Jill Abramson: Rebel at Work?

Most of our focus at rebelsatwork.com is on employees trying to make change from below. They have it rough and don't have many resources to help them. But we recognize that not infrequently the Rebel at Work can also be a manager, even a leader of an organization. Steve Jobs, of course, comes immediately to mind. Often leaders try to prod their organization to a better future by painting a vision of a new business model only to struggle to push everyone there. When I was in the Intelligence Community trying to do something similar, I would often refer to the Keystone Kops to illustrate our challenge. In the silent Keystone Kops one-reelers, there's often a scene where a truck of Kops in pursuit of dastardly criminals turns a sharp corner and several of the Kops fly off. My goal, I would tell people, was to turn our sharp corner but keep everyone on the truck. We're all getting there together.hungarian20cops1 Easier said than done. Last week the New York Times fired their editor, Jill Abramson, and charges have been flying around ever since as to the reasons why. I don't know why, of course, but I was struck by the analysis provided by another prominent female editor, Susan Glasser, editor of Politico Magazine. In her article, Glasser posits that Abramson, and the editor of Le Monde, who was also forced out last week, were caught up in the strong backlash that can often beat down a leader trying to take their obstinate organization to a place it doesn't think it needs to go. Glasser can't prove her conjecture, but she writes convincingly of her own predicament when she tried to lead the Washington Post to a digital future. Glasser's description of what confronted her is painful to read.

"In the course of my short and controversial tenure in the job, I learned several things, among them: 1) print newspapers REALLY, REALLY didn’t want to change to adapt to the new digital realities; 2) I did not have the full backing of the paper’s leadership to carefully shepherd a balky, unhappy staff of 100 or so print reporters and editors across that unbuilt bridge to the 21st century;"

She goes on to write:

"I have no wish to relitigate a painful past episode by writing this, except to say what I learned about myself: It was not the right fight for me, and I didn’t really have the stomach for waging the bureaucratic war of attrition that is the fate of the institutionalist in a time of unsettling change. I had always chafed at the constraints and processes and internal politics of a venerable and proud place. Was I the right person for that job at that time? Clearly not, and I was happy once the ordeal was over, and grateful for the support I received from so many people. I learned that I liked to invent more than reinvent, that it is a better fit for me to create something new than to try to save something old."

That last sentence brought tears to my eyes. I would rather create something new than try to save something old. This realization occurs to so many rebels just at the moment they decide to give up. But I suspect most rebels, perhaps even Glasser, are not being completely honest with themselves. My guess is that they really would rather save, revive something old, but that the personal cost of it just becomes unbearable. Or they are removed because when it comes right down to it, too many people expect change to be easy and not controversial. Even when rebels get "top cover", it is flimsy and easily blown away by the complaints from those who will not be moved.

Much of the criticism of Abramson reminds me of our now almost infamous Good Rebel, Bad Rebel chart. Lois and I have mixed feelings about the chart because it oversimplifies a complex subject. Many rebels have qualities on both sides of the spectrum. And sometimes rebels do have to employ the black arts. Lacking the ability to change minds, they focus instead on trying to create immutable facts on the ground. Rebels who are not also leaders almost never succeed this way. And what we've learned once again is that being a rebel leader doesn't guarantee success.

gd. vs. bad rebels July 2012


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.


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,


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 Rebel Life: Random Observations and Learnings

Last week I attended the MIX Mashup in San Francisco. The MIX is devoted to reinventing management for the 21st century and many of the presentations revolved around being mavericks and rebels at work. The titles of the first three sessions capture the general mood.

  • The End of Hierarchy: Natural Leadership
  • The End of  Bureaucracy: When Everybody (and Nobody) is the Boss
  • The End of the "Employee"

Gary Hamel also set the tone when he declared in his introductory remarks that he feared we are not mad enough about how bad our organizations are and not aspirational enough to fix them.  His fiery energy was inspiring and I tweeted his comment at the time, but, upon reflection, I'm not sure anger is ever a productive rebel emotion. (Please feel free to argue the point.) Aspiration is, however.

My Favorite Presentation...

...was by Japanese businessman Tsukasa Makino, who spoke movingly of how his company, Tokio Marine and Nichido Fire Insurance, had humanized their business. You can find several of his blog posts on the MIX. I particularly liked his discussion of the LIGHT and DARK side of the FORCE at work.

That's the slide he uses, which you can see more clearly here. I think one of the dangers rebels risk is that, if they become angry, they begin to flirt with the DARK side of the Rebel Force. I think maybe it looks something like this:

More Good Thoughts


Don't do pilots! Experiment instead. I hadn't ever thought of that distinction and God knows I was involved in lots of pilots during my career. But one of the speakers noted that when a change-oriented management team introduces a pilot to the workforce, the implied message is that the team has figured out the right thing to do and now they're going to test it on the employees, aka the guinea pigs. And employees love to make pilots fail. Boy, did that ring true!! There wasn't a pilot I was involved in that the emails and message boards weren't full of just about everything that was wrong with the pilot. And by launching a pilot, aren't you inviting relentless comparison to the status quo? Bad as the status quo may be, it at least benefits from some internal logic and lots of muscle memory. Think instead of encouraging experiments. When you encourage your employees/managers to run experiments, your message is that you're not sure of the answer and you want them to help figure it out.

The power of budgets. There was a good discussion of how companies need to free themselves from the tyranny of budget cycles because they stifle innovation. All true but frankly, as a rebel, if you are able to change how your company budgets, you've pretty much won the entire war. (more on that later.) But Bjarte Bogsnes of Norway's Statoil did describe how his company abolished traditional budget cycles and even the calendar to boot!! When you're dealing with the BBB's (bureaucratic black belts), there's no doubt in my mind that the power of the budget is their most powerful weapon.

Mobilizing the introverts. There was a lovely discussion of how, if you have a knowledge organization and it's a really smart one, then you likely have a lot of introverts. And mobilizing introverts to get behind change efforts can be awkward. You can't count on them to speak up in meetings. And they may not even do a good job proselytizing their work colleagues. Other than engaging introverts one-on-one, not many solutions or good tactics were offered. (Something for us to noodle at RAW.) I think the whole topic of how rebels and rebel managers in organizations mobilize support is underdeveloped. Perhaps it's something we can tackle at our first ever Rebels at Work Conference, which will be held 18 October. You can find more information on that here.

If you're explaining, you're losing. This piece of advice is not from the conference, but comes from a retired senior government official who was sharing lessons from his mentors at a party I attended last night. I'm sure all the rebels who visit our website have been in the meeting where they, or someone else, are trying to explain exactly how their idea will work. Once you go there, you begin losing your momentum and you're stuck trying to explain how the sausage will be made. A sausage that no one has ever tasted. A sausage, in fact, that you've never even cooked before.

The Integrity of the Rebel

I said I would get back to the Statoil example of an organization that's rethought it's budget process and many other sacred ways of doing work. This got me to thinking about the integrity of the rebel. In your workplace, are you suggesting a new way of making widgets that you think is better than the current way of making widgets? Or are you actually offering a fundamental rethink of how the enterprise operates and makes decisions so that it becomes permanently more agile, permanently more contextual, and permanently more sensitive to its own values. Both of these are appropriate but they are quite different from each other.  At first blush I'm tempted to say that the more tactical change effort is easier than the more strategic one, but I'm not so sure. They can both be difficult, and I find it completely believable that in some cases people will resist tactical changes more than they will oppose conceptual ones. Again, another topic for noodling. But it reminds me of something I always worried about as a rebel at work. What if I'm wrong? I cannot escape the fact that my ideas are creations of my ego and that therefore I can never be objective about them. Difficult as it is, I think the rebel must learn to maintain some humility about their beliefs, even if they are mano-a-mano with a status quo that is cock-sure.

Finally, here is a link to a presentation by Pam Weiss of Appropriate Response, who, along with Todd Pierce of salesforce.com, shared their story at the MIX Mashup of how they brought meditation techniques to the workplace.  The introduction of a meditation practice actually correlated with significant increases in productivity and employee satisfaction. First check out Pam's presentation and then read the details of the practical application at the MIX. Perhaps we really can change organizations by teaching people how to breathe.


What executives say, what executives mean

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

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