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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!

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.

Creativity & Risk-Taking

Here's a recent talk I gave to graduate students at Emerson College about the need to practice courage to become more creative and take more risks.  A student's comment:

My supervisor once asked, why are you so rebellious. I didn't know how to react to such comment, and now I know I was being courageous to speak up.

 

 

Are you solving the right problem?

It’s discouraging and frustrating to work tirelessly on solving what you think is an important issue and nothing happens. Despite brilliant thinking, smart teammates, and innovative solutions, the organization never fully embraces the new approach.

There are a lot of reasons why good ideas never get adopted. Sometimes they’re not critical to the organization’s goals, require too many resources, or scare the managerial keepers of the status quo.

But there’s another reason that’s rarely acknowledged: we’re trying to solve the wrong problem.

Defaulting to tactical fixes: a sad, but true story

More specifically, we go after creating tactical solutions – new systems, processes, behavioral ways to do the work – when the real problem is an underlying belief or mindset issue.

It’s the old iceberg model: we try to fix the 10% of work that’s visible instead of addressing the invisible issues under the surface.

Let me share a story to illustrate.

A few years ago an executive of a large, global company told me that the company’s marketing and communications organizations weren’t collaborating. Hundreds of people seemed to either being doing slightly redundant work or certainly not working as efficiently or creatively as they could be.

The siloes did their annual plans every year and sent them up through their hierarchies to the president, who clearly saw overlaps and missed opportunities.

I was asked to help the two organizations break down their organizational barriers. The immediate goal: develop one integrated plan for the coming fiscal year.

We used Art of Hosting and The Circle Way techniques to identify shared purpose, establish common goals, and have conversations in new ways so that everyone was heard. We created simplified, shared planning templates. There were raucous, collaborative sessions where people worked intently and with good intentions. The thinking was smart; the output was strategic and creative. Great relationships were formed.

But after that one planning cycle, people slid back into their own silos where marketing and communications each did their thing, apart from the “governance” committee meetings that were in reality lipstick on the collaboration pig.

While people gained a new appreciation of one another and the diverse roles in each organization, the goal to create new processes and open communication was a dud.

Uncovering the real problem

After 18 months I was called in to facilitate a session with just four executives – two from marketing and two from communications to figure out “how to fix this collaboration problem.”

Sensing that there was a deeper underlying issue, I led the executives through creating an Immunity to Change map to see if there were assumptions and beliefs holding people back from achieving their goal of working together.

Immunity to Change, developed by Harvard School of Education professors Robert Keegan and Lisa Lahey, is a diagnostic tool that pinpoints individual beliefs and organizational mindsets that make us immune to seeing what’s really stopping us from achieving our most important goals.  Just as our body becomes immune to disease, our mind can become resistant to certain types of change.

By making these immunities visible you begin to see root causes -- and can then focus on solving the right problems.

What was revealed among the corporate executives: the marketing people believed that they and their staffs were much smarter than the communications teams.

That’s why marketing didn’t want to collaborate. They felt they were the strategic, creative minds and the communications people were tactical and lacking in an understanding of the business issues.

It was a painful session and oddly freeing. Now the real work could begin.

Be a problem identifier vs. just a problem solver

One of the most valuable things Rebels at Work can do for our organizations is to identify the real problems.

While problem solving is valuable, problem identification is foundational.

And one of the most valuable things we can do for ourselves is to identify what might be holding us back from being confident, effective Rebels. Motivation is valuable. Clearing away beliefs that limit our influence is bliss.

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For more information on Immunity to Change, go to Minds at Work, the consulting firm founded by Drs. Kagan and Lahey  or read the book, which explains the research on resistance to change, how to create an immunity map, and how individuals and organizations have used the process to unlock what’s holding them back from making important changes.

If anyone is interested in participating in a special Immunity to Change training for Rebels at Work, send Lois an email: Lois@RebelsatWork.com.  If we can get enough people, we’ll make it happen.

First Followers

"Wow, that would be amazing for us to do. It could really change how we work together,"  concurred a group of managers at one of the biggest technology companies in the world last week.

"But it's just not how our culture works," someone said.

Then the grumbling about the culture began until, as the strategy facilitator, I cut the naysaying short and asked, "Why couldn't this group start working differently and then open the way for others to follow?  Change has to start somewhere. Why not you? You view yourselves as creative and innovative."

Someone has to start, having the guts to stand alone.

And someone has to be the first to follow, also an act of leadership.

Both are acts of positive Rebels at Work.

That's how culture changes and movements start.

Dare to start or be the first follower.

Amplify Courage

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Courage helps us challenge what no longer works, fight for better ways, achieve more than we thought possible and overcome all the stress and unexpected land mines that are thrown in our paths.

How do you become more courageous? These four strengths amplify our courage. The more you use and develop them, the stronger they become.

How have you used each one to overcome challenges?

How could you use them more in 2017?

(These same questions are useful to use in team planning, as well.)

1. Perseverance: finishing what you start; persevering in a course of actions despite obstacles.

2. Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty; speaking up for what's right even if there is opposition; acting on convictions even if unpopular.

3. Vitality: approaching life with excitement and energy; not doing things halfway or halfheartedly; living life as an adventure; feeling alive and activated.

4. Integrity: speaking the truth but more broadly acting in a genuine and sincere way; being without pretense; taking responsibility for your feelings and actions.

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!

Rebel for the soul of government

Door opening

“Please don’t tell rebels like me to abandon organizations that clearly need them, and thereby abandon the public those organizations serve.”

A city government manager sent an email last week challenging the point in the Managing Conflict chapter of our “Rebels At Work” book that “if your values are far removed from those of your boss or organization, you have a stark choice – suffer at work or leave.”

Here are his views, which are inspiring and informative.

Real rebels embrace conflict

“When you’re ready to be a real rebel, embrace these conflicts.

“I agree values-based conflicts are the hardest types of conflicts to address and they will produce some suffering for the rebel and all around…But should we just assume that a government agency should be left to its own devices when its values decay or become misaligned with their public mandate or do we have a duty, especially as rebels, to do something about it?

“I've facilitated, nurtured, and instigated positive organizational culture change centered around perceived values-based conflicts. Values-based conflicts can be remarkably constructive. They're a shortcut to camaraderie that fails to materialize through decades of strategic, wise, fearful, or polite avoidance of these issues.

“They produce highly efficient relational synapses of trust in critical relationships. What's more, people's values (distinguishable from priorities) are often less at conflict than we or they believe.

“The only way to discover that in any specific time and place is to talk about it; i.e. experiential learning. This is the conversation bad bosses fear most, as they should. The worst bosses have values that are deeply immoral by any standard.

"Commitment to avoiding these matters through rebel "self-deportation" ensures a lost organization will never rediscover its collective soul from within. “

Resiliency as antidote to suffering

I’m thrilled that this person has the moral motivation, relationship skills, and resiliency  to work through values-based conflict.

While much is taught and written about organizational values and conflict management I’d like to see more people develop a capacity for resiliency. Resiliency practices help you keep going, find meaning in the often long and political process of creating change, and see the good in government agencies – even on days that can feel like you’re lost in a bureaucratic hairball.

Without the capacity to stay resilient, rebels often suffer, becoming bitter, angry and not the best versions of themselves. And then they serve no one well – not their organizations, not their family and friends, not themselves.

That’s when they need to leave.

The quest for one more day

A senior policy innovation adviser at the U.S. Department of Defense recently told Carmen that one of his goals is “one more day.”

“If I can get talented people to stay one more day working for the government, I’m succeeding,” he said.

So much attention is focused on national political campaigns.

The people who are making a real difference are these rebels in government, working to make sure agencies deliver on their mission and values.

Oh rebels, please, please, please stay just a little big longer.

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.

 

 

New growth

June bud  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's June 1 and the city garden behind my Providence, RI, office is bursting with new growth. What's fascinating about plants -- and organizations -- is that so much unexpected and counter-intuitive growth happens at the tips and edges of organisms.

New cellular structures -- and ways of working -- often happen by chance, emerging unexpectedly in the least likely places.  This is emergent innovation, not cultivated by an innovation department, task forces, expensive consultants or forced mandates. This is where many Rebels at Work hang out.

Normally cells enlarge all over the surface. However, in many organisms, there are also specialized cells that grow only at their tip. How the necessary materials are delivered to the growing tip, is largely unknown.

Tipping Plant Growth, Universitaet Tübingen, "Science Daily," Dec. 19, 2011

What these "tip growth" areas do need to reach their potential is light. My invitation to leaders is to allow emerging new practices to develop.  Don't over-analyze , demand ROI, question how they fit with existing policies or spray them with cynical "nasty-dust."  (Nasty-dust is as toxic as asbestos and is more common in office buildings than asbestos.)

Give people and ideas light.

Expect possibilities from the least expected sources, and get everyone to lighten up -- or simply abandon -- the command and control buggy whip.

The development of new leaves is triggered by light, a finding that contradicts 150 years of conventional thinking. Leaf initiation was thought to be unaffected by environmental cues such as light.

Plant Biology: New Light Shed on Growth, "Nature," July 2011

 

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.

Build these three change muscles

Superhero character strengths slidejpeg

Five years ago when people asked me how change happens in big organizations I couldn’t wait to share ideas on positioning, navigating organizational politics and conflict.

Now my advice is different.

Based on personal experiences and learning from successful Rebels at Work, Change Agents, social scientists and psychologists, I see the importance of appreciation, character strengths and safety. These have to come before the tactical strategies and skills.

When we practice these three things we build up our ability to adapt to change and increase the self-esteem needed to initiate change. Plus they’re contagious, infecting work mates in the best possible ways.

When I was first introduced to these practices I was skeptical, believing them “soft.” But almost a year into incorporating them into my life and work I’m singing that 1960s Monkees song, “I’m a Believer.” As are many of my clients who are using them to change how they work.

Not changing work like using Yammer, but changing work in how we work with people, appreciating strengths and making it safe to try new things, question the status quo, and wonder out loud about possibilities without being criticized for not thinking things through. (I was criticized about the latter during many a performance review early in my career.)

Appreciation: the greatest motivator

 A sense of appreciation is single most sustainable motivator at work, according to Dr. Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and the Originals.

BUT we are less likely to express gratitude at work than any other place in their lives, according to research by the John Templeton Foundation

That’s right. After thanking the Starbucks barista for such an amazing latte, we walk into work grumpy and never think to thank a co-worker for some small thing that they’ve done especially well.

But here’s the deal: when we feel appreciated we become more trusting of others, our self-confidence increases and we’re more likely to help others. Plus we're more open to new ideas.

So stop reading right here.

Think of someone at work who you especially value. What are three things they do that make a difference to your group? Write them down quick. OK, now share those things with that person. Wait until you see how much that person lights up. You’ll both feel good.

(Another research finding: 88% feel better after giving kudos to co-workers.)

Character science: what motivates YOU? Your team?

We all have 24 universal character strengths in various degrees, according to extensive research by psychology professors Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman. These are intrinsic strengths that give us energy. When we’re in “the flow” we’re probably using our top strengths.

It’s helpful to know what your top strengths are and value and use them because they build your self-esteem, creativity and confidence, all necessary to adapt to change at work. (You can take a free assessment at the VIA Character Institute.)

As helpful is to understand the character strengths of your co-workers. When we understand what different people bring to the organization and how they work they way do within a context of character science, we’re able to appreciate them in new ways. (There’s the connection back to appreciation.)

My top character strengths are honesty and bravery. So rather than seeing my frankness as a “fault” – or as a royal pain in the ass– colleagues can see how it brings value to our work together.

Guiding teams through this process is some of the most exciting work I’ve done in my career. It opens people up to people  -- and themselves -- in new ways, creating a more positive, open-minded, can-do environment.   And who doesn’t want more of that at work?

And the research to back up the benefits? According the VIA Institute on Character:

71% of employees who believe their managers can name their strengths feel engaged and energized by their work.

For organizations that are focused on strengths, 77% of their employees report they are flourishing, engaged and able to make things happen at work.

(Note: this is what employee engagement is really about. Not surveys or p.r. campaigns, but being recognized for who we ware and appreciated for how we contribute based on our unique -- aka genuine -- strengths.)

Psychological safety: the secret to high-performing teams

If the environment doesn’t feel safe at work, you’re kind of, well, screwed because no one wants to make a wrong move, suggest an idea for which they’ll be laughed at, or call out a problem. If you start practicing appreciation and focus on strengths it will become safer, but creating a safe organizational environment requires much, much more.

Psychological safety is as important as physical safety at work, but it is largely overlooked and few managers are rewarded for creating this safety.

Check out the excellent New York Times Magazine article, “What Google Learned from Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team” by the journalist Charles Duhigg. The most important characteristic of high-performing teams? Safety.

You get what you give

One of my favorite songs is “You Get What You Give” by the New Radicals. It’s an upbeat song with a dark undercurrent about the challenges of our fast changing, crazy world.

This whole damn world can fall apart You'll be OK, follow your heart You're in harm's way, I'm right behind.

Life and work is life -- evolving, spinning, changing. We can’t separate the two. We can’t ever, despite the politicians’ promises, go back to what was.

What we can do is strengthen our resiliency and ability to adapt. Helping one another follow our hearts, using the strengths that make us each uniquely us, and appreciating what we are accomplishing.

Imagine if more of us felt that if we were in harm’s way  someone would be right behind us?

You get what you give.

The Rebel Trinity: Culture, Mission, Tactics

Last week I gave a talk at the Defense Intelligence Agency as part of their month-long commemoration of Woman's History Month. In preparing my remarks, I reflected back (for the upteenth time) on my career as a rebel at work at the CIA. Much of that career is described in one chapter of Adam Grant's new book: Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. Adam talks about how my quest to bring the Agency into the digital age had two distinct stages--the first where I all but self-destructed and the second where I actually made some progress in large part because of many lessons learned. What Adam Grant didn't discuss but which I included in a my talk was the story of a much earlier rebel period, while I was still a junior analyst at the Agency, when I held a minority view on an important and controversial substantive issue. My espousal of that minority view didn't hurt my career; in fact, it probably in the end helped it. What was the difference, I asked myself?

It soon became clear.

During that first rebel period, I was arguing for a different analytic judgment but not for a different approach to performing the mission. Although my analytic views were not widely shared by the organization, my analytic methods were familiar to all. It's usually less risky for a rebel to suggest a different solution to a mission problem confronting their organization. It's much harder to convince your organization that its basic approach to the mission is wrong-headed or, even worse, that you're tackling the wrong mission altogether.

Lois and I write in Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within that, for our own sanity, we need to be careful about rebel causes that run counter to the culture of an organization. It's hard to change organizational culture from the bottom up. Similarly, it's hard  to disrupt an organization's operating manual and its operational theories. We know of many domains where rebels are trying to do that exactly that: health care, consulting, government to name a few. We don't want to dissuade you from trying; but we do want you to understand the steepness of that climb.

I'm in Texas right now. The bluebonnets are in bloom.

Bluebonnets

Brainstorm Better, Bring Diversity to your Team, and Let Others Change your Idea--Answers to your Rebels at Work Questions

I've been participating the last few months in a new web platform--wiselike--where people can ask questions of practitioners in other domains. I've been answering Rebels at Work questions and I thought I'd post some of the answers here, unedited.

What is the best way to get an idea across to top management in a big company without antagonizing your immediate boss or those who will be affected by it?

Well, I don't recommend going over your boss's head. It may work once in a while, but the odds are against you.

The best way to get an idea across in that situation is to demonstrate it. Is their part of your idea that you can start under your own power so that people could see how it works?

Another important step is to get others to support and in fact change your idea. People will support an idea that they have contributed to. Your idea needs to grow and develop, and it will do so when you share it with others. You need to remember that it's about improvement not necessarily about your sacred idea and certainly should never be about your ego?

Do you think a corporation could succeed if all its employees are 'Rebels at Work?'

Nope, not every employee can be a rebel at work, but it would be good if every employee felt that they could express their ideas at work, within reason, without fearing penalty. Of course, just because you have an idea doesn't mean it's good. But too many organizations have a top-down mentality and don't really want employees to do anything other than execute the plan. This is why so many American workers don't feel engaged at work. In fact, something like 50% of managers report not feeling engaged.

Even though I was a manager for several decades, I actually think that the traditional practice of leadership is broken. I never liked to think of myself as the leader who "called the shots." I much preferred to facilitate conditions that would lead everyone to provide the mission their discretionary energy. A leader can never make people give their discretionary energy; it is only ever volunteered.

What can I do in a company where all the managers are against a 360 feedback?

Geez. This is a tough one. Presumably the President is setting the culture of the organization and it is always tough to change a culture top-down. Couple of things I would suggest.

Is there a small thing that you can do under your own authority that moves you along the path you think is better? Seth Godin has a nice video about this http://www.managementexchange.com/video/seth-godin-how-do-you-change-system-when-you-dont-have-power

He notes that in organizations where you don't have the power you have to get people to copy good ideas.

Given that he suggested people go to HR, I would see if there is a good person you could talk to in HR not about whatever your issue is but how can to turn this "go to HR" into a process, option that could actually have impact. For example, does HR report to the management team the issues they hear from employees. I bet they don't. But that could really help. The problem with going to HR is that they will treat each complaint as an individual performance problem rather than as a symptom of an issue in the organization. You want the latter and not the former.

As an advocate of positive Rebels at Work.. How can we encourage diverse thinking within our teams?

It's important to have a team composed of diverse individuals. This isn't easy to do in the short term. So one way to encourage different thinking in the team, or at least implant it, is to invite guests to your team meetings. For example, someone from another office that you have to collaborate with. So they can share what will likely be their different perspective. When you do brainstorm, don't jump into group thinking right away. Give people a few minutes by themselves to come up with ideas/answers. Research shows that this helps generate better ideas. Otherwise the whole group follows lemming-like the first few ideas generated. If there are many people, have several tables work individually on their suggestions, and then have each table report one idea at a time. This forces people to come up with a different idea from the table that went before them.

The manager or leader of a discussion has to say things and ask questions that invite different ideas and disagreement. What am I missing? What are we getting wrong? What is the opposite of this point?

Have a process for deciding which ideas to pursue. For example you could brainstorm a whole bunch of ideas and then bucket them by safe ideas and dangerous ideas And then commit to pursuing one idea from each bucket.