On the Rebel Road

I've been on the road for the last few weeks. The second half of October saw me in Spain, my favorite destination in Europe because of the deep intermingling of several world cultures--ancient Rome, Catholicism, the Moors just to mention the top 3. My last stop was Barcelona where a real rebellions of sorts is underway as the Catalans seek independence from Madrid. I don't have an informed view on the issue of Catalonia's independence, although I'm never much impressed with the argument that stability is good for its own sake. In fact, arguments from complexity science tell us that the healthiest organisms live on the edge, in a state of almost constant adaptation. 

But it was interesting to observe how rebel behavior manifested in Barcelona, at least the three days I was there. The city seemed calm; people went about their business and/or pleasure as per normal.....except when they didn't. You would turn a street corner and run into an impromptu gathering. Catalans would rush by with their flags--which they seemed to have with them at all times just in case--to join the demonstration. And then they would disperse, probably to enjoy a bite to eat and a glass of cava. 

Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators   

Catalan Pro-independence demonstrators

 

It appeared natural and spontaneous. There's a lesson in that for Rebels at Work: sometimes small moments of serendipity provide the best opportunities to mobilize your supporters. You don't need to wait for the big offsite next month to discuss your new idea; maybe your new method is so simple you can bring it up while you're standing next to a colleague in the lunch line. And unlike you--the rebel mastermind, your supporters don't have to live your rebel manifesto every waking moment. (Actually, we don't think that's such a good idea for the rebel leader either. Obsession is a pathology, not a strategy.) Everyone trying to make change happen at work needs to remember to breathe!

Speaking of the latest headlines, how about the shift change that's occurring in society around the topic of sexual harassment in the workplace? Actually shift change is an understatement: we're witnessing a volcanic eruption. In the future, historians will try to figure out what triggered the explosion. But for now, recent events lead me to reflect on two of my legacy Rebel truisms.

Everything stays the same until it changes.

and 

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.

Indeed, everything stays the same until it changes. Rebels ALWAYS tend to underestimate how long a sclerotic Status Quo can linger, expecting change to happen much faster than it ever could. And Traditionalists always assume that when the rebellion doesn't materialize, that they've beaten back the pressures for change. Both parties are wrong at different times.

There is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come has a critical corollary. There is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time is NOW!

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebel Dangers: When your Boss Leaves

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

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

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

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

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

rebels-at-work-book-cover

 

Avoiding backlash

horses drawingThe fear of backlash silences so many people with great ideas. While talking about Rebels at Work yesterday  a regional manager of an automotive parts company told me, "Lois I have plenty of good ideas on how to improve things at work and I know how to position ideas and connect them to what the company cares about.

"But if I  if I say anything the backlash will be horrible.  People's careers are ruined for speaking up at my company. I just can't risk my reputation."

 

So here's the deal. Don't go it alone.

 

Find some allies who also believe there's a way to solve the problem and together take it to your boss.  If there's a handful of people supporting a new approach the boss is much more likely to consider the idea than if it's just you, and there's less likelihood of personal backlash.

Unfortunately it's easy for a boss  to discredit one person who disagrees with the way the organization is being run.  "He's over his head.  He doesn't have enough experience. He's such a damn know-it-all. Etc. Etc.   But to discredit five or 10 people?   Now the boss is paying attention.

If you really want to avoid backlash, get 10 percent of the people in your organization behind the idea.  Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have found that when 10 percent of a population holds a strong belief, the belief will be adopted. (Here's the link to the study.)

When you have to play corporate politics, play with a team.

The Many Faces of Bureaucratic Black Belts

We've written about Bureaucratic Black Belts over the years, and even distinguished one subtype--the benevolent bureaucratic black belt. But we're thinking there's a lot more to be said about BBB's and more subtypes to discover. We'll start by identifying three archetypes we've been thinking about but we know there's many more. We welcome your contributions. First, let's remind ourselves of who BBB's are and what they do. Bureaucratic Black Belts are those individuals in an organization who have mastered all the ins and outs of both its bureaucratic rules and bureaucratic culture. They are frequently the Professor Moriarty to the Rebel Sherlock, a clever operator, a bureaucratic mastermind, who understands the bureaucracy much better than the Rebel at Work. Asked to figure out how to accomplish a particular goal, they can, like an excellent navigation system, identify multiple routes through the bureaucracy. What they're usually not so good at is coming up with an original destination. Many BBB’s act as if maneuvering the bureaucracy is its own reward, like solving an English garden maze where, when you’re done, you’re right back where you started from. Most BBB's believe, almost without thinking, that preservation, sameness, and symmetry are the ultimate purposes of organizational life.

Three BBB archetypes we've been thinking about:

The Wind-Surfers. Wind-Surfers are somewhat rare, we think, because they pair strong personal ambition with bureaucratic finesse. Unlike many BBBs who are support/administrative specialists, Wind-Surfers usually directly execute the organization’s mission. Their strong personal ambitions have led them to figure out every possible angle to ascend the hierarchy. Although early in their careers they often held convictions about how the organization could improve, over time and usually, in our estimation, without conscious awareness, their instincts for climbing to the top sublimated their desire to improve mission execution. Of course, they would deny this if confronted and insist they are just playing for the right time and opportunity. But the opportunity clock never seems to strike. And in the meantime their views on what the organization needs to do shifts with the prevailing leadership winds.

The organizational astuteness of Wind-Surfers is always prized by more adventurous leaders in the organization, who need the support of BBBs to get their own initiatives implemented. Wind-Surfers are always happy to do the bidding of those above them in the hierarchy, but are reluctant to back any new ideas that came from below them in the organization.

The Tugboat Pilots. These BBB’s make their mark in the organization through their ability to navigate any difficult organizational terrain, whether it be new leadership, bad publicity, or new administrations.  Like mountain goats, their first step, i.e. their first bureaucratic response, is always spot-on. They can recall every detail of the organization’s history and leverage it to their advantage.

Tugboat Pilots are masters of context and of reading people. They seem to have recognized early on in their careers that their innate skills were best suited to guiding others, and they embraced that mission with enthusiasm and sincerity. Tugboat Pilots are motivated to arrange productive meetings for the organization, thus Rebels at Work should always consider their advice. Unlike Wind-Surfers, Tugboat Pilots do not become BBBs because of their desire to advance their careers; most of them see themselves as the guardians of the organization’s well-being. They have watched several leaders come and go and so understand the damage that even good intentions could cause and know not to get too caught up in any one change agenda. Tugboat Pilots are among the best BBB’s for rebels at work to befriend. If they believe your intentions are good, that you too are motivated more by helping the organization than by ego, there’s a good chance they will try to help you. But beware, the instincts of Tugboat pilots are likely to be more conservative than yours. Taking a chance in dangerous waters is just not their style. Keep that in mind when deciding how much of their advice to take on board.

Bureaucratic Green Belts. We think this type of BBB, actually a BGB, can do more good than harm. We call them green belts because, while they are masters of one particular set of bureaucratic processes, they are not defenders of the entire bureaucracy and have not yet adopted a complete organizational mindset. In fact some bureaucratic green belts never become BBBs, and instead devote their careers to defending just the particular processes they own, sometimes from the rest of the organization.

Rebels at Work can too easily dismiss Bureaucratic Green Belts, who often can have important insight into the implementation risks of their proposals. Rebels at Work can assume that green belts won't understand their vision but instead we've found that they can relish applying their knowledge and skills to an entirely new set of puzzles. If a rebel change agenda touches upon some of the processes that a green belt owns, some early conversations with that individual can win you some important insights and warn you of problematic aspects of your ideas.

OK--now it's your turn. What types of BBBs have you encountered?

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.

 

Be prepared

Planning "I read your bio and watched your video about rebels," the CEO said to me yesterday during our first meeting. "I just want to let you know that we squash that kind of person around here."

What an interesting introduction to a company hiring me to facilitate their growth strategy planning.  Like all good change agents, I was curious about why this executive disliked those brave souls who bring up new and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.

"I just can't stand it when people throw out these big, radical ideas and haven't thought them through or done any research.  You can't just say, 'We should move into this market or expand into this new product category.'  What are the implications to operations?  What kind of sales support will we need? What will it take to hire and train the right people?  What will be the impact on cash flow?  When might we see a return? One year? Five years? Ten years?   I realize you can't have all the answers, but when someone presents an idea they better have done some homework or they'll lose all credibility."

The lesson: rebels and change makers need to do their homework, be prepared, and understand how to sequence their ideas. As Carmen wrote in the post "Top Ten Mistakes of Rebels at Work:"

Mistake #2. Putting things in the wrong order.

Ironically, successful Rebels at Work must be able to mimic good bureaucrat behavior. Specifically, they have to approach their change agenda in a disciplined fashion and make careful and thoughtful decisions about how they will sequence their activities. What do they need to do first; what can come next; what can only be attempted after they have reached a critical mass of supporters.

A common rebel sequencing error, one in fact which I’ve been guilty of more than once, is advertising your reform intentions before you have assessed the organizational landscape in which you are operating. In the government making your goals public before you have a firm action plan only gives fair warning to all those who will oppose you.  They will sharpen their passive-aggressive claws to stop you before you even get started. There’s much for a rebel to do before they give fancy speeches or—God forbid—put together their Powerpoint deck.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

The war on drugs and other disasters

Gary Askin, new to the Rebels at Work community, is doing some innovative policing work, particularly around The War on Drugs, which he says does not exist.

"Here is a five minute presentation I did for Ignite on dispelling the notion that police were ever in the "War on Drugs." Initially some fellow officers were quite concerned but are now buying in."

Kudos to another positive rebel working to change the world. You can learn more about Gary on his site InnovativeCops, or connect with him @garyaskin.

Am I a "minority" or am I a "rebel"? Both!

As most of you know, I served for 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency. During my last ten years there, I would attend recruiting and outreach events where I would answer questions about my career at the Agency. Given who I am, I was often asked this question: "Could you talk about what it was like being a woman and a minority at the Agency?" And I always gave the same answer: "Actually, neither of those was as much of an issue for me as just being a different thinker. Somehow I often saw things differently from everyone else." I was recalling this last week when I was thinking about what I might say at a couple of events I've been invited to speak at associated with Hispanic Heritage Month, which starts this coming week. (It's actually not a month, but a 30-day period from 15 September to 15 October.) And as I said out loud the previous paragraph, it came to me like the most gigantic "DUH" moment you can imagine. POW! A giant fist bopped me on the  head.

I had gotten it exactly backwards. It wasn't that being a different thinker was more of a career issue than being a woman or a minority. I was a different thinker in large part BECAUSE I was a woman and a Latina.

Q. You mean that it took you until one month before your 58th Birthday to figure that out!!

A. Sadly, yes.

Many sincere attempts to diversify organizations fail because the organization's leadership does not appreciate that any significant diversity effort is in fact an organizational change effort. It could very well end up being transformational for the company.

When different types of people enter the workforce--women, minorities--many actually become default Rebels at Work, although they often are not aware of their dual identities. People with different backgrounds should bring different perspectives and ideas with them. (Although truth be told, many learn as early as high school to stop volunteering their different ideas when they realize they are not welcomed.) And yet  you often hear leaders say: "It's a shame about so-and-so. Some interesting ideas but he doesn't quite know how to fit in." or "You have great potential but you need to learn to be more corporate."

And that's how diversity initiatives degrade and become more about the Appearance of Diversity than about the Impact of Diversity. The organization has made space for people who are different but no space for their different ideas. Helping Rebels be more effective at work is in fact a diversity initiative. And increasing the Impact of Diversity on an organization is in fact a Rebel initiative.