United We Fail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Why Bosses Say No

No!“There’s no money in the budget for that” is the most common management response to new ideas. The more creative or risky the idea, the quicker our bosses’ “Sorry, no budget” reflexes. We walk away thinking, “Well there’s no sense on pushing that idea forward. There’s no money to fund it.”

But here’s an important truth:

Money is rarely the real reason ideas get shot down.

 

Six real reasons and how to get around them

1. It’s just not that important: When an idea helps an organization accomplish something that’s important and valued, that idea gets funded and approved. Many very good ideas get rejected because they don’t support what the organization most cares about. So show how your proposal supports what’s most valued.

Consider: Do you know what’s most important and valued? What’s appearing on the agendas of management meetings? What new buzz words creeping into conversations? Do this homework before you start socializing your idea. We’ve seen funds appear almost magically when an idea addresses an issue deeply important and relevant.

2. I can’t understand what the “it” is: Sometimes new concepts are so foreign that people just can’t figure out what we’re talking about. As the idea creators we easily “get” the concept, and make the mistake of thinking that other people will as instinctively understand what it is and how it benefits the organization.

Consider: Use an analogy to help people see how the idea is the same and different. When Bill Taylor and Alan Webber had the idea for Fast Company, they pitched it as putting Harvard Business Review and Rolling Stone in a blender and pressing the on switch.   What is your idea like – and how is it different?

3. Timing out of kilter: Your boss may love your idea and say no because the timing doesn’t fit with planning cycles. If you start lobbying for an idea in November but plans and budgets are finalized in September, you’re out of luck for a while.

Consider: Learn how decisions get made and the timing of decisions and budget planning. Work with the system.

4. Where are the best practices? Innovative concepts are just that – innovative and emerging. They haven’t been done before and involve risk and complexity. Alas, many people are extremely uncomfortable approving new ideas unless they can be backed up by best practices or controlled experiments. Without having some sense of certainty, people reject the idea. It’s just too risky.

Consider: If you can find supporting case studies or best practices, use them. If not, consider using the Cynefin Framework to engage in a conversation about the context of your organization (or the customer environment) and the implications of that context for making decisions. For example, if people agree the operating environment is becoming more complex, they are more likely to support novel approaches and acknowledge uncertainty.

5. I don’t like the idea. There will be times when your boss just dislikes your idea for all kinds of rational and irrational reasons, and doesn’t know how to tell you. So he asks you to do more research, puts off your meetings, and says things like, “Let’s keep this on the back burner.” The tough thing about this stall tactic is that you keep your hopes up and become more and more frustrated. It’s the equivalent of the movie, “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

Consider: if you think your boss is having a hard time giving you frank feedback, help her by asking questions like, “On a scale of one to 10, one being highly unlikely and 10 being very likely, how likely is it that this idea will get approved and funded in the next year?” (Ratings take the emotion out of discussions and give you useful data about intent.) Or say, “It looks like you don’t like this idea and you’d like to be able to tell me that. It would help me if you’d say it directly.”

6. I love the way things are. Some people just love the way things are and want to preserve what they think is working. They’re not so much opposed to your idea as they are in love with the status quo.

Consider: If you suspect your boss is in love with what exists, ask him, “Where do you see value in changing how we operate today? In what ways do you think this new idea could make us more effective?” If he thinks everything is going well and sees little value to changing, you have some important data. You can either build support around and below your boss to keep the idea alive. Or you can accept that he’s never going to budge and either drop the idea or go to work for an organization that values what you value.

 Emotion trumps logic

Remember that most decisions are based more on emotion than logic. To get to “yes,” find out what people yearn to be able to achieve (aspirations) and acknowledge the risks and how you’ll minimize them (fears). Aspirations and fears are a common paradox. Opportunities lie in the contradictions.

Lastly, manage your own energy and reputation. If the boss hates your idea and sees absolutely no value in pursuing it, you might not want to pursue it. At least not in his organization.

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.

 

 

Tip: overcoming objections

An executive in a recent workshop kept hijacking the conversation by saying, “We just don’t have the resources to do that.” Over and over. Which kept stalling  the strategy session. Here’s how I got the group unstuck. It might be helpful to you when someone uses the common “Yes, but we don’t have the money/people/time” refrain about new approaches or ideas.

“You all are stretched to the limit,” I said. “And let’s remember that we find resources for priorities that are important to us. Things that aren’t so important don’t get funded. Maybe the real conversation here is that this program just isn’t that important to the company right now. Maybe you should together decide it’s not important, and stop frustrating yourselves by bringing it up at every strategy session.”

Radio silence. (And one executive quietly laughing in acknowledgement.)

The group decided that the issue is important and they figured out a way to get a basic approach working within the next few weeks.  It’s not the Cadillac or Four Seasons version, but it begins to provide value and address a real need in the company.

When someone throws objections, get  to the real issue and get out of the endlessly frustrating and unproductive " why not" objections.

 

 

What executives say, what executives mean

When we become enamored with our ideas, which is a good thing because ideas go nowhere without a passionate advocate, we often have a hard time picking up the signals of what other people think of our ideas, which is a not-so helpful-thing. Missing the cues is especially prevalent when we’re talking with executives who have the power to approve, fund, block, or kill the idea.  The passion for what we want clouds our rational mind, preventing us from hearing feedback that can help us figure out the next best step.

This chart lists common executive (and Bureaucratic Black Belt) responses to our ideas – and what they really mean.

Befriending Bureaucratic Black Belts

Never, ever publicly embarrass, threaten or upstage a Bureaucratic Black Belt (BBB), those protectors of the status quo, upholders of processes and procedures, fighters for following the rules without exceptions, righteous minimizers of risk. Similarly never start a fight with them. You will lose.

BBB’s can be formidable foes. You may never win them over or convince them to approve your idea.  The best case is to befriend them so that they don’t fight you and your rebel ideas.  By befriending you’ll have a better chance of finding a way to work around them.

This is an important lesson for rebels, mavericks, change agents and innovators. The BBB’s are often our greatest obstacles. Not necessarily the official decision makers, but the people who can drain our energy and derail our plans. Selectively involving these gatekeepers is a necessary step in removing obstacles.

BBB’s hold all kinds of positions, though you will find more in Legal, Finance, and Human Resources, Customer Service, IT, Quality Management, and Environmental departments.  If a person’s job involves any sort of regulations, compliance, product quality or public reputation risks, they are more likely to be a BBB of some degree.  They have to, really. Don’t blame them for doing their jobs.

Which brings us to the first technique for befriending BBB’s.

Understand what it’s like to be them.

Put yourself in their position. What are they held accountable for?  What happens if they make a mistake? Don’t properly enforce a government regulation?  Not follow a standard procedure and get audited?  They succeed by being fearful of what could go wrong. If they mess up, public humiliation for the entire organization is at risk.

If they’re not born that way, they become wired to say “No” to anything even slightly out of the norm.

We rebels see opportunities, they see danger.

So empathize with them. Feel their pain. (We know this can be challenging especially if you’ve been foiled continually by BBB’s, which is likely.)

Bring this empathy to your conversations with them, letting them know that you get how difficult it must be to be them.  “It must get frustrating and lonely being the person who has to always remind people of the risks,” you might say.  All people want to be seen, to know that people understand what it’s like to be them.  Especially BBBs, who may have an even more difficult role at work than rebels.

This empathy is likely to ease the tension, perhaps put them at slightly more ease with you.

Who is The Person Most Revered?

Also helpful is to understand who in the organization the BBB respects, fears, wants to please. There is always someone.  Find out who that person is, what’s important to him or her, and who or what influences him or her.

Then  invoke the name of the Person Who Is Revered when dealing with the BBB. Better yet, figure out how to get support from the Person Who Is Revered, and tell the BBB that so and so supports your idea.  The tiger is likely to back down a bit. Not entirely, but enough that you’ll find more space to navigate.

Ask questions vs. sell your ideas

BBB’s, like most of us, like to be recognized as smart and influential, so do feed this need by asking the BBB for advice. (This also helps you figure out what this person most wants or fears, more data points to factor into your neutralizing strategy.)  You might say, “Diane (The Revered One) is interested in seeing how we might be able to make this idea work. If you were in my shoes, what would you do?  What advice can you give me that might be helpful?”

If the BBB says something annoying and unhelpful like, “Diane should know better. That idea will never work here,” The next question to ask,  “What would have to be in place for the idea to have any outside chance of working?”   This data will help inform what you need to do, or how to position the idea.  Questions are your friends in dealing with BBBs, as is listening. 

Selective disclosure and conversation goals

Know, too, that you have won some points by involving the BBB. These people get angry and become stronger foes when you ignore them. Which is what we’d like to do because they can be so unpleasant and FRUSTRATING.  Understand when and how to keep them in the loop. Disclose what you must, but not everything.

It’s also important to not wing it when going into meetings: Have a goal in mind whenever you have a conversation with a BBB. What do you want them to do, or not to do, after the conversation happens?  The more clear and precise your goal, the more likely you’ll achieve it.

Free flowing, unstructured conversations with BBBs can be dangerous because we rebels tend to get passionate and excited about what’s possible.  Passionate possibilities send warning signals to the BBB. “Danger! Danger!  This person is not staying inside the lines; they are even talking about painting the lines orange instead of regulation blue. Beware of what she is saying. Stop thinking about what she is saying and launch into why this is not possible. Shut her down. Now.”

Lastly, thank BBBs when they are helpful. Public recognition for their efforts, especially with The Person Most Revered, will go a long way in making sure that they leave you alone.

Remember, BBB’s  are unlikely to EVER fully support you. You just don’t want them to stop you.

 

You cannot win over Bureaucratic Black Belts.

Your job is to befriend them so they don’t try to kill your idea.