The Rebel Gardener

 I didn’t come easily to gardening. In fact, until I was about 55 years old (and that was almost 9 years ago) I paid gardening no mind at all. Zilch.

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All I could see in gardening was way too much physical labor, almost all of it during hot Washington D.C. summers. Just a lot of sweat.

But somewhere in my body lurked the gardening gene just waiting to express itself. Geneticists have determined that for some genes, expression is indeed a function of age. And clearly that was the case for my gardening gene. In the spring of 2010, it began to stick out its tendril-covered head. I began modestly with a few tomato plants. But in just a couple of years, I was starting most of my plants as seedlings and slowly reclaiming the ivy-infested parts of my lawn. It’s an ongoing project.

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I wish someone had told me sooner that gardening was a learning activity. Only by paying attention to how the plants behave under different conditions can you improve your gardening success rate. If you get into it, gardening is a deeply analytic activity. 

And, of course or I wouldn’t be writing about it here, gardening offers a series of lessons for Rebels at Work. Being a Rebel at Work calls upon your analytic talents. And the more experience you have as a Rebel, the smarter you will be about advocating for change in organizations. But beyond that…

Failure is an essential component of gardening and of being a Rebel at Work. It’s only been in the past year that, as a gardener, I’ve become comfortable in ripping out plants that didn’t work out where I put them. I used to think such bad outcomes were an indictment of my underdeveloped gardening skills. Now I understand that only through experimentation can I learn what works and what doesn’t. Now Rebels at Work probably can’t afford too many bad ideas, but if you can master the art of tiny pivots—small experiments that can test some aspect of a proposal, you can learn to leverage “failure.” Before gardeners invest real money in a new flower bed, they should first test just a plant here or there to see what works in the soil and light.

The shady spots are never as shady as you think and the sunny spots are never as sunny. This partly explains why failure is an essential component of gardening. Just a few feet of separation can produce significant changes in light. I once planted two rose bushes within three feet of each other on the southeast exposure of my lawn. One prospered but the other faltered because of the dappled sunlight that reached it through overhanging trees. When I moved the laggard to what I had previously thought of as the too-shady side of my lawn, it doubled in size. Rebels can sometimes make facile assumptions about what parts of the organization would be most receptive to change. The team you think is ideal for your prototype because the leader is so friendly may actually harbor bamboo spikes underneath its surface. Go beyond superficial appearances.

Some things just take time. Plants have to settle into their new environments. Weather varies year to year. My transplanted rose bush only gave one weak flower the first year in its new location. But now it’s a reliable producer, if still not as robust as its sun-blessed twin. And so it is with organizational change. Expecting immediate results should be a rookie mistake, and yet we see it everywhere. I often think the most successful change efforts are the ones that people don’t quite realize are happening. Tiny pivots accumulate and without sturm und drang the organization finds itself in a better place. Rebels who want instant ego gratification normally aren’t willing to take the tortoise approach. And so their garden doesn’t grow.

Do the work. I’ve always had a problem with routine tasks. I’m just downright lazy about them. But gardening has knocked some sense into me on this front. Unless I do the work, nothing good happens. Failing to do the work is lethal to gardeners and Rebels. The Rebel who enjoys talking about her vision but doesn’t come up with a viable implementation plan is failing to do the work. If the Rebel isn’t into details, then she needs to ally herself with someone who is. 

Someone has to sweat the details!

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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.

Rebels in Government!

These are difficult times for civil servants. Some have asked us to reflect on what advice Rebels at Work has for federal employees. We offer the following dos and don’ts with a big dose of humility and an even bigger degree of caution. I imagine that everyone will find our advice to be unsatisfactory to some degree: We don’t go far enough or we go way too far. But somewhere along the way we hope our readers will find at least one tidbit that helps them.

DOS

Do Sharpen your Bureaucratic Skills. If there’s a time to get smart about how bureaucracies work, now is it. Whenever there is a new administration, incoming political appointees try to enact procedures without sufficient regard for or even knowledge of existing laws and regulations. It’s the DUTY of civil servants, of legacy staff to point out the landmines. Ill-conceived government actions make the US Government vulnerable to lawsuits and public ridicule. They also have the potential to weaken our democracy.

Do Your Job! Don't be so distracted by the current political brouhaha that you do not adequately perform your basic duties. If you are a supporter of President Trump, you do him no favors by putting politics first. And the same goes for opponents. In fact, your partisan views should have no bearing on the performance of the duties of your office. This is the essence of federal civil service.

Do Write Everything Down! As civil servants you have rights and protections. If you find yourself dealing with a difficult manager, or if you are asked to take actions that you believe are unwise or perhaps even illegal (more on that later!), document as best you can everything that happens. And share the particulars with someone you trust. It’s probably unwise to store this documentation on your government computer. Perhaps you can dedicate a favorite notebook to keeping your paper trail. Be sure you don’t improperly store or keep government documents and/or sensitive information, however. If management is out to get you, they are sure to use any simple mistakes against you--no matter how innocent or trivial.

Do Monitor your Emotional Well-Being. Right now the hardest-hit government Agency appears to be EPA but employees in all federal departments and agencies will be challenged in the months and years to come. Pay attention to the emotional costs. Forego that extra drink after work. Take a vacation or a strategic mental health day. Don’t take it out against your family or friends.

DON'TS

Don’t Confuse your Partisan Views with your Official Duties. The Civil Service oath demands that federal employees defend the Constitution and faithfully discharge the duties of their office. The US political system would collapse if Federal employees believed their authority superseded that of the American people. That said, you are well within your rights to argue against a policy decision or an interpretation of the law that you believe unwise or counterproductive. But if you don't win the argument and unless you believe you are being asked to do something illegal, your job is to execute policies regardless of whether you agree with them.  For you own mental well-being, however, it’s important to understand your own personal red lines. Under what conditions would I resign from government service? Under what conditions would I go to the Inspector General? Get smart about the Whistleblower provisions in your agency.

Don’t Do it Alone. Allies are one of the most critical success factors for Rebels at Work. There will be many in your workplace who think and feel like you do. Find them and collaborate. Share best practices. Avoid mistakes made by others. You can develop a powerful information network in your workplace.

One Last Thing. We at Rebels at Work often poke fun at bureaucrats. And yet it is often the relentless thoroughness of people making sure all the i's are dotted and Oxford commas removed that preserves due process and the rule of law. As I write Sunday evening, the executive order on immigration is being criticized, even by supporters, for not having been properly vetted and coordinated within the vast US Government bureaucracy.

Take heart, all ye Bureaucratic Black Belts. Your time may have come!!

Rebel Learnings

This summer I had an opportunity to talk to many rebel audiences--I know Lois did as well. And as usual we learned a ton from people we spoke with. So much is worth passing on. So let's get right to it. The EGO. One of the groups I spoke to was the NextGen Leadership Summit in Washington D.C. It's a conference put on by GovLoop for civil servants at every level--federal, state, local. Lois and/or I have spoken to the group several times now and I wish I could say that the situation for rebels in government has improved. From the questions I got, not much. I was sharing our learning that for a rebel one of the best things that can happen is for someone else to take credit for their idea. In fact, we believe that a priority for all rebel change agents is to make your idea their idea. Many participants didn't like my advice. At all! Getting any kind of personal recognition in their bureaucracy is so difficult, the idea of voluntarily eschewing it struck them as NUTS. After I spoke, a sympathetic person came up to me and said:

Carmen, to avoid this reaction, next time why don't you just say that rebels need to remember that it needs to be less about them and more about their idea. And leave it at that!

Admitting you're not perfect. Similarly, the NextGen audience balked at my suggestion that rebels avoid false confidence when presenting their ideas. You should admit that your idea is imperfect and invite others to make it better. Again, many in the audience noted that the culture in their organization demanded confidence at all times. Acknowledging uncertainty is a cultural mistake and could even cost your group in that nutty competition for resources that occurs in so many bureaucracies. So you do have to calibrate how receptive your organization is to honest talk and how high its penchant for delusion. Maybe your candor can only occur in one-on-one or small group situations.

These next two ideas come from a conversation I had last month with Brice Challamel, a fellow rebel whom you can see in our learning video, Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work. He believes that an occupational hazard for Rebels at Work is the loss of perspective on their ideas. Rebels can do a better job at self-editing themselves with two simple tricks:

Develop some criteria to evaluate your ideas. For example, maybe you will only go forward with ideas that would benefit your immediate boss and improve conditions for other units in your organization, not just your own section. So as you sift the wacky ideas in your head, you have a basis for putting aside some and proceeding with others. And along those lines...

Limit the number of ideas. A real hazard for rebels is that they become known as flighty, jumping from one idea to another without ever seeing one through. Tell yourself that you can only advance two or three suggestions at a time. This then becomes another criteria by which to evaluate your thinking. It also will make you more effective by concentrating your energies and that of your supporters.

I hope some of these ideas will help you.

Happy Rebelling!

Rebels at Work and the Narcissism of Small Differences

It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them. ~Sigmund Freud

I've mentioned a couple of times Adam Grant's new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World. I've done so for the self-serving reason that my Rebel at Work story is captured in Chapter 3. And the other self-serving reason is to remind you that Adam is one of the experts we feature in our learning video: Be a Brave, Big-Hearted Rebel at Work.Be a Brave Big Heared Rebel Video Cover

But this time it's to clue you in to what I consider the most powerful chapter for Rebels at Work in Adam's book--the chapter on creating and maintaining coalitions: Goldilocks and the Trojan Horse. Lois and I have observed that successful Rebels at Work don't do it alone. Often their first step is to form alliances with others; that's certainly what we would recommend. Adam Grant's chapter explores the realities and subtleties of coalitions. His stories and observations not only led me to reflect on past mistakes but also to realize for the first time just how many I'd made.

Adam orients his lessons for building coalitions around the story of the American suffragette movement of the 19th century. Early on the suffrage movement suffered a crippling split when Lucy Stone, one of the first voices for women's suffrage, couldn't agree with Susan Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on important movement issues, and vice-versa. Among the issues that divided them was the push to grant the vote to African-American men. Stone supported the right to vote for ex-slaves even if it occurred before woman's suffrage. But not Anthony and Stanton, who were so committed to their cause that they even struck an alliance with a racist opponent of African-American suffrage. Other issues divided Stone from the other two, more-famous suffragettes with Stanton and Anthony holding what could be fairly described as the more extreme positions. Eventually Anthony's and Stanton's disdain for moderation, at one point they allied with the first woman to run for US president--on a sexual freedom platform, cost them supporters and lost them potential victories at the state level. Their organization and woman's suffrage suffered.

Adam Grant labels this tendency of change agents to fight each other as the narcissism of small differences. Another term for it is horizontal hostility. Research shows (and I bet your own experiences confirm) that groups battling a fierce status quo often disparage more mainstream groups even when they are all trying to make progress in the same general direction. In politics, for example, political parties can feel more visceral hatred for their potential coalition allies than toward their common opponents. I experienced this firsthand in change efforts I was involved in; many believed I was too willing to compromise just to make some progress. Striking a balance between your ideals and the need to show forward movement is never easy, but change agents that can find the "Goldilocks" spot enjoy better odds. As Adam Grant writes: "to draw allies into joining the cause itself, what's needed is a moderately tempered message that is neither too hot nor too cold, but just right."

A couple more points in the chapter are worth calling out. Adam recounts how the suffragette leader Lucy Stone and others pursued alliances with the 19th century temperance movement. Although the women backers of prohibition were more socially conservative than the suffragettes, they were able to combine forces to win important victories particularly at the state level. This story reminds me of how useful it can be for change agents to pursue their ideas through adjacencies. When an issue faces tough resistance, it's often more effective to approach the change indirectly by working first on an adjacent issue.

Adam Grant also makes the case for why rebels should try to turn opponents into allies. This is daunting but worthwhile. "...{O}ur best allies aren't the people who have supported us all along. They're the ones who started out against us and then came along to our side." And why is that? Well, one reason is because a reformed opponent is the most effective proselytizer of others to join our cause.

Adam Grant writes that on her deathbed Lucy Stone whispered four last words to her daughter: Make the World Better. I can't think of a better motto for Rebels at Work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Become a Meaningful Rebel at Work

Rebels at Work can obsess about winning the war of ideas in their organization. The company is headed in the wrong direction and new ideas need to be introduced; the rebel at work not only seeks to persuade; she needs to win. But what if playing to win is not the right objective for rebels at work? In fact, isn’t the whole winning and losing framework just buying into the way traditional organizations think about making decisions? Once the leaders make their strategic choices, all other options fade to black.

Let’s think of another way. Instead of seeking victory, how can the rebel make his ideas more meaningful for his group and organization? Isn’t this a much better question, one that creates more space for others to contribute and that is more respectful of what is already positive about the organization? As Radmilla Prislin, Cory Davenport, and John Michalak note in their essay, Groups in Transition: Differences in the Context of Social Change:

Social change occurs when a group changes its position on what is normative.

Those were the ideas that ran through my mind this summer as I read the book Rebels in Groups, edited by Jolanda Jettsen and Matthew J. Hornsey. In an earlier blog post this month, I wrote about what this excellent book has to say RAW coverabout the contributions that dissent and rebels make to organizational health, including the awesome finding that rebels at work improve the decisions of their organizations even if their ideas don’t carry the day. See, it really isn’t about winning. It’s about making things better.

Rebels in Groups digests much of the recent academic research on how groups react to dissent and rebels in their midst. It’s consistent with the advice we provide in our book Rebels at Work—if you’re trying to affect change, you need allies, strategy, and a high degree of emotional and social intelligence. But the academic research contains some additional insights that can help rebels and dissidents be more effective.

Rebels need to understand the core norms of their group. The research clearly shows that it’s much harder for new ideas to gain support if they violate essential beliefs of the group. In our book we suggest that rebels at work frame their ideas within the context of what the organization already values. The psychology of the group also matters. Groups that are more cohesive handle dissent better. Groups that have a history of incorporating new members will be more open to new ideas

When presenting new ideas, rebels at work need to do so first within their group. Teams don’t take too kindly to being criticized in front of outsiders. This goes without saying, but it’s useful to know that the research supports good manners.

Instead of criticizing the views of others, rebels should frame conversations around the availability of information. What information shapes the rebels’ views; what information is viewed as important by others? Research shows that access to different information can account for variance in views; level-setting around what is known versus what is opinion can make conversations more constructive.

Rebels can overcome a group’s natural tendency to favor continuity by pointing to the external factors that support the need for change. This is a well-understood tactic in organizational change literature, but it’s nevertheless striking how groups make different decisions when forced to consider outside perspectives.

Rebels are received better by organizations when they behave consistently. We’ve all known individuals who every month have a different new idea for what the organization could do better. You’re better off as a rebel if you identify the one or two changes that would make the most impact and then work doggedly to advance them.

There’s much more to share from Rebels in Groups. The next post will distill the lessons it offers for managers of organizations who want to encourage constructive dissent and create a healthy space for alternative views.

Random Rebel Ruminations

When you write a book, you can’t predict how people will react to it. Lois Kelly and I had certain expectations for Rebels at Work and many of them have been met. But what is actually more delightful, I think, are the unexpected “uses” that people have for Rebels at Work and the interesting ways it has resonated. 1. Rebels at Work is a book that bosses should give to the Worst Whiners on their teams. Ha! That’s a use case we did not envisage. But a friend told me recently that she’s recommending that managers give the book to the constant complainers and critics who don’t bother to suggest constructive ideas for improvement. A useful reminder that dysfunction in the workplace is rarely a one-way street. Our book is written for people with bosses that aren’t receptive to their ideas. But there are many individuals in positions of leadership who embrace an inclusive workplace but wait impatiently for others on the team to join the conversation. Maybe Rebels at Work can help spark the talk!

2. Rebels at Work is really about employee engagement. Organizations everywhere are panicking that their employees have no emotional/intellectual attachment to their place of work. The issue has become so pressing that Gallup is now measuring the engagement levels of US workers on a monthly basis—just like inflation. As we’ve surveyed the landscape of employee engagement initiatives, it’s striking how often success is measured by whether the survey numbers tick up, and not actually by whether employees are offering up more of their discretionary energy to the workplace. As one follower noted on Twitter:

https://twitter.com/norrvall/status/584175350046826496

 

We are immodest enough to think we’ve got part of the answer. The best way to improve employee engagement is by actually welcoming employee ideas. Everything else is just cosmetics.

3. One of our most loyal readers—and a veteran and authentic Rebel at Work—talked to me recently about the Split Personality issues affecting rebels. Reacting to the advice we give in the book, he offered that it’s tough for rebels, who passionately believe in the need for change, to behave cautiously and diplomatically in the workplace. You’re constantly playing a role at work and having to suppress—if only partially—your true beliefs. I resembled that remark in my career. I noticed that if you’re defending the Status Quo it’s OK to be tough and loud. But if you’re proposing change, it’s best to adopt a sweeter tone. I found it useful to have a friend you could process and safely vent with. And when that person wasn’t available, well my bathroom mirror felt my rebel wrath.

4. One last rumination. A friend was visiting a colleague recently, and spotted Rebels at Work on the kitchen counter. This individual had to read a leadership book as part of an individual development plan. Rebels at Work ended being the only “business book” the individual could stomach reading.

If we have a second edition, that could be the new cover blurb!!

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.

A Rebel Handbook

Have you heard that Lois and I have a book coming out this fall, published by O'Reilly Media, called Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within? Needless to say, we're trying to act really cool about it. I, for one, only bring it up three or four times a day in the course of ordinary conversation. RAW cover

When I mention it, I get some interesting reactions. Just this weekend a friend of a friend and  I were chatting about it; he's a successful businessman and lawyer. When I told him the title  and described the content he looked confused and said:

"And so you think corporations would actually pay you to come in and teach their employees  to be rebels?"

After thinking about it for a bit he offered me a new title: "Provocateurs at Work."

I'm not sure that's any less scary to large organizations than Rebels at Work. But what  interested me most about the conversation is the fact that my interlocutor, who would  probably describe himself as a libertarian, would get so queasy about the idea of helping  rebels inside large organizations. There it is again--that, to my knowledge unproven,  assertion that corporations operate best when employees conform.

There's clearly a lot of work to be done.

Another conversation was with a friend whom I mention in the book, Clark, who has always been much more comfortable with conflict than I have ever been. Learning to deal with conflict in the workplace is such an important developmental for rebels that Lois and I devote an entire chapter to it. Although Clark never really thought of himself as a Rebel at Work, he does acknowledge that his honesty in the workplace probably cost him some plum jobs in his career, assignments he wanted and deserved. Honesty at work is not career-enhancing, he said. But a need to be honest and say what needs to be said is a key driver for rebels in the workplace. As Lois and I write in our introduction:

Every day people in all kinds of jobs at all kinds of workplaces reach the point where they say, “Enough.” While every rebel’s reason for stepping up differs, almost all start with the same uncomfortable realization: “I have to do something about this.”

Aarrr!! Talk Like a Rebel

If you follow me on Twitter, (@milouness) you may have noticed this great piece I linked to last weekend on The Origins of Office Speak. It appeared in the Atlantic and was written by Emma Green. It not only fills you in on Management Lingo but also serves as a quick tutorial on the history of scientific management and the consulting profession in general. One theme that runs through this history is the slow realization over the last 100 years by business managers and consultants that human beings are most productive when you treat them as real people, not resources. What a concept!! My favorite quote in the piece was from Professor Joanne Ciulla of the University of Richmond.

Attempts at engineering appropriate attitudes and emotions can actually undercut genuine feelings for a company.

The article got me to thinking whether there is such a thing as Rebel Lingo. You know things that Rebels at Work say when they are trying to win support for their change initiatives that actually have the opposite effect. As Lois pointed out on our Facebook page last week, it is vital for rebels to paint pictures of where they want to go in a succinct way that appeals to what is most relevant to the executives in your organization. That is not compromising your principles by the way; this is understanding human psychology and keeping it real.

So here is my short list of phrases rebels need to try to avoid. Do I avoid them all the time? No! As I’ve learned, most cliches became so because they contained a kernel of truthiness. But as a general practice, Rebels need to talk about specific ideas and changes, not high-falutin’ concepts. We welcome any additions to the list.

Burning Platform: Call the Fire Department! This phrase was born out of the belief that people will resist change until you give them a compelling reason to do so. But I’ve learned that what you think is a burning platform is often their sunny beachfront property The Rebel has to have some compelling arguments to prove that the status quo completely lacks feck. It rarely does. The truth is most people resist being changed...period.

Working Group: “Let’s form a working group!” is that seemingly innocent phrase that brings the 2+ hour meeting to a close when no one has any other good ideas for what to do next. Managers often resort to the working group tactic as well, which alone should give Rebels pause. Remember: Working Groups are groups that do NO work.

Ostrich, sand, head, butt: Never put these words together in a sentence. They don't win you any supporters.

Change Agent: Never introduce yourself in meetings as a Change Agent. Don’t let anybody call you that either. Rebels at Work do not get a 10% cut off the top of all change initiatives. We aren’t agents at all. We actually believe in what we are doing.

End State: This always makes me think of Death. Also it reflects an unattractive hubris on part of the Rebel. The rebel’s ideas are not the end state of the organization; in a few short years (months) your ideas will be overtaken by much better ones. It is the way of the world. Innovation (another word to use infrequently) is not about a program to implement one new idea or even a set of new ideas; innovation means permanently removing the barriers to entry for all new ideas.

Think Out of the Box:  Aaargh! Please don’t ask people to think out of the box. I once heard a senior leader say that he enjoyed being in a box. It was a much safer place to be.

Paradigm Shift: It is a shame that Thomas Kuhn’s useful concept is now so tired and overused that its deployment in any meeting immediately chills the air and causes butts to shift in their seats as if perhaps an ostrich were involved. Remember: Change agents use working groups to shift paradigms.

 

The Rebel Penalty Box

The other day I was having lunch with a friend, a rebel at work and she was telling me that she was finally out of the Rebel Penalty Box at the office. Immediately I knew what she meant. "How did you get in the Rebel Penalty Box?"Alexander_Sazonov_2011-09-26_Amur—Heftekhimik_KHL-game

"Well, actually the year it happened I thought I was doing the best work in my career. I thought I was really getting things done that would make a difference, implementing change. But I guess my boss didn't see it that way. And I received a lesser ranking in my performance review that year."

"Whoa!! What did you do then?" I asked.

"I decided to just go low profile. Just do exactly what was expected of me. And wouldn't you know it, that worked I guess. This year, my performance rating was raised to its previous level. So I guess that means I'm out of the penalty box."

That story was so familiar to me and I bet to most of the rebels reading this post. At some point in your work life you will get a minor penalty or a 5 minute major, and you will need to find a way to get through it without losing your sanity or your rebel core--they're kind of one and the same thing, right? In my friend's case, it came as a complete surprise--she thought she was excelling at doing the right thing and was jazzed up about her performance. Only to find that, in her case, a change in upper management meant a new definition of success. My time in the penalty box was longer, I think. Most of a decade. A five-minute major. And I kind of knew it was coming. I wasn't doing the best work of my career. I had let myself become cynical and negative and eventually people just became quite tired of me. I deserved that time in the rebel penalty box.

So, if you find yourself in the penalty box, how should rebels think about it? What can help them get through the period?

Try not to dwell on the fact that it's unfair. Of course it's unfair... in a way. But you're probably in the penalty box because you broke a rule of the organization--either explicit or implicit. In my friend's case she did not factor in the likely behavior of a new boss. They almost always reconsider the priorities of the previous regime--it might as well be a rule. We're not saying don't ever break the rules, although we do think changing rules is a much better strategy for the long term. But just keep in mind that if you're out doing something new, the chances rise that you'll be called for a penalty. It's the risk you run.

Take your helmet off and cool down. In ice hockey, players are advised to remove their helmets so they can release more heat and cool off from the exertion of the game. Not a bad idea for us rebels. The relative peace and quiet of the penalty box can be a great opportunity to think things through, replay the moves you made, and think about how your future strategy. In my friend's case, she minded her p's and q's to regain her footing with the new boss. We know some rebels might find that distasteful, but remember that in ice hockey, fighting when you're in the penalty box will probably get you ejected from the game.

Be thankful you weren't ejected. Unless of course that's your goal. Maybe you're so tired of trying to make people listen to your ideas that you've decided to leave. Getting thrown out is your grand fireworks finale. But just be careful how that plays out. Your firing might be the example that sets back change efforts in the organization for years to come.

Look for an opportunity to score when you leave the box. There's no more exciting play in ice hockey then when an aware teammate passes the puck to the player leaving the penalty box. It usually creates a scoring opportunity. Perhaps you can look for a new position where there's more tolerance for new ideas. Or maybe new leadership arrives that's more amenable to change. Having been in the penalty box, the rebel is more likely to observe larger patterns at work that he can begin to take advantage of.

This blog, of course, was also inspired by the Olympics and the exciting men's hockey game between Russia and the USA this weekend.

 

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,

Carmen

So exactly how LONG should you wait for Change?

The other day I was in a conversation with a long-time rebel (first-time caller) who has been tirelessly constructing a radical new work practice for an organization. For years. Except that now he's gotten kind of tired. Perhaps you might even say fed up. His ideas are not really moving beyond the prototype stage and it's been...years. "People keep telling me that 'Change Takes Time' but my question is: How much time is TOO LONG?"

As a card-carrying member of the "Change Takes Time Fraternity", I realized I had never asked myself that question. Sure, real change takes time but when does that truth become just empty words for the Status Quo to hide behind?

My friend had worked some of this out for himself.

"Many organizations realized the need to move into a different model at around the same time. A decade ago. Most of them now are well underway into making the transition. Some have completed it. But we're still futzing around."

"That's how I know our change is taking too long."

Rebels need to have an idea (maybe even a timetable?) for how long it takes to complete certain types of change in comparable organizations. They need to use this information (cleverly) to establish expectations not just for themselves but also for the organization around them. Because in most change initiatives, the Status Quo remains in fact the most important player.

I can imagine it would be quite effective to let the bureaucratic black belts know what the typical transition time is for comparable change initiatives. Status Quo leaders may not always buy the idea for change but they are quite inclined to support the need to keep to a schedule. And talking explicitly about how long you expect something to take and "how long too long is" will also prevent the passive-aggressives in your organization from availing themselves of one of their favorite techniques--using the unmonitored passage of time to wait the rebels out.

Finally, having a clearer framework in your mind to help you determine when change is taking too long will help you avoid rebel burnout. Rebel self-care is essential and yet most rebels are horrible at it. We really do suffer from the sunk costs phenomenon, particularly because our sunk costs usually represent emotional and psychological investments.

Rebels sometimes also need to think about whether they are prepared to stay in their position long enough to see a particular change through. Are you strong enough to hack away at your organization's undergrowth for let's say five years to make something happen?  Be honest when you answer that question. Because change takes time.

 

Obsession and Controversy: One is a Rebel's Friend; the Other his Enemy

Can you guess which is which? I was reflecting the other day about how, once we become seized with the need for an important change in our organizations, the issue can become all-encompassing. You can't stop thinking it about. You become obsessed.

You start bringing up the topic in almost any conversation at work. Any meeting that doesn't address it just seems like a colossal waste of time. I know when I was a rebel at my old agency I had a tendency to bring up my existential angst at what really where the most inappropriate moments. Perhaps we were having a modest conversation about reforming the performance appraisal system. It didn't matter. I would find a way to inject some comment about the need for fundamental change.

Sigh...

You know, people can get pretty tired of that. They start avoiding you. Before you know it, you have a reputation for being cynical and negative. This is not a guess. It's a fact. I lived it.

Here is my depiction of The Rebel Arc--the stages of being a rebel. (This is a Beta version, so all ideas, as always, welcomed.) The line between advocacy and obsession is admittedly a fine one, but only for the rebel herself.  Her audience immediately senses the difference between the two, and reacts accordingly.

So be sensitive to how often you talk about your big idea. Rebels will have more credibility if they are seen as still functioning members of the team, and not as one-trick ponies. Choose your opportunities to talk about your ideas judiciously.

Now to the topic of controversy. It's not up on the chart because it's a consequence of rebel actions--not a rebel stage itself. I've often spoken about how rebels need to understand that handling conflict well is a necessary skill they must develop. The precursor of conflict is, of course, controversy. As soon, if not before, you reach the top of the Rebel Arc, you will, if you have an idea that is truly challenging to the Ways Things Always Are Done, engender controversy.

Controversy is your friend! Honest! It means people have begun to pay attention.

But how rebels handle this controversy will be a key determinant of how their proposals and careers will fare. These moments of controversy offer rebels opportunities to gain new allies (and new opponents) and will help temper their ideas. Just like the status quo, your ideas are imperfect. Dismissing others' suggestions is the first step toward obsession.

One last word on the Rebel Arc. OK, so it makes being a rebel look pretty miserable. I know, I rode it all the way down during the middle part of my career.

But there are several exit ramps available.  The ideal takeoff point is just at that moment when your proposals become controversial, i.e. you have captured the attention of your organization and people are energized negatively or positively. Like anything important in life, not every factor determining the outcome is under your direct or even indirect control. Rebels that have surveyed the bureaucratic landscape will be better equipped to take advantage of the controversy by, for example, having anticipated some of the issues and by lining up key supporters who can make the rebel's argument on their behalf.  But rebels need to realize that if their ideas don't begin to gain traction, the rebels will be viewed as obsessive. That's not fatal, but negativity usually is.

Working in a bureaucracy trains us to give up on our ideas prematurely. But the danger for rebels is the opposite: hanging on to your ideas long after they no longer have a future, at least for now, in your organization. There is nothing as weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.

 

Tight pants

By last Friday afternoon I was exhausted, having worked on an especially rebel-worthy assignment. This meant I had to maneuver around Bureaucratic Black Belts (BBBs) and move people off assumptions that they were willing to fight (me) for. All very congenial, but intense nevertheless.

It also meant that I had to find ways to help people see a better way, be confident while also being honest about the uncertainties, and remain steadfast and open-minded.

Talk about paradox. Can I also say once again how exhausted I was?

Two themes I find about change: there can be no progress without paradox, and leading change is often exhausting. Not always. But often.

On Friday afternoon a good friend was kind enough to listen to me talk about what had happened, and ask good questions to help me clarify the best next steps.  She also said, "You know, being a rebel is a lot like what Terry Pearce said in his book Leading Out Loud."

“There are many people who think they want to be matadors, only to find themselves in the ring with two thousand pounds of bull bearing down on them, and then discover that what they really wanted was to wear tight pants and hear the crowd roar.”

Real rebels are not afraid stay in the ring.

Many of us also take long naps on the weekend.

 

 

Lessons for Rebels from David Petraeus

The Petraeus affair is a tragic story, of which all I know is what I read in the "papers". It does, however, provide a "good" bad example of what I observe way too much of in organizations: the turning of a "leader" into a "hero"; the love of a strong hand at the controls; and the conflation of an idea with the person carrying it. Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. Repeat after me. Heroism is not a Leadership Strategy. I remember once when I was attending a year-long leadership seminar about a decade ago--right after 911. We would occasionally take trips together and the instructors would show films about leadership during the bus rides. EVERY SINGLE MOVIE was about a leader in war. The favorite of course was the Henry V film by Kenneth Branagh. Honestly, I have nothing against Shakespeare; in fact most of his dramas actually speak to the foibles of the Leader as Hero myth. But the emphasis in this and other courses I took was always about the importance of YOU the LEADER as a visionary individual, as the person who could make everything happen, and as the essential individual in extraordinary situations. How about leadership in normal times, I asked? Could you show a movie about something a bit more relevant to our likely experiences?

Petraeus, it seems to me, fit the Leader as Hero paradigm. And if you read his biography, with his apparent emphasis on always being the best, you get the impression that the Hero mantle was one he himself took off the coat hanger. The problem with the Heroic Leader, of course, is that there ain't no such thing. Not for long anyway. And the organization becomes overdependent on the individual as the wise decisionmaker, which as we all know carries considerable risks. The person anointed as the Hero is also at considerable risk of believing what people say about him. As former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said earlier this month: "There is something about having great power...that skews people's judgment." (Full quote appeared in this great piece in the Washington Post.)

The lessons for rebels here is that Heroism is not a Rebel Strategy either. There are perhaps some rebels that are still storming the ramparts in hopes of overwhelming those who don't "get it!" How's that working for you? In my experience most organizations become wiser slowly; people start having "aha" moments here and there; the rebel is often  just the person who gets to the "aha" moment more quickly. And if the organization wants to anoint you as a hero, RESIST!

Closely related to the Heroic Leadership model is the desire for a Strong Hand at the Controls. Clearly there is something deep in human evolution that leads us to want someone who will just tell us what to do. There is a reason why so many small children want to be Darth Vader on Halloween.

History (by which I mean many individuals doing difficult and time-consuming analysis and research) will eventually tell us how much the "surge success" in Iraq can be traced back to decisions made by General Petraeus and how much were the consequences of complex interactions and chaotic lucky bounces. But I am certain that two analytic lines will emerge: 1. the decisions of any one individual were always buffeted by the dynamics of the situation, and 2. the strong decisionmaker was unable to anticipate the many downstream and often adverse consequences of his decisions. Which is why that nice feeling we get knowing there is a strong hand at the controls inevitably becomes, at some point, an illusion.

This is not so much a lesson for rebels as for organizations who tend to breed them. Without Darth Vader (and the Emperor), there would have been no need for a Rebel Alliance. If you find yourself confronting mini rebellions all over the workplace, then you too are suffering from the Strong Hand at the Controls disease. Stop pulling so hard at the levers. Step away from the controls.

The final lesson illustrated by the Petraeus affair is the constant danger rebels run of conflating themselves with the ideas they are advancing. Petraeus became synonymous with the US military's new insurgency doctrine. In this case, the concepts he advanced will likely survive his scandal. But I think we're all familiar with ideas that become so identified with the individuals who espouse them that any doubts about the individual end up besmirching their ideas as well.

I think ideas have their own trajectory independent of the individuals who come to believe them. Rebels are the carriers of new ideas; rarely are they the owners. Just making the mental shift from being an idea owner to an idea carrier could be helpful to rebels in large organizations. If you are carrying an idea then your Number 1 goal should be to get someone else to share the burden with you. Infect others as soon as you can. Let your idea mutate as it makes contact with other ideas. Make the idea independent of you as soon as you can!