring up only one of them. Obviously it should be one you think is important but more crucially—if you want to repair your Reactionist image—it should be something on which you can offer a constructive suggestion. And something you can frame in a positive way. Perhaps you can say something like this:
    I think doing X will take us in the right direction, and we could build on that by insert your suggestion.
     
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 as necessary.

Smooth and Easy DOESN'T Cut It!

The LinkedIn Conversation on our post Stupid Things Bosses Say! led to a robust series of comments worth summarizing here. The bottom line is reflected in the title: the tendency of organizations to reward the "smooth leadership style" is detrimental to diversity of thought, discourages everyone from offering potentially helpful suggestions and/or dissents, and leads to lowest common denominator outcomes.

One reader asked whether there is a magic potion leaders can take to become more welcoming to different opinions. Our answer: there is no magic potion and the very idea that there could be a magic potion is part of the problem. But there is an insidious dynamic in most workplaces that--if removed--would make it easier for managers to welcome healthy debate on their teams.

Organizations need to stop grading leaders on how "smoothly" their operations run. You usually don't get diversity of opinions when teams run "smoothly". And yet most organizations I'm familiar with reward managers who run "tight ships." "You never hear about any problems from her team." goes the familiar refrain. "She must be a good manager!"

Maybe not. When decisions are made quickly, it may very well mean that dissent is not tolerated or even suppressed. Feisty teams aren't ever going to be quiet teams.

And that leads to another situation.. Once different opinions are allowed to surface, meetings become crunchier and, even when everyone has the best of intentions, some ruffling of feathers will occur. Most managers don't know how to deal with "diversity tension". And no one really bothers to teach them. In fact leadership and management training focuses instead on alpha capabilities such as vision and decision-making. Instead we need to learn how to empower employees who disagree with us and how to tell when you the manager is dead wrong. 

Sounds pretty radical, right?

But at Rebels at Work, we like radical. We like texture and crunchiness.

And we don't mind it when it's rough and hard!

 

 

 

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United We Fail?

By now I'm sure you've read and been appalled by the story currently destroying United Airline's reputation. An overbooked flight, not enough passengers accept a $400 voucher--eventually raised to $1000, and the next thing you know a passenger already seated is forcibly removed from the plane. And of course in this day and age, several passengers take pictures and post the dreadful details. I just read an article by an airline pilot explaining what he thinks happened. (He also reports an overlooked fact--the flight in question was being operated by United Express--a contractor--and not United Airlines itself.) He makes this particularly astute observation.

What I sense is that the airline’s staff reached a point, after perhaps offering whatever dollar amounts their procedures called for, where they simply didn’t know what to do, and nobody was brave enough, or resourceful enough, to come up with something. Summoning the police simply became the easiest way to pass the buck.

Aha! There's more than one "EN" infecting employees in large organizations right now. We hear all the time about ENGAGEMENT, which hasn't improved at all in recent years. But EMPOWERMENT is engagement's kissing cousin. The pilot goes on to say:

...Airline culture is often such that thinking creatively, and devising a proverbial outside-the-box solution, is almost actively discouraged. Everything is very rote and procedural, and employees are often so afraid of being reprimanded for making a bad decision (not to mention pressed for time) that they don’t make a decision at all, or will gladly hand the matter to somebody else who can take responsibility. By and large, workers are deterred from thinking creatively exactly when they need to.

Doing things by rote is not without its benefits for high risk, high performance organizations. Such organizations--airlines, hospitals, the military come to mind--engage in important tasks that must be done with Six Sigma levels of reliability. Substandard performance doesn't just affect the bottom line; it entails significant risk for the organization and, more importantly, for others! As someone who flies 100k miles per year, I applaud the safety standards of the airline industry. But the downside of the "checklist" approach to organizational excellence is that it blinds everyone to the exceptional situation that must be handled in a better and non-rote way.

Of course, this is when those pesky Rebels in the workplace can come in handy. Perhaps there was an employee at the gate who had a better idea. But my guess is he didn't know how to speak up. Perhaps she was low in the pecking order, a new employee? Maybe past suggestions had been ignored? Or just maybe the go-along-to-get-along culture was so strong that no second thoughts entered anyone's mind. In some ways that's even worse. The employees were so unengaged and so unempowered that they had stopped thinking.

And isn't that the worst risk ANY ORGANIZATION can run? When EVERYONE is on the SAME PAGE, no one is available to turn it. The most important checklist any high risk, high performance organization can develop is the one that helps employees know when they must abandon Standard Operating Procedures. You can't leave this up to the personal courage of the employee; it's something that teams need to talk about and leaders need to facilitate. Together...or united they will fail.

Rebels in Government!

These are difficult times for civil servants. Some have asked us to reflect on what advice Rebels at Work has for federal employees. We offer the following dos and don’ts with a big dose of humility and an even bigger degree of caution. I imagine that everyone will find our advice to be unsatisfactory to some degree: We don’t go far enough or we go way too far. But somewhere along the way we hope our readers will find at least one tidbit that helps them.

DOS

Do Sharpen your Bureaucratic Skills. If there’s a time to get smart about how bureaucracies work, now is it. Whenever there is a new administration, incoming political appointees try to enact procedures without sufficient regard for or even knowledge of existing laws and regulations. It’s the DUTY of civil servants, of legacy staff to point out the landmines. Ill-conceived government actions make the US Government vulnerable to lawsuits and public ridicule. They also have the potential to weaken our democracy.

Do Your Job! Don't be so distracted by the current political brouhaha that you do not adequately perform your basic duties. If you are a supporter of President Trump, you do him no favors by putting politics first. And the same goes for opponents. In fact, your partisan views should have no bearing on the performance of the duties of your office. This is the essence of federal civil service.

Do Write Everything Down! As civil servants you have rights and protections. If you find yourself dealing with a difficult manager, or if you are asked to take actions that you believe are unwise or perhaps even illegal (more on that later!), document as best you can everything that happens. And share the particulars with someone you trust. It’s probably unwise to store this documentation on your government computer. Perhaps you can dedicate a favorite notebook to keeping your paper trail. Be sure you don’t improperly store or keep government documents and/or sensitive information, however. If management is out to get you, they are sure to use any simple mistakes against you--no matter how innocent or trivial.

Do Monitor your Emotional Well-Being. Right now the hardest-hit government Agency appears to be EPA but employees in all federal departments and agencies will be challenged in the months and years to come. Pay attention to the emotional costs. Forego that extra drink after work. Take a vacation or a strategic mental health day. Don’t take it out against your family or friends.

DON'TS

Don’t Confuse your Partisan Views with your Official Duties. The Civil Service oath demands that federal employees defend the Constitution and faithfully discharge the duties of their office. The US political system would collapse if Federal employees believed their authority superseded that of the American people. That said, you are well within your rights to argue against a policy decision or an interpretation of the law that you believe unwise or counterproductive. But if you don't win the argument and unless you believe you are being asked to do something illegal, your job is to execute policies regardless of whether you agree with them.  For you own mental well-being, however, it’s important to understand your own personal red lines. Under what conditions would I resign from government service? Under what conditions would I go to the Inspector General? Get smart about the Whistleblower provisions in your agency.

Don’t Do it Alone. Allies are one of the most critical success factors for Rebels at Work. There will be many in your workplace who think and feel like you do. Find them and collaborate. Share best practices. Avoid mistakes made by others. You can develop a powerful information network in your workplace.

One Last Thing. We at Rebels at Work often poke fun at bureaucrats. And yet it is often the relentless thoroughness of people making sure all the i's are dotted and Oxford commas removed that preserves due process and the rule of law. As I write Sunday evening, the executive order on immigration is being criticized, even by supporters, for not having been properly vetted and coordinated within the vast US Government bureaucracy.

Take heart, all ye Bureaucratic Black Belts. Your time may have come!!

May the Force be With You!

For those of you who subscribe to our newsletter--not quite monthly but we think always interesting, you have probably already read my reflections on the death of Carrie Fisher. But if you haven't, I'm repeating them below along with some additional thoughts.  

When I was at CIA, the band of plucky intelligence officers who thought the Agency needed to change took to calling ourselves The Rebel Alliance. We would amuse ourselves by imagining which of us represented the different characters in Star Wars. (And also who in the CIA really was Darth Vader!) Just for the record I never thought of myself as a Princess Leia. More of the Yoda type actually.
When Carrie Fisher died just before Christmas, I was struck yet again by the significance of the Star Wars iconography and the importance of the Princess Leia character to my own Rebel at Work experience. Being a Rebel required patience, smarts, and a bias for action.

But many years later I began to appreciate how fact was more interesting than fiction, and that the actual person Carrie Fisher was even more of a Rebel role model. Tough as nails, always honest with others and with herself, Carrie Fisher was also someone who got things done. She advocated for mental health, wrote several books, and was brought in by Hollywood studios to fix the scripts of troubled movies. She reportedly performed wonders for many successful films and yet was never publicly credited for her work.

That kind of sounds familiar, doesn't it. So often the good we do as rebels is not acknowledged; our ideas are appropriated by others. And yet we rebel on. It's the results that matter.

Another aspect of Carrie's life that should resonate with all Rebels at Work is that it didn't appear to be easy. Among her long list of quotable aphorisms is this one:

Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.

Now there speaks someone who has learned from less-than-optimum experiences. If something horrible happens to you, don't waste it by not learning from the experience. Advancing new ideas in old workplaces will test you emotionally and physically. We know this not only because we have lived it but because we're reminded of it every time we meet with Rebels in the public and private sector. And many of you have told us that you want to hear more about how Rebels can take better care of themselves and become more resilient. Too often business and self-help books promise you that things will be easy if you just follow their rules. Lois and I know being a Rebel at Work is always challenging but it can also be survivable. Or to use the word Carrie Fisher coined: We can all still sur-thrive!
And finally our favorite piece of advice from Carrie Fisher:

Stay afraid but do it anyway. What's important is the action. You don't have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

The Curly Hair Rebel Manifesto

A woman came up to me a couple of weeks ago after I spoke on a panel about Diversity and Inclusion in the National Security Sector. She was in her 20s, just trying to start her career. She kept applying for jobs, getting to the final round of interviews, but not getting hired, and was hoping I could give her some advice about getting over that final hurdle. She told me that she had even considered straightening her naturally curly hair in hopes of making a better impression.

"WHAT?!?"

Her university career counselor had suggested she do that because, presumably, curly hair is not consistent with a serious National Security demeanor.

I had no words...I was with another experienced veteran of the intelligence community. She had tears in her eyes.

How can this still be the case? How can completely irrelevant attributes of individuals impede their ability to contribute to organizations that badly need their help?

Let me get something off my curly hair.carmenpicture I'm not fond of the phrase "Diversity and Inclusion." Diversity has become the word we use to refer to minorities, thereby implying that only they can bring different opinions to the table. When in reality we are all diverse, curly-haired and straight, and should be heard when we have something to say.

And don't talk to be about Inclusion. I don't need to be included.

I BELONG.

Rebels at Work do not need to be included. We belong. Many organizations still don't appreciate that, but they're on notice now that the Harvard Business Review has recognized that organizations overvalue conformity.

I'm thinking many rebels have some type of "curly hair" in their background. They differ in some way from the norm in their organization: they think differently, they have an unusual academic degree, they're square pegs in round holes.

Don't let others persuade you that your DIFFERENCE is a PROBLEM.

Your DIFFERENCE is your SUPER POWER.

Own it. Wear it. Use it!

Rebel Learnings

This summer I had an opportunity to talk to many rebel audiences--I know Lois did as well. And as usual we learned a ton from people we spoke with. So much is worth passing on. So let's get right to it. The EGO. One of the groups I spoke to was the NextGen Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. It's a conference put on by GovLoop for civil servants at every level--federal, state, local. Lois and/or I have spoken to the group several times now and I wish I could say that the situation for rebels in government has improved. From the questions I got, not much. I was sharing our learning that for a rebel one of the best things that can happen is for someone else to take credit for their idea. In fact, we believe that a priority for all rebel change agents is to make your idea their idea. Many participants didn't like my advice. At all! Getting any kind of personal recognition in their bureaucracy is so difficult, the idea of voluntarily eschewing it struck them as NUTS. After I spoke, a sympathetic person came up to me and said:

Carmen, to avoid this reaction, next time why don't you just say that rebels need to remember that it needs to be less about them and more about their idea. And leave it at that!

Admitting you're not perfect. Similarly, the NextGen audience balked at my suggestion that rebels avoid false confidence when presenting their ideas. You should admit that your idea is imperfect and invite others to make it better. Again, many in the audience noted that the culture in their organization demanded confidence at all times. Acknowledging uncertainty is a cultural mistake and could even cost your group in that nutty competition for resources that occurs in so many bureaucracies. So you do have to calibrate how receptive your organization is to honest talk and how high its penchant for delusion. Maybe your candor can only occur in one-on-one or small group situations.

These next two ideas come from a conversation I had last month with Brice Challamel, a fellow rebel whom you can see in our learning video, Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work. He believes that an occupational hazard for Rebels at Work is the loss of perspective on their ideas. Rebels can do a better job at self-editing themselves with two simple tricks:

Develop some criteria to evaluate your ideas. For example, maybe you will only go forward with ideas that would benefit your immediate boss and improve conditions for other units in your organization, not just your own section. So as you sift the wacky ideas in your head, you have a basis for putting aside some and proceeding with others. And along those lines...

Limit the number of ideas. A real hazard for rebels is that they become known as flighty, jumping from one idea to another without ever seeing one through. Tell yourself that you can only advance two or three suggestions at a time. This then becomes another criteria by which to evaluate your thinking. It also will make you more effective by concentrating your energies and that of your supporters.

I hope some of these ideas will help you.

Happy Rebelling!

The Stupidity Paradox

“There's a worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity—and we're all co-conspirators.” That's one of my key take-aways from about 40 years in the workforce. Whenever I say it, people tend to assume that it's based on my 30+ years in government, although actually this particular realization didn't strike me until post-retirement as I gained more experience with the private sector. (I came to realize that so many of the problems that I thought were unique to government were really symptoms of what I now call Large Organization Disease.)

But it wasn't until I read the new book The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work that I came to understand how the conspiracy maintains itself, both in the private and public sectors. The authors, Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, are business professors based in Sweden and the UK respectively. They were inspired to collaborate on the book when they realized, as they write in their introduction, that “many of our most well-known chief organizations have become engines of stupidity.” As soon as I read those words I knew I was in for an honest discussion of why it was that “organizations which employed so many smart people could foster so much stupidity.”

I expected to gain many valuable lessons and insights for you valiant Rebels at Work. And I was not disappointed.

The Stupidity Paradox carefully explains why “functional stupidity” is actually an important survival strategy for many organizations. “Functional stupidity is an organized attempt to stop people from thinking seriously about what they do at work.” Why do companies do this, you may ask? Alvesson and Spicer offer this explanation:

By ignoring the many uncertainties, contradictions and downright illogical claims that are rife at work, people are able to ensure that things run relatively smoothly. We often value convenience over confronting the inconvenient truth.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is an important consideration for Rebels at Work. We often despair when ideas we KNOW to be CORRECT are ignored by leadership. And so we accuse leaders of being stupid, cowards, or perhaps even evil. But what The Stupidity Paradox tells us is that many organizations value consistency over excellence and existing practices over innovation. As the authors write: “Most decisions made in organizations are about coming up with satisfactory outcomes, not optimal ones.”

stupidityOuch! The entire book is full of such blunt assertions. It was fun reading a no-holds barred critique of the cultures of large organizations. Lois and I are always counseling Rebels at Work to restrain themselves and employ Ninja moves, so it was refreshing to read someone say what so many of us actually think.

But don't imagine that the worker bees get off scot-free!!! I actually looked up the origins of that phrase to make sure it wasn't an inappropriate ethnic characterization. Indeed it is not—scot comes from an old Scandinavian and Middle English word for taxes.

But I digress! The authors of The Stupidity Paradox have plenty of blame to spread around. Strategic ignorance is a common condition among today's knowledge workers. “Knowing what to know—but also what not to know—is a crucial skill that people working in any organization pick up rather quickly.” And the authors observe, in one of my favorite lines, that “living a happy life in an organization often requires a capacity to avoid trying to learn too much.”

Sound familiar? Again I think it's important for Rebels at Work to realize that, for many of their colleagues, laying low is a survival strategy. Overcoming such inertia requires constant communication and careful consideration of what might motivate their colleagues on an emotional and/or personal level.

There's much more of interest for Rebels at Work in The Stupidity Paradox. It's a fast read that will help you understand better how organizational culture usually impedes efforts for improvement, whether they come from management or the grass roots. Alvesson and Spicer skewer just about every modern business strategy, from total quality management to branding. But they seem to take particular delight in puncturing the cult of leadership. As they note casually, “We have spoken with many individuals who have devoted their careers to delusional ideas about leadership.” They continue:

Leaders often encourage followers to avoid thinking too much. They ask them to buy into narrow assumptions, not ask too many questions and avoid reflecting on the broader meaning of their actions. By corralling followers' cognitive capacities, leaders try to limit how followers define, think and act.

And that's precisely why the world needs more Rebels at Work!

The Rebel Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali's conscientious objection to the War in Vietnam is the first social/political issue I can remember capturing my attention. When Ali refused induction into the military in 1967 I was 12 years old. My family had just returned the previous year from Germany where my dad the Army sergeant had been assigned. We had had no television to speak of in the small Bavarian town of Bad Kissingen, so the ferment of the civil rights movement, for example, didn't penetrate my consciousness. (I remember when we landed in the United States from Germany being transfixed by an American television show--a black and white episode of Lost in Space featuring Billy Mumy--broadcast somewhere in the airport.) Everything about the Muhammad Ali case confused me. 384px-Muhammad_Ali_NYWTSOf course most people then were still calling him Cassius Clay, including my parents. My father had no sympathy for Ali's refusal to go to Vietnam and yet he had admired the brash irreverence of Cassius Clay the boxer. I remember wondering why such an attractive person would risk all that success by making an unpopular argument. I couldn't imagine anything ever being so important. And yet I also remember disagreeing with Ali's critics who questioned his patriotism and manhood. The one thing he didn't seem to lack was courage.

Fifty years later, Carmen the adult-approaching-senior-citizen has achieved more clarity about the example of Muhammad Ali. In a wonderful retrospective I recommend to all Rebels at Work, Ali is quoted as saying during the height of the controversy:

I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs.

Actually, he had just about everything to lose materially. Because of his decision, Ali was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title--the most prestigious athletic honor of that era--and was unable to fight during what should have been his most productive years. He lost a lot. But, as the article makes clear, Ali's principled stand buttressed others to do what they thought was right, including female tennis star Billie Jean King and Nelson Mandela, who, it should be remembered, was a heavyweight boxer himself in 1950s South Africa.

I think Muhammad Ali intuited the impact that a single individual can have when he stands for something beyond just himself. He took on the most extreme of positions at the most inopportune of times and was ready to suffer the consequences if proven wrong. He understood what a 12-year old couldn't and what many adults still don't:

Life's ultimate success is being true to yourself.

 

 

Rebels at Work and the Narcissism of Small Differences

It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them. ~Sigmund Freud

I've mentioned a couple of times Adam Grant's new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. I've done so for the self-serving reason that my Rebel at Work story is captured in Chapter 3. And the other self-serving reason is to remind you that Adam is one of the experts we feature in our learning video: Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work.Be a Brave Big Heared Rebel Video Cover

But this time it's to clue you in to what I consider the most powerful chapter for Rebels at Work in Adam's book--the chapter on creating and maintaining coalitions: Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse. Lois and I have observed that successful Rebels at Work don't do it alone. Often their first step is to form alliances with others; that's certainly what we would recommend. Adam Grant's chapter explores the realities and subtleties of coalitions. His stories and observations not only led me to reflect on past mistakes but also to realize for the first time just how many I'd made.

Adam orients his lessons for building coalitions around the story of the American suffragette movement of the 19th century. Early on the suffrage movement suffered a crippling split when Lucy Stone, one of the first voices for women's suffrage, couldn't agree with Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on important movement issues, and vice-versa. Among the issues that divided them was the push to grant the vote to African-American men. Stone supported the right to vote for ex-slaves even if it occurred before woman's suffrage. But not Anthony and Stanton, who were so committed to their cause that they even struck an alliance with a racist opponent of African-American suffrage. Other issues divided Stone from the other two, more-famous suffragettes with Stanton and Anthony holding what could be fairly described as the more extreme positions. Eventually Anthony's and Stanton's disdain for moderation, at one point they allied with the first woman to run for US president--on a sexual freedom platform, cost them supporters and lost them potential victories at the state level. Their organization and woman's suffrage suffered.

Adam Grant labels this tendency of change agents to fight each other as the narcissism of small differences. Another term for it is horizontal hostility. Research shows (and I bet your own experiences confirm) that groups battling a fierce status quo often disparage more mainstream groups even when they are all trying to make progress in the same general direction. In politics, for example, political parties can feel more visceral hatred for their potential coalition allies than toward their common opponents. I experienced this firsthand in change efforts I was involved in; many believed I was too willing to compromise just to make some progress. Striking a balance between your ideals and the need to show forward movement is never easy, but change agents that can find the "Goldilocks" spot enjoy better odds. As Adam Grant writes: "to draw allies into joining the cause itself, what's needed is a moderately tempered message that is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right."

A couple more points in the chapter are worth calling out. Adam recounts how the suffragette leader Lucy Stone and others pursued alliances with the 19th century temperance movement. Although the women backers of prohibition were more socially conservative than the suffragettes, they were able to combine forces to win important victories particularly at the state level. This story reminds me of how useful it can be for change agents to pursue their ideas through adjacencies. When an issue faces tough resistance, it's often more effective to approach the change indirectly by working first on an adjacent issue.

Adam Grant also makes the case for why rebels should try to turn opponents into allies. This is daunting but worthwhile. "...{O}ur best allies aren't the people who have supported us all along. They're the ones who started out against us and then came along to our side." And why is that? Well, one reason is because a reformed opponent is the most effective proselytizer of others to join our cause.

Adam Grant writes that on her deathbed Lucy Stone whispered four last words to her daughter: Make the World Better. I can't think of a better motto for Rebels at Work.