Innovation is the Opposite of Policy

Lois Kelly and I are regularly amazed and humbled by the resonance that Rebels at Work continues to have. And just when we think there aren’t any new wrinkles out there for us to share, we come across a new voice.

Daniel Hulter is in the US Air Force. He is writing about innovation on LinkedIn. And he shared a piece recently that made a wonderful and necessary distinction between innovation as the glamorous endeavors of Mavericks and the almost routine actions of individuals who figure out the right thing to do in any given situation. Like the individual in a bureaucracy who has the wisdom to see that a policy, written forty years ago by individuals perhaps no longer on this mortal coil, cannot be followed in a particular human situation.

Hulter has the hunch—and we agree—that if organizations worried more about encouraging the latter and less about their flagship innovation projects, they would improve just as quickly with less sturm und drang. A simple and meaningful definition of Innovation is the Opposite of Policy. Policy incorporates what the past has told us about the best way to do something—and let me just say that the “best way” incorporates a whole set of assumptions that merit examination. For example, organizations often think that smooth operations are the BEST operations; the desire for smoothness, however, can trample over other good things such as diversity of thought and trying out new ideas.

Innovation Policy.png

But let me add a qualifier. Not all policies are bad and not all innovation is good. Amy from Minneapolis (not his real name) wrote me to complain that it’s not a good thing when employees in a large organization ignore security policies and thus open themselves to malicious hacking. Some policies are worth having and some innovations are just stupid. It is an annoying fact of life that to navigate it successfully you must learn to maneuver through the grey. Shades of grey are difficult to distinguish from black or white. What I thought was a simple matter turns out more nuanced. That’s why you need allies, disagreeable givers, a wild pack, and, yes, even opponents to help you see.

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.


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.


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.


Own it. Wear it. Use it!

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


Rebel Resolve

What New Year's Resolution are you making? Lose weight? Exercise more? Learn a foreign language? Save more money? Change jobs? How about:

Become a Brave, Big-Hearted, and Effective Rebel at Work!

2015 was a difficult year in many ways, particularly for institutions. Greek debt crisis, European refugees, mass shootings, police-community relations, and of course terrorism—all of these and many more proved challenging to institutions responsible for dealing with them. Precious few solutions emerged. It's clear the world needs an infusion of new ideas.

Rebels! Tag you're it.

The world needs us.

But there's one small complication. Most organizations don't recognize they need new ideas. Oh sure, their leaders say the right things. They convene an innovation challenge. Or organize a hackathon. But somehow most of the ideas don't rise above the drawing board and/or make an impact on how things have always been done.

And of course let's not just pick on the leaders and managers. Our colleagues on the shop floor or in the cubicle farm don't always welcome the rebel's attempts to contribute. They suspect the rebel is just trying to advance her career at their expense. Or they just can't imagine how things could be done differently.

And one way or another, the rebel's new ideas are sabotaged.

Just the other day I came across a manual on how to sabotage, among many things, organizations. It was prepared by the OSS, the predecessor office of the Central Intelligence Agency, of which I know a thing or two. The Simple Sabotage Field Manual was written to advise resistance and opposition members operating behind enemy lines. In addition to ideas for ruining cars and downing electricity lines, the manual suggests some simple things individuals could do to make any organization less effective.

  • Insist on doing everything through channels.
  • Make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at great length.
  • Refer all matters to committees for further study and consideration.
  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, meetings, resolutions.

Rebels at Work is a different kind of manual, a handbook designed to help rebels help their organizations become more effective. So when you make that New Year's Resolution to step up to all the challenges looming in 2016, to be an advocate of positive change, don't forget your manual. And if you hadn't heard, we just released a learning video overflowing with practical advice to help you succeed in at least one New Year's resolution. In Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work, Lois and I talk to some of the leading thinkers and doers of organizational change and innovation. Check out a free preview here.

Happy New Organization!

Move ideas forward: new video learning program

Be a Brave Big Heared Rebel Video CoverWe are so thrilled to offer a 6.5 hour video learning program, “Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work: Get Unstuck, Find New Perspectives,” for people who want to get better at introducing new ideas and helping their organizations adapt to change. After our book Rebels at Work came out, people starting sharing stories about where they get stuck, and where they needed more help. It’s no surprise that people especially struggle with conflict, objections, bosses, burnout, and culture.

So we invited some of the smartest, most interesting people we know from around the globe to share advice and practices on topics like:

  • Diagnose what's really holding your organization back from acting
  • Manage your boss
  • Deliver difficult messages
  • Know who to trust
  • Handle common objections
  • Manage your emotions
  • Master the meeting
  • Find your rebel wild pack supporters
  • Frame and position ideas
  • Communicate like an activist
  • Create an internal word of mouth marketing campaign
  • Keep going or quit?
  • Recover and learn from setbacks

 Like a graduate seminar on organizational change

We love these wise experts, the practicality of their advice, and the joy we had in producing this program. It’s like a graduate seminar on organizational change.

  • Peter Vander Auwera, co-founder of Innotribe, SWIFT’s innovation initiative, and founder of Corporate Rebels United.
  • Brice Challamel, author, entrepreneur, expert in innovation management
  • Jeffrey Davis, author, founder of Tracking Wonder, and expert in how creatives flourish in times of challenge and change
  • Maria DeCarvalho, executive coach focused on helping courageous leaders grow their minds, hearts and souls.
  • Paul Furey, psychologist specializing in teaching people how to have the real conversations that solve business problems.
  • Adam Grant, the top rated teacher at The Wharton School, author, and one of the world’s 25 most influential management thinkers.
  • Paula Prober, counselor and teacher, specializing in gifted adults
  • Maria Sirois, inspirational speaker, author and psychologist with deep expertise in resilience and positive psychology
  • Linda Stroh, author and professor emeritus, Loyola University, Chicago.
  • Tenneson Woolf, facilitator, workshop leader, speaker and writer.
  • Lois Kelly, Rebel at Work
  • Carmen Medina, Rebel at Work

Ideas on how to use the program

 Our hope is that this program can help more people learn important skills for leading change, whatever their position. And we think the $129 price is a real bargain compared to what it costs to go to a conference or bring experts of this caliber into your company. Some ideas on how you might get value from it:

  • Use it as a professional learning course for your team, watching a segment a week and then discussing over lunch or as part of a staff meeting. (Some segments are just five minutes, others are 30 minutes.)
  • Ask your training, organizational development or HR department to buy it and give you access – especially if innovation, change management, agility, employee empowerment or other such buzz words are part of the company’s commitment.
  • Share segments on your company’s employee social network or intranet. (O’Reilly Media has many ways to access the program.)
  • Buy it for yourself, as part of your commitment to investing in your potential.
  • Consider it as an alternative to a book for your company’s business book club. (We’d be happy to do a Google Hangout or webinar to join your discussion.)
  • Give it to your boss from the team as a holiday gift.

Thank you for standing up for change and being brave enough to advocate for ideas that can make a positive difference at work. We hope this new material helps.



ps -- You can learn more about the program here, and view three of the 22 segments at no charge. The final Rebel Wisdom: Parting Shots, above, is like a Greatest Hits compilation and will give you a good idea of the variety of topics covered by our contributors.


Holacracy and the Desire to Control

Over the past few weeks, I've been fascinated by the implementation of holacracy at Zappo's. In case you haven't heard of holacracy, it's a "complete system for self-organization" designed to free organizations from non-flexible hierarchies. As the site explains:

Traditional hierarchy is reaching its limits, but “flat management” alternatives lack the rigor needed to run a business effectively. Holacracy is a third-way: it brings structure and discipline to a peer-to-peer workplace.

As an advocate for rebellious thinking at work and for a significantly different relationship between managers and teams, you might think that I'd be excited about holacracy. And I guess I sort of am. I'm all for self-organization and in principle would root for any effort to dismantle outmoded hierarchical concepts. But the recent reports that 14% of Zappo employees chose a buyout option over continuation with the holacracy implementation got me to thinking that holacracy might have its own issues. Just because hierarchy is suboptimal doesn't mean that any other system would be better.

I'll confess that I haven't read the holacracy book--a condition that Zappo employees were urged to meet before receiving the buyout package. But I've checked out the holacracy constitution and wiki, and there are a few things that give me pause.

Holacracy, by its own admission, is about more structure not less. Quoting again from the website: "the work {in a holacracy} is actually more structured than in a conventional company, just differently so." I don't know about you, but this just don't sit right with me. Holacracy makes decisions through a network of dozens if not hundreds of intersecting circles--each circle being responsible for some aspect of the organization's business. Differences are resolved and decisions made in governance meetings where tensions and objections to policies are discussed in a process that has seemingly strict rules and a weighty formal tone. (Holocracy proponents say that you can't judge the process by its rules in much the same way that you can't judge baseball by its rulebook.)

Like, I bet, for most rebels at work, the small hairs on the back of my neck levitate when I find my actions governed by a strict process. Rules have always had a lowest common denominator quality for me. For me, a healthy workplace has productive relationships, comfortable and intuitive patterns of work, and yes flow--the state of being so completely involved in an activity that individual egos largely disappear. I know that many individuals aren't happy in what is admittedly a messy environment. They want more control and more certainty, and many are actually happy to delegate upwards to the boss the responsibility for exercising that control. Perhaps, even, the world is divided into two essential types: those who enjoy a good mess and those who like to exercise control.

Another problem I see with holacracy is its assumption, implicit throughout, that humans will act rationally in the workplace

The strict rules for when and how to speak in governance meetings appear to ignore the essential emotional qualities of humans. If I didn't know better, I'd suspect that all the rational actor economists, having been defeated by the strong research findings of behavioral economics that humans are anything but rational actors, have moved over to support holacracy. For example, and quoting from the holacracy wiki: "reactions {a stage in governance meetings) are the only step of the governance meeting when people can speak freely." What this means is that during most steps of the governance meeting, comments and discussion are circumscribed. I'm sure this is for efficiency's sake--to prevent the type of rambling that we're all too familiar with during staff meetings. But scripted meetings also will reduce the opportunity for the playful give and take, the bantering that is the foundation for the trust that fuels successful teams. As the research shows, teams become great in part because they laugh with each other and communicate freely. When you read the bylaws of holacracy, you're hard-pressed to find the bit about having fun. 

I have to imagine that most organizations implementing holacracy don't go exactly by the book. Or maybe when your governance circle functions like a well-oiled machine, trust is a byproduct rather than a prerequisite. Holocracy proponents say that their transparent processes eliminate the hidden rules and passive-aggressive behaviors common in so many organizations. That would certainly be a plus. But I have to think that some of the individuals that left Zappos did so because they didn't quite see the advantage in replacing hierarchy and bosses with a controlling process.

Walk don't Run...but Never Stop Walking

“If you stand still, your opposition has the power to knock you down, if you keep walking, they have to follow you,” she said. “I’d rather keep walking.” Who's the she who is giving us rebels such great advice? Princess Reema Bint Banda al-Saud. I saw her speak at South by Southwest Interactive two weeks ago. You  can watch and listen to her keynote here. I confess I attended her talk thinking that it would largely be a public relations activity for Saudi Arabia. I left mighty impressed with the practical rebel instincts of a woman who is taking concrete steps to improve the role of women in Saudi society. It is well worth the listen.

The "Walk don't Run" part is my riff on what she said. Too often, rebels rush headlong into a change mission, totally psyched by their idea and/or disgusted by the current reality. But as we point out in our book, Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within, rebels are well-advised to adopt a more measured approach to getting their ideas adopted. Recalibrate your own expectations of immediate and glorious success, which are probably driven more by ego than by common sense. Take your time. But don't stop.

Another great talk full of ideas for Rebels at Work was by Dan Pink who talked about Fear, Shame, Empathy and More Ways to Change Behavior. His talk is not available yet for viewing, but there's a handy recap of his major points here. We don't want to brag or anything, but most of his ideas line up pretty good with our advice to rebels.

  • Use good questions.
  • Enlist the Crowd.
  • Give people an easy way to act.
  • Try stuff. Pilots and prototypes are always preferable to messy and noisy failures.

But there's one suggestion Pink made that frankly Lois and I never thought of.

Make Time to Rhyme – Rhymes increase process fluency. The message just “goes down better.” Think of it like linguistic comfort food.

So now I'm trying to think of some more poetic ways to talk about Rebels at Work. So we could do:

When your boss is a jerk, You need Rebels at Work.

OK, that's not very charitable. Let's be more positive:

To succeed as a Rebel Good ideas must you peddle Of Allies have several But around bureaucrats be careful

Enough from me.  No doubt some of you are more talented than I.

Rebel Dangers: When your Boss Leaves

Readers of Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within keep providing us with ground truth and new insights about life as a rebel at work--many of which we wish we had included in our book. One of my favorites is this lament from a reader who is a longtime rebel at work. When a new boss took over his unit, he got the distinct impression that the new boss wasn't fond of his work suggestions. As this reader wrote,

I feel like I'm being told to go sit in the corner and shut up!

Although it shouldn't be this way, in most organizations rebel fortunes are tied to the personality and management style of a boss. As we discuss in our book, understanding your boss and gaining credibility are the first things rebels need to do. Life as a change agent is hard, and it gets even harder if you don't have a plan and an order for your actions.

When your boss changes, you almost certainly will need to start over. New leaders are likely to be at least a bit insecure and therefore reluctant to continue activities they're not comfortable with--i.e. they consider uncertain and/or risky. Don't assume your new boss won't have issues with what you're doing. She will and it's your job to gain her confidence. In our reader's case, he senses that his boss is not comfortable with the "creative ideas that spill over into other domains than the one I'm technically responsible for."

And that brings up another interesting dimension of being a rebel at work. Sometimes you're shut down not because you have ideas for changing your own particular job, but because you have the interdisciplinary skills to offer ideas to help other parts of the organization. Rebels at work are often constrained by one-dimensional job descriptions and dysfunctional stovepipes. Rather than encourage individuals to contribute on issues they're passionate about, many organizations prefer employees to stay in their own lanes. They do so so they can hit targets and have predictable results, but their "success" comes at a price: disengaged employees and unrealized potential.



Innovation is Common Sense

I'm in Bilbao, Spain right now (a very pretty city home to some very innovative Basques) getting ready to speak at the third annual Global Innovation Day hosted by Innobasque--the Basque Innovation Agency. It's just a wee bit daunting getting ready to give a talk in Spanish, even though it's my first language I have almost no education in it. But my spirits were hugely lifted yesterday when I received the following message from a fellow Eastwood Trooper (my old high school).

Your "rebels at work" writing has really changed my life and my business. It has made me, instead of firing a rebel for insubordination, allow him to move forward with his "crazy newfangled ideas". It's changing my company drastically for the better. I am backing off and working less and letting the rebel lead. Without having read your articles and knowing enough to trust you, this would not have happened. I'll keep you posted on our success. So far, so good! Thank you for opening my old eyes and mind to an ever changing business world. Common sense and innovation. I get it now!

Thanks so much for that message, that vote of confidence, and the affirmation that sharing what you know and have learned can actually make a difference for others.It's very exciting to hear that the ideas behind Rebels at Work can help small business as well. Some of the most interesting innovations I've seen personally in the last couple of years is occurring in family-owned businesses eager to show that they too can prosper on the leading edge.

Rebels at Work is first and foremost intended to be a community where we can all learn from each other. I'm looking forward to learning from the audience later on today in Bilbao. Maybe, with any luck, we'll receive our first Spannish Rebel stories from members of the audience. Adelante!!

Rebels Everywhere!!

Often something happens or I have an encounter and I think I should blog about this, but then it strikes me as too thin for an entire blog post. And so these ideas bounce off my head, like poorly struck soccer balls, never to be seen or heard from again. Not this time!! Rebel Miscellany:

1. The Diagnostic Power of Laughter. Almost two months ago now I attended a great workshop on creativity from Brice Challamel and his company Act One. His content contains many useful hints for Rebels at Work, but my favorite and one I have turned to again and again in the weeks since is the importance of paying attention to when people in a meeting laugh at an idea. Laughter occurs when your brain hears something that disrupts its normal way of thinking, what it has anticipated would happen. Thus, the eruption of laughter tells Rebels at Work that the audience views their idea as disruptive and unusual. If you can, call out the significance of that laughter right away. Point out that the laughter means that the audience finds the idea particularly unusual, indeed...rebellious. Ask people if they can explain why. Even if you don't feel comfortable doing that type of instant analysis of a room's reaction, take account of it as you move forward. The idea they laughed at has tremendous power and potential. And if there is no nervous laughter in your meeting, well then maybe you aren't being rebellious enough.

2. Uncertainty and Risk: Not the Same Thing. This insight comes courtesy of Richard Boly, who just left government after setting up eDiplomacy at the State Department. We were catching up just before Thanksgiving and Richard reminded me that often times people oppose a new way of doing things just because it is uncertain. But they don't usually describe their concerns as being about uncertainty. They will say instead: "Your idea is too risky." It might be useful for Rebels at Work at that point to gently remind their interlocutor that uncertainty and risk are not the same thing. Exploring a new idea is one of the ways in which you determine whether there is indeed any risk involved. Not being willing to pursue a new idea just because it is uncertain is just about the dumbest thing really--OK...don't say that! If something is not uncertain, then it ain't new.

3. The Bitcoin Rebels. Yesterday I spoke at the Future of Money and Technology Conference in San Francisco, which was dominated by discussions about the virtual currency Bitcoin. This is not the place to talk about the very complex new phenomenon of virtual currencies except to say that I left the conference much more intrigued about its world-changing possibilities. But I was struck at the rebel energy in the room...and the visions. Listening to the heads of startups talk about how they could change the course of humanity with their ideas must have been what it was like listening to individuals in the early 1990s chat talk about what the Internet could become. If only we could bring such energy inside existing organizations. If only...

4. The Hacker Ethic. Finally, and also brought home by the Bitcoin discussions, I was struck by the similarity between Rebels at Work and the Hacker mentality. Both want to explore the art of the possible and do it because of their passion for the work, the mission, and for just trying to figure out how great things could become if we just pretended there were no boundaries and precedents. Just like Rebels at Work, you can have Good Hackers or Bad Hackers. And just like Rebels at Work, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.


Your faithful correspondent,


How Obamacare Fell into the Athena Trap

We here at Rebels at Work have never been afraid of courting conspiracy. Heck, as a Rebel at Work, you pretty much decide to marry controversy. That's why we are writing today about the Affordable Care Act. Yup, we want to discuss Obamacare. As change efforts go, the Affordable Care Act, is of Olympian proportions. And so are its problems--most of them centered around the non-usability of its website. Even the supporters of  the ACA concede that multiple things went horribly wrong.

But we think that trying to find exactly what went wrong--or what two or three things went wrong--misses the point. The Affordable Care Act, like so many change efforts, was destined to start off very badly, because of the single most powerful dynamic that affects change initiatives--the Athena Trap.

We've written often about the Athena Trap or Syndrome. Athena, you may recall, is the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, inspiration, just war, mathematics--lots of really good, powerful stuff.  Most of our readers probably already suspect that being a Rebel at Work has a lot of similarities with Greek tragedy--although the reason why Lois and I maintain this blog is to make that less so. But we think Athena, in an indirect way, offers the most important lesson for rebels and individuals seeking to make humongous change.

According to her legend, Athena arose fully formed from the forehead of Zeus. Fully armored, fully functioning, and just about perfect. And that's where the trap part comes in. The status quo almost always reacts to a change idea by demanding that its architect, the mastermind of the new idea, know exactly how it will work from Day One.  Like a good architect, the change agent, the rebel at work is supposed to know where every nail will fit. More often than not, the advocates of change accept that challenge, and to be fair they usually have little choice. Unless they exude oodles of confidence that they know exactly what they are doing, they are unlikely to get beyond the visioning stage. The new program is launched with great hoopla and, with almost tedious predictability, fails to meet expectations. appears to have followed this plot almost to the paragraph.

The opponents of change of course are delighted when the Athena trap is sprung. They rarely ponder the origin legends of their own status quo, which of course did not arise fully formed from the foreheads of congressional committees. Or even from the foreheads of our founding fathers. As we wrote almost two years ago, the status quo also started off as "half-baked ideas and almost always took turns and detours unanticipated by their originators and early supporters."

"And, this is the important point, we shouldn't want it any other way. For only through a process that allows a “thing” to react to the environment around it, change and adapt, can we hope to produce organizations, processes, customs, and institutions that actually work, that deliver most of their promise, that are organically one with their environments."

I have no hope that government will be able to avoid the Athena trap at any point in my lifetime. Our ideology-based political process doesn't seem to want to deal with the reality of uncertainty. (Although it should be obvious to all of us that writing a piece of legislation is probably a crazy way to try to do something new and complex.) But rebels should take heed. Don't pretend you know what you're doing when you really don't.

But the people in the best position to avoid the Athena Trap are in fact the managers of organizations who approve change initiatives. As we said last year:

Don’t be the senior executive whose expectations for neat and orderly change are so…well..delusionary that you force your enthusiastic future-thinkers to become hypocrites and to package their proposals in Power-pointless slide decks. Because if you demand certainty, you not only will buy into intellectual fraud, you will also eventually tear the heart out of your change champions.

The Courageous (im)Patience of Rebels

Recently in the vast Twitter river, but so quickly that I do not remember details, I ran across a phrase attributed to Admiral Hyman Rickover: "Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous patience."

COURAGEOUS PATIENCE. What a great phrase I thought and how it captures an essential virtue of rebels. COURAGEOUS PATIENCE.

Lois and I have written frequently about optimum rebel tactics. We have learned from many of our rebel profiles that perseverance and persistence are key rebel traits. Great rebels never surrender their visions to the bureaucratic swarm. We may suffer setbacks but we bide our time waiting for our opportunities, preparing for them.

Not all rebels, of course, believe in biding their time. Many launch themselves into frontal assaults against the bureaucratic landscape, usually without fully understanding the pitfalls that lie ahead. They stumble; some fall. Many observers think these individuals are the courageous ones, brave enough to take the establishment head on. And in many respects they are.

So who was Admiral Hyman Rickover? I imagine most of you under 50 have no idea who he was. The one sentence biography is that Rickover was the father of the nuclear navy. Soon after the development of nuclear power, Rickover came to understand what it could mean for the Navy, but most Navy thinkers did not agree with him. As the Wikipedia article notes:

Rickover's vision was not initially shared by his immediate superiors: he was recalled from Oak Ridge, and assigned "advisory duties" with an office in an abandoned ladies room in the Navy Building. He subsequently went around several layers of superior officers, and in 1947 went directly to the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, by chance also a former submariner. Nimitz immediately understood the potential of nuclear propulsion and recommended the project to the Secretary of the Navy, John L. Sullivan, whose endorsement to build the world's first nuclear-powered vessel, USS Nautilus (SSN-571), later caused Rickover to state that Sullivan was "the true father of the Nuclear Navy."

And now for the really odd part.

What I also learned from researching the Rickover story is that the quote attributed to him, COURAGEOUS PATIENCE, is  a misquote. He actually said exactly the opposite.

"Good ideas are not adopted automatically. They must be driven into practice with courageous impatience."

Check it out for yourselves. Internet Quote sites have the Rickover line one way, the way I prefer it honestly and think is most provocative, but if you visit the US Navy's virtual museum, you learn presumably Rickover's correct insight.

So which is it then? Do good ideas need courageous patience or impatience?

I suspect the reason the quote is so corrupted is that both statements are true. The passion of rebels drives many to want to act immediately; they are impatient for others to see what they see. Others choose to wait, looking for their best opportunity to advance. They evince patience and the courage of self-control.

Quote confusion aside, Admiral Rickover's life story captures the complexity of most rebel stories. has an excellent summary of his leadership principles in his own words. I particularly like this paragraph below, which describes quite accurately how the worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity actually works.

A major flaw in our system of government, and even in industry, is the latitude allowed to do less than is necessary. Too often officials are willing to accept and adapt to situations they know to be wrong. The tendency is to downplay problems instead of actively trying to correct them. Recognizing this, many subordinates give up, contain their views within themselves, and wait for others to take action. When this happens, the manager is deprived of the experience and ideas of subordinates who generally are more knowledgeable than he in their particular areas.




Top Five Plays of Intrapreneurs in Government

For those of you who participated in our 24-hour Rebel Jam in May, you may remember hearing a presentation from two Deloitte consultants who were just completing a research project on being successful intrapreneurs in the public sector. As you know we rebels go by many names--mavericks, heretics, troublemakers--but one of our favorite labels, if you insist on putting one on us, is intrapreneur. The two authors, Liz Arnold and Shani Magia, have summarized their paper's findings for us to post on Rebels At Work. Lois and I think it will resonate not just with you who work in government but with all Rebels out there. Please feel free to contribute your ideas in the comment section.

Intrapreneurs in Government

Government intrapreneurs can be visionaries, armed with strong communication skills, the ability to persevere in the face of uncertainty and opposition, and a deep passion for public service. But even this array of talents often isn’t enough.

Earlier this year, we interviewed individuals who have successfully achieved meaningful change in government. We talked with more than 20 civil servants across the federal government, from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Department of Labor, and collected some of the best “plays” intrapreneurs have used to overcome barriers. Although their strategies are wide-ranging, these intrapreneurs all share a common quality — they are tough and scrappy, reflecting their need to make the best of suboptimal or difficult circumstances. 

  • Find an advocate: Many intrapreneurs face a predicament when they try to make change happen in government: they may find that their initiatives violate existing agency rules and/or they could risk their careers by being change advocates. To help them handle these risks, they can find managers or sponsors in the organization to help navigate organizational processes and procedures to achieve change.
  • Connect seemingly unrelated dots: Potentially big impacts don’t always require the invention of something new. Intrapreneurs often bring ideas from outside their organization to address an unmet need.
  • Identify Allies: Building a team can be a way for intrapreneurs to gain support for important initiatives. Team members can help generate and validate ideas, and provide and collect feedback. Extra hands help anchor the effort and foster a culture of bottom-up commitment to change.
  • Look for detours: Intrapreneurs don’t let rules get in their way of creating positive change. Intrapreneurs can leverage their networks, build new connections and become salespeople for their ideas to find the detours that make progress possible.
  • Adopt a “beta” mindset: When introducing a new idea or approach, there can be a tendency to have a “ribbon cutting” to celebrate its success. Intrapreneurs can use pilots to test new ideas, and get stakeholders to buy into new ways of doing work.

What are your best plays?

Different approaches may work better at one organization than another. It’s up to the intrapreneur to decide how best to push an idea through. The passion intrapreneurs have to improve the way their organizations work is what drives their creativity — their toughness, their willingness to fight for an idea - their scrappiness. It’s what makes them successful.


What strategies do you use to create positive change in your organization?


To learn more about our research about Intrapreneurship in Government, please read our study “Intrapreneurship in Government: Making it Work” on Deloitte University Press.


Innovation is NOT the Answer

So I'm hearing lots of people these days talk about the need for organizations to innovate. It's on everyone's lips. Innovation is the medicine for whatever ails you. And Rebels at Work, of course, are all about Innovation. We often define ourselves in the context of what we want to change.

But as the term Innovation has become ever more popular, it has begun to sound funny to me, nonsensical. The way any word will lose meaning if you just say it over and over again.

And so these are my questions to those who speak of Innovation: Exactly what is Innovation? and, What are you trying to Innovate? Are all new things innovative? Do we have to innovate everything we do?

If you dismount from the Innovation Bandwagon, I think you'll realize that Innovation in and of itself doesn't solve anything. Coming up with a new idea may or may not solve a problem you have or advance your organization's mission or make something better. The issue is not so much whether you are innovative as it is whether you are thoughtful about what you're doing.

Innovation is not, let's say, like process re-engineering or Lean Six Sigma. It's not a series of steps that lead to a magical outcome. It's not a board game.

Innovation is one possible outcome of being thoughtful about what you and your organization do.

Instead of talking about Innovation, let's unpack the term and have different conversations around these questions, all of which ask us to think about what we do.

  • How do we know when it's time to refresh our processes and doctrine?  
  • Do we have a process to help us determine when we need to change something? Who's involved in that process? Anyone?  
  • What are the habits of my organization? I think perhaps one useful definition of Innovation is "the opposite of habit."  
  • How easy is it for individuals in my organization to experiment with something new? Is it much, much easier to just keep doing what we've always done? Do individuals in the organization have to be courageous super-hero's to experiment? 



As We Labor in the Bureaucratic Vineyards...

Happy New Year (from Carmen!!) Friday Lois shared some great ideas about how to handle disagreement vice just ignoring it. I've had a couple of experiences recently that offered some similarly good and practical advice/insight about the rebel life. Run toward Controversial Projects. This follows on nicely to Lois's piece on leveraging disagreement. On Wednesday I sat in on a panel that was evaluating proposals for EPA's Office of Research and Development. Here is a link that describes their innovation program. I had a lot of fun, by the way, and learned a lot about environmental science.

About 8 outside reviewers had gone through the proposals beforehand and given them preliminary ratings. On many of the proposals we reviewers pretty much had similar reactions, scoring in a tight range. But on some proposals the range was huge. Some of us would give a proposal the highest score possible--a 5, even as others gave the exact same proposal the lowest score possible--BIG FAT ZERO. As we talked we realized that these proposals were often the most intriguing. Perhaps the inability of panelists to agree on its value was actually an indicator of a proposal's high innovation potential.

This is important both for rebels and managers who want to help rebels succeed. Or indeed organizations that are starting an innovation process. I know from my vast experience toiling in the bureaucratic vineyards (NO SARCASM THERE!) that organizations have a tendency to go for proposals that everyone agrees upon. This is like a mistake when you're trying to do something new. The new should invite controversy. Of course, this scenario requires someone to make a decision about how much risk the organization is willing to entertain. Which reminds me yet again that Consensus is a way to AVOID making decisions.

Which highlights why innovation is so hard for organizations. Bureaucrats are individuals who fear Controversy and Disagreement. I had this epiphany recently when I ran across a former colleague who wryly remembered all the controversial issues I had been involved with. I could all but see his shudder as he considered how distasteful such controversies would have been if they had involved him.

The Accidental Rebel.  Most of the time we are writing for people who can't help but be rebels at work. But in mid-December at a conference in Israel I was exposed to the concept of accidental rebels. Nonintentional rebels. Let me explain.

The conference was hosted by Maala, Israel's leading NGO on corporate social responsibility. About a couple hundred individuals were in attendance representing both other NGO's and Israeli businesses. They invited me to speak because they believe people who are advocating for corporate social responsibility in many ways are perceived as rebels and also need to use rebel best practices to survive.

I started my talk by speculating that the room was divided into two groups: people who had wanted to work on corporate social responsibility for some time and a second group of folks who had been drafted into this work once their company realized they needed to tackle the issue or at least appear to be doing so. What this second group probably had never anticipated was that they had also been drafted into becoming a corporate rebel. They were being asked to do something that was at least foreign if not unpopular in their company. To succeed they would have to be both good rebels and effective ones.

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

Facilitating healthy dissent

When we corporate rebels disagree, it signals we care about an issue. That we want to wrestle with it to find better approaches. So why do people so often try to shut us down? Many people think disagreeing means that we're being unkind and insensitive.  Or impolite. (Egads!) "Let's take this off line," they say.

What's unkind to me is pretending an uncomfortable issue doesn't exist when everyone knows it does. There's a tension at work when this happens. Nothing is moving forward, corporate inertia is draining us, and we're becoming ever more skeptical about the cry for greater collaboration.

Furthermore, the longer an issue is ignored, the more frustrated and demoralized people become. Even worse, trust and respect among people erode. And when that's gone, the organization gets crippled.

"When someone comes to a meeting and states an opinion or makes a suggestion that his teammates don't agree with, those teammates have a choice: they can explain their disagreement and work through it, or they can withhold their opinion and allow themselves to quietly lose respect for their colleague," says organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni in his excellent book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

"When team members get to choose the latter option -- withholding their opinions -- frustration inevitably sets in. Essentially, they're deciding to tolerate their colleague rather than trust him."

More than most, we rebels see healthy dissent as a team sport, where everyone with something to contribute is expected to contribute. If you don't speak up your silence can be interpreted to mean that you agree and have nothing to add.

We view dissent as a way of together getting stronger, like a team preparing to hike Mt. Everest. All the potential issues are honestly discussed and worked through to increase the likelihood of a successful expedition where no one gets hurt. We're fed by the positive energy around these conversations. We appreciate and value what our colleagues have to say.

We also listen fiercely and ask frank questions.  It's about inquiry vs. preaching.  But most organizations practice advocacy instead of inquiry in their conversations, say Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea Mayfield in The Thin Book of Naming Elephants.

"Advocacy is a win-lose form of communication...each person is trying to convince the other that he or she is right and there is only one right answer.  Dialogue assumes people see the world differently...each person assumes he or she can learn something new from others."

Practices for inviting healthy conflict

So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates?  Here are some suggestions.

  1. Establish agreements: set some guiding principles at the start of a meeting and keep them posted on the wall as a reminder. If someone starts to violate an agreement, bring everyone's attention back to the list on the wall. Here are some guiding principles that I have found helpful:
    • Judge ideas, not people.
    • Focus on solutions and ways forward; stay away from drama and problems.
    • Observations are more useful than opinions.
    • Let each person complete their thought; avoid interrupting.
    • Ask questions that illuminate, not interrogate.
    • Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale, which make the question into a speech
    • Respect other people's truths.
    • If you want your views to be heard speak now. Not later in backroom side conversations.
  2. Set the tone: Open the meeting by going around the room and asking everyone to respond to a soft but relevant question where there is no right or wrong answer. No one comments on what a person says, just respectfully listens. This helps to put people at ease, build personal connections, make sure everyone's voice is heard, and get comfortable with listening.  I recently asked a group about  the most creative thing they had done outside of work in the past month. The answers were hilarious, and that laughter set a relaxing, collegial tone to dig into important issues.
  3. Set up what's at risk: Frame the conversation by succinctly stating what's at risk and why it's so important to debate the issue and get everyone's views.  This focuses the conversation and reminds people why it's worth their time and honest input.
  4. Make sure you have enough time. Issues worthy of inquiry and debate usually require more than the typical one hour time allotment. One hour meetings are good for updates and touching base.  Strategic conversations where we value everyone's involvement need more like three hours, maybe a even a day or more.
  5. Facilitate or use a facilitator.  Effective facilitators carefully listen, guide, inject good questions to open up new conversation veins, move people off dead horses, prevent any one person from hogging the conversation, help the group to recover if someone has said something hurtful, and adhere to the meeting agreements. If you are facilitating, know that it will be difficult to participate. As a participant you're focused on the ideas not the meta conversation. Understand what role you'll be playing, participant or facilitator.
  6. Ask the wind-down question. It usually gets to the real issues: About 30 minutes before the meeting is to end ask, "What hasn't been said that should? Is there something you feel we've been avoiding?  If we never talked about this issue again, would you feel satisfied that we honestly examined all the important aspects of it? If not, what needs to be said?"  Inevitably someone speaks up and speaks the truth and the real conversation starts.
  7. Close with insights: After summarizing highlights and next steps, ask everyone to briefly respond to a closing question, which further respects views and makes sure voices are heard.  Possible closers might be:
  • How did your thinking on this issue shift?
  • What one thing did you find most useful from the discussion?
  • What was the high point of this discussion for you?

For more helpful ideas on facilitating healthy dissent, read Carmen's post, "Advice for Managers: Do You Make It Easy for People to Disagree with You?"

What kind of thinker are you? Are rebels?

Behavioral scientist John Furey and his colleagues at MindTime have identified three types of mindsets, based on 950 human traits.  Future, Present and Past Thinkers. In his book "It's All About Time: How Companies and Innovate and Why Some Do It Better," John explains the three  mindsets:

  • Past thinking gathers as much data as possible and is concerned with accuracy and truth. It is reflective.
  • Present thinking seeks some measure of control over unfolding events. It is primarily practical.
  • Future thinking is open to possibilities, seeks out new opportunities and intuits what the future might bring. It is essentially imaginative.

When we understand how we think -- and how our colleagues think -- we can better  manage ourselves, ensure the right type of thinkers are collaborating for the objective at hand, understand organizational culture dynamics, and pinpoint thinking types we may need to hire to achieve organizational goals.

For rebels, understanding the thinking mindsets of colleagues and bosses can also be useful in helping to overcome obstacles and make people comfortable with adopting change.

What kind of thinker are you? Do corporate rebels share a similar thinking mindset?

We invite you to take this quick survey to see your style, and to help all of us understand the mindset of corporate rebels in a more scientific way. All responses are private; you'll get a snapshot of your individual thinking style, see a map of where other self-identified rebels fit on an overall map of past, present and future thinking, and have access to 39 specific questions related to organizational culture, leadership, innovation, and morale.

We'll summarize the results right after the holidays and talk about the practical implications for rebels at work.


While You See a Chance, Take It!

I attended an informal meetup of Rebels at Work earlier this month. About 15 individuals all working in the same outfit gathered to share ideas, particularly about strengthening the rebel and innovation spirit in their organization. It was a great meeting judging by how well over schedule it went and the quality of the ideas we harvested. Here are a few of them; I bet many of you will find one or two useful.

  • The importance of the First Follower to any Rebel at Work. I’m tempted to say that, perhaps after mastering the bureaucratic landscape, attracting your first follower(s) is the top priority for rebels at work. In fact it’s probably ideal if your First Follower is in fact a Bureaucratic Black Belt. (Ideal but probably unlikely. But we can dream!) If you want a good example of the importance of the first follower, watch this great video.
  • Pay attention to what happens before and after you get your great idea. Identify the people who will try to stop you. (One person at the meeting had attended the Creative Studies Program at Buffalo State University--according to him the only such program in the country. At this program they stressed that too many innovators spend too much time and effort on the ideation process and nowhere near enough on the sticky aspects of getting it done. Here’s the link to the Buffalo State program. It looks absolutely awesome.)
  • Strike a balance between the need to deal with reality and the desire to create a new reality. No great insight yet on exactly how to achieve that balance but everyone in the room had felt that tension. I guess what I would say is that you must resist the temptation to only do the former. Tactically there will be moments, perhaps even long periods, when you will need to deal with reality but you must always discipline yourself to return to your creative impulse.
  • Encourage the protectors of the status quo to take a chance. The meeting ended with what I thought was a quite useful conversation about the need to reframe conversations around the idea of taking a chance rather than around avoiding risk. All situations, including the status quo, involve risk. The advantage the status quo seems to have is that it has a known risk rate or error rate. Leaders clearly prefer the error rate they know over the error rate they don’t know. One attendee at the meeting reported having luck by reframing the question around the idea of taking a chance. It was important to acknowledge that he was asking the leader to take a chance. That rang true to me. Sometimes rebels can oversell their change idea. Perhaps we need to be more honest about what we are asking of the powers that be.

Which reminds me of this old Stevie Winwoodsong:

While You See a Chance

Happy Thanksgiving to all the Rebels at Work.