Rebels at Work Make their own Categories!!

I've been in a thinking mood lately.....Well, I'm always in a thinking mood but lately I've been thinking about "thinking" a lot. During my first career in the Intelligence Community I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how analysts could satisfy the policymaker's desire for insight. Now that I'm in the consulting profession, I find that clients want the very same thing: Give me a way of thinking about the problem that is new to me and that I will find useful, i.e. a perspective that will open up new options for me on how I should act, make decisions, respond. I would say to some analysts: "We need more insight here!"

And they would rightfully challenge me: "Well what do you mean by insight?"

Good question!! I could describe to them the outcomes insight should produce (see above.) but I needed to describe the process by which one generated insight--that was harder. I finally concluded that all analysis involves early on the "slotting" of information into categories. Most of the time analysts are sorting information into predetermined categories. In other words, prevailing or conventional wisdom. Insight therefore is coming up with new ways of categorizing information that others find useful. That last part's a little tricky because it's still subjective, but until we decide on the absolute meaning of life and understand completely the laws of the universe, pretty much all knowledge will remain subjective. As in subject to further review and modification. (Indeed, I'm tempted to think humans are destined to live in a universe without explanation, but that's a completely different blog post.)

There are two ways I know of to categorize differently.

  • Slotting information into different categories than everyone else. You're still using the same categories, but you can make the argument that X event actually means the government of Y is getting stronger, not weaker, for example.

or, and I think this is the highest or hardest form of "insight":

  • Developing an entirely new set of categories. What we think of as a paradigm shift is also a Category Reset.

Individuals often become rebels at work as a result of doing one of the above...or both. They can process information differently and they can also invent whole new modes of categorization.  The latter usually implies a significant change in how an organization does business. The trick of course is to persuade the rest of the organization that this new way of categorization--this unconventional thinking--will in fact  not only be useful but better.

On my other blog, recoveringfed.com, I wrote earlier this week about the 10 habits of non-conventional thinkers. Check that out if you want a little more on the habits that can lead to new ways of categorization.

Be the one to speak up

The guru on the stage was demonstrating his executive coaching approach with an audience volunteer so that the other 800 of us could learn his technique. I knew little about coaching and was curious. This Ivy League university conference seemed like a good place to learn.

The guru started interrogating the woman on the stage with him, cutting her off before she could fully answer his questions, barking that she wasn’t answering his questions, and flippantly responding, “Really? Really?” when she tried to answer the questions.

I couldn’t believe the meanness of it all. So I raised my hand.

Mr. Guru took questions from two people before acknowledging me, both people praising his technique and asking softball questions like, “Do you use the same approach in phone sessions as in-person sessions?”

I stood up and simply said, “ How was that helpful?  It seemed intimidating and mean to me.”

Silence grabbed the giant hotel ballroom. Even Mr. Guru was at a loss for words.

He glared at me and gave some innocuous response, adding that he’d be happy to speak to me privately later.  He then turned to the sea of people and said that this woman, meaning me, was in error.  Because we were so far from the stage we couldn’t observe his body language correctly. If we could see better, we would know that the “young lady’s” comments were off base.  (Calling a middle-aged woman a young lady also made my skin crawl; it seemed so condescending.)

There was a break after the role-modeling session. As I made my way to the snacks table people came up to me and said, “Thanks for saying what you did. I felt the same way.”

Conversations ensued and I would guess that’s where some real learning happened.

It’s hard to speak up, especially in a huge crowd, especially when you’re not a “subject matter expert” or you’re early in your career or new with an organization.

What if my questions are dumb, we think.

What if they’re not?  What if no one speaks up challenging people who treat others meanly, who use professional practices that seem ill founded, who close down learning and thinking by being smug and sure?

Being a rebel in the workplace doesn’t mean that you need to reinvent your company, create new business models or solve other major challenges.

Sometimes we just need to be the people who are willing to raise our hands and put words to what we and others are feeling.

If not we, who?