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

The Stability Trap

Given my long career at the CIA, I still read widely on international relations and politics. One of the most interesting articles I've read in some time just appeared in Foreign Affairs--The Calm Before the Storm--Why Volatility Signals Stability, and Vice Versa.   Trying to figure out when and how a society becomes unstable is the bread and butter work of a political analyst in the Intelligence Community.  Nassim Taleb's and Greg Treverton's article is wonderfully contrarian, arguing that in fact the most stable societies have a history of healthy volatility in their recent past.

The best indicator of a country's future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past.

Reflecting on my own career, I can remember many countries that I knew were going to implode at any moment, and yet somehow never did. And when there was a surprise--or, in other words, an intelligence failure--it was often because a pillar of the international community had suddenly--or so we thought--gone all wobbly on us.

And then I wondered whether this nifty piece of analysis could have broader implications.

Wait a Minute! Could this apply to companies as well? Could it in fact be the case that:

The best indicator of an organization's future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past?

Rebels at Work know that one of the main reasons why their ideas don't get a fair hearing is because most management teams prefer, indeed they crave, stability. My experience in government and the private sector is that one of the real reasons people avoid change is because they dislike disruption. Changing an organization is like staying in your house when you're remodeling your kitchen. It's messy and uncomfortable. As a result, people in an organization often will agree that the future end state is much preferable to the Status Quo, but nevertheless get grumpy at the thought of any disruption of their daily routines.

Organizations and managers need to rethink this aversion to messiness, to moderate volatility. And one of the best ways for a company to inject a healthy dose of ideational volatility into its operations is to be more tolerant, perhaps even welcoming, of its rebels, mavericks, and heretics. I can promise you that we rebels are very good at stirring things up if you just let us. Injecting new ideas into the tired debate about next year's strategic direction would make all organizations stronger. Encouraging dissent from the prevailing wisdom in organizations is analogous to the "political variability" that characterizes countries that enjoy genuine political stability. As Taleb and Treverton point out, decentralization and political changeability makes countries stronger; authoritarian rule tends to only make them brittle.

Many companies and organizations today are brittle. They look strong but that strength is untested. The absence of diversity in their strategy and tactics leaves them vulnerable to any changes in the environment they fail to anticipate. Rebels at Work can serve as the anticipation engine of your organization.

But only if you let them!

 

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.

Is there another woman?

Last week my husband told me there is another woman.

My reaction was denial. After all these years, how could there be another?

Flash back 14 years ago to a fundraising auction at our son’s preschool. Greg and I were like over-excited kindergarteners trying to win the bid for this painting by Ron Ehrlich, an extraordinarily talented artist whose children also attend the school.

Win we did, putting the large painting in the living room.

My family and friends tease me about how much I love this painting. Every time a new child comes to our house I ask him or her to look closely to see how many women they can find in the painting. I love watching them concentrate on trying to see what ‘s not apparent. When they excitedly point at the painting and say, “There she is!” We talk about her. Is she an African woman wearing a basket on her head? How long are her legs? Is she part of the horse? When they don’t think there are any more women I point out all my girls.

Up until last week I thought I had seen them all.

But sitting at the far end of the living room while the dim December sun lit the painting, my husband saw another woman. She’s been in our living room for 14 years, but neither of us had ever seen her. Now that we are aware of her big silhouette we wonder how we ever missed her.

As the year ends and we enter the dark season, I’m wishing that you, too, can tap into your inner rebel to see more in what already exists – find fresh opportunities in your work by thinking more about possibilities than problems, recognize qualities in your family and friends that have been overlooked, challenge your own certainty to let in new views, new people, and new courage to help you achieve what you really care about.

That other woman is waiting to welcome us.