Leadership

Rebelling at Work? Your Handbook has Arrived.

If I did book reviews, you would learn far too quickly my pathetic ratio of books read to ones completed. So I don't do book reviews - instead I'll review here what I learned from a new release: "Rebels at Work" by Lois Kelly & Carmen Medina (O'Reilly Media).

Full disclosure: Carmen has advised my work, coordinated informally on Big Ideas, co-presented with me at a conference, and indulged the occasional beer-fueled ramblings. Which is to say - we're friends, after a fashion. She is as generous and geniune as she appears, and she is simply a treasure to be around. I am honored by her friendship. Finally, I contributed a bio to the Rebels and Work page, and would like to believe I contributed (at most) a single sentence to this book.

Nevertheless, buy this book. At once an overview, a handbook, and even a summary chapter for managers who have the good fortune to employ rebels on their team. For the rebels - described by the authors as "for creating new, better ways to do things," this book is a guide to understanding why you fail, how to overcome obstacles (or know when to walk away), and how to navigate organizations. This last lesson is one that has come to me late in life. It comes after being fired from one organization for, well, not having this advice earlier in my career. (Know the signs of inappropriate emotion and dampen its ability to frustrate your cause.) It comes after my tenure at another organization, which led to a lunch where a trusted senior mentor advised me: "You should be a consultant, I'm not sure you would survive in a C-suite position." At the time, this was a fair assessment. And I can see now: the result of rebelling in ways that were not productive to the cause.

Rebels are passionate. They are driven. They are neither complainers nor whiners, but instead question relentlessly organizational practices that thwart the mission or optimize side agendas. In this book, Kelly and Medina provide case after case to support their construction of various bureaucractic types - which can be made into allies and how, and which to avoid. From chapters on how to manage (not avoid or seek) conflict, to communicating ideas and dealing with fear; this book belongs on every shelf.

We live in transitional times. 19th century organizational forms are brittle and some are crumbling. Embracing the rebels in your organization should be a measure of organizational health and survival. Conformity is not a virtue unto itself (neither is non-conformity, and the authors do great work detailing the difference between a rebel and a troublemaker). This book will help managers and organizational leaders understand how to embrace the passion and creativity rebels provide. It will help the rebels understand they are not alone, where they are tripping up (thanks again for the pages that made me cringe in self-realization), and how to succeed while remaining true to your nature as a future-oriented thinker. 

Rebels at Work: The Pragmatist

Carmen Medina’s blog post caught my eye over at Rebels at Work, regarding emerging archetypes for what they call “Bureaucratic Black Belts.”

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. - See more at: http://www.rebelsatwork.com/2014/07/12/1941/

Carmen’s post includes a few additional archetypes and asks for more suggestions. My contribution is below.

The Pragmatist. (Briefly labeled the “Vanishing Co-Conspirator,” but that title is misleadingly angry.) These have mastered the internal politics and processes, while embracing warmly the naive Rebel. They are respected within the firm, and occupy the eagle’s aerie - a keen eye on the horizon, their silhouette an inspiration for the more junior aspirants to corporate success. They are spokespersons for the corporate principles, and are trusted marketers for the firm. Privately, they speak as Rebels. They see through the process roadblocks, they can cite the measures that fail to measure real value, and they regale with tales regarding the cultural touchstones regarding ‘how we got here.’ They share the heroic narratives of our forebears, while privately reveling in their flaws. Wisely, they have chosen not the path of change, but of tailored accommodation. Their success lies in changing what they can, but always giving ground on an open and dangerous battlefield. The wise Rebel will rely upon them as archers or spies, as their support must always be out of sight and untraceable. The Pragmatist is not a sellout, but an ally. Their careers will outlast the Rebels, by design.

Waking up.

I think we are waking up. From my limited perch, it appears sudden clarity is emerging in businesses. The past months I have been privileged to work with clients who get it. The rebels deep within their walls are being heeded, funded, and presented with the intractable questions. Having tried everything in the MBA kit bag, they are willing to consider almost anything. One caveat before I go further. Chief Financial Officers still set the de facto business strategy for too many companies. The urgency behind the upcoming Transition Economics gathering in St. Louis is not dissipated. When considering this piece, I hesitated often because I do not want to come across as Utopian. Nevertheless, in my narrow field of knowledge management, for specific firms, something interesting is happening.

'Our market/employees/customers are changing in ways we cannot accommodate with our current processes, technologies and strategy.'

They are realizing that humans are not resources, information is not knowledge, and processes are fundamentally flawed guesses about the future. Just as problematic, and difficult to uproot: their information technology has been solving the wrong problem.

We have crafted entire industries and technologies to 'manage *' where * equals 'knowledge,' 'information,' content,' 'innovation,' etc. We dabbled in something we called "decision support systems" for generations, up until today, without understanding a critical question: how are decisions made?

We decided people must be as rational as machines, whether we said that openly (outside of the dismal science) I do not know. But that must have been the conviction behind things like taxonomies for 'browsing,' forcing new information into buckets that defined how our company sees its world. These are useful mechanisms for jobs where checklists are the best decision support tool. The last time I developed a taxonomy, it was for an HR department who wanted to ensure their far-flung workforce applied established policies consistently. In my view, this was a reasonable use for a taxonomy (although best integrated with tools for folksonomy). However, they are misleading for circumstances where humans face most problems. "Fixing search" or "refreshing the taxonomy" fails to address the core problem.

My thesis is this: we have spent generations developing information technology tools that address little more than how machines talk with other machines. As for how humans use information to make decisions - this was left to "change management," or waved off as "cultural barriers." The presumption: Craft the human to fit the machine, and value will ensue.

There is a tangential issue here, that I raise often in offline conversations. For most (not all) Chief Information Officers (CIOs)- the measure of success is highly reliable and secure systems. Uptime and availability matter most of all, and monetary rewards accompany an uninterrupted experience. Put another way - CIOs will score "blue" on their performance evaluation if they kill all their users. Humans are the messy actors in an otherwise soaring career choice. Consider how technology procurement and policy is influenced by this simple truth.

Consider the mantra for information management, sometimes blindly asserted as the goal for knowledge management: "delivering the right information to the right people at the right time." This noble-sounding vision has launched a thousand portals - and is wrong in every dimension. To borrow from a long-ago colleague: it is "spherically incorrect." The underlying presumption is one of prediction. That the designers and developers of an information system somehow can know what the right information is for any given stakeholder, in any possible circumstance - is true only for the simplest of problem sets. "OK, Glass - how do I fix a flat tire?"

Now consider how decisions are made - individually, driven by experience, emotion, unconscious biases, filters, and mood; in a group, driven by social dynamics, agendas, fear, reputation, consensus, et al. For any interesting problem set; the best tool for decision-making is the right conversation at the right time with the right people. This is true for classrooms, National Security Council meetings, design studios, auto showrooms, diplomacy, boardrooms, and lovers. And everything in between.

I believe we are starting to wake up to this understanding. What works everywhere else in our lives just may be crazy enough to work in our businesses. It may be worth a shot.

On Change, or Why They Hate You.

In a recent listserv conversation, someone asked a very reasonable question:  What does the literature say about how change agents are received?  This was in the context of knowledge management (KM), and the inquiry stemmed from an honest attempt to understand the hostility experienced from some in the workforce upon being introduced to KM initiatives.

The notion of ‘change agent’ or ‘change management’ evokes images that may be at odds with how change is reflected in the literature.  An ‘agent’ sounds as if it is one person’s job, even though most understand this person is a modulator within a complex system.  And ‘management’ implies all the behaviors of control and authority that we know run counter to what is needed.  While we are used to hearing about heroic leaders spearheading change through their companies, Katzenbach and Smith find the “inevitability” of teams when an organization is facing major change.  They define major change as reliant on the magnitude of “1) ...how many people have to change their behaviors, skills, or values, and 2) the degree of readiness or resistance inherent in what is often described as ‘the way we do things around here.’” (195)

Wheatley finds that change is natural, and the opposition we find to it in organizations comes from how we have come to expect organizations to work.  She found that 75% of change projects fail, or “do not yield the expected results.”  Key word there: Expected.  “Our ideas and sensibilities about change come from the world of Newton.  We treat a problematic organization as if it was a machine that had broken down.  We use reductionism to diagnose the problem; we expect to find a simple, singular cause for our woes...to repair the organization, all we need to do is replace the faulty part and gear back up to operate at predetermined performance levels.”  (138)  So we leave our messy homes, navigate complex traffic patterns, and arrive at our tidy offices - where every process is documented and incentives structured to maintain the smooth operation of the organizational machine.

Wheatley also arrives at a seeming paradox.  While we should work at the level where we appreciate the whole of the system, eschewing a focus on a specific ‘broken part,’ we also work at the component level.  We do not approach change as if mass and acceleration were the only aspects of force, we understand non-linear effects, and how relatively small changes can echo and amplify enterprise change.  We work at the component level, but look to system level effects - because no problem can be understood in isolation.  This aligns with what we are observing in the natural sciences.  Wheatley quotes the former director of the Max Planck Institute; “there is no analytic language to describe what we are seeing at the quantum level.  I can only say that it does not help to analyze things in more detail.  The more specific the information, the less relevant it is.”  (140) So if we accept a naturalistic science approach to social organizations, we need to embrace paradox.  It appears to be the order of things.

But this isn't news. In our off-duty lives, we do embrace paradox and change.  We expect it.  Children are born, people die, fortunes change, vacations take unexpected turns, we suffer illness and experience serendipity.  In time, our children become parents while they remain our children.  We expect our personal lives to be messy and we adapt.  By and large, we expect change.  We are not surprised by the quoted Heraclitus:  “everything changes and nothing remains still.”  This expectation of change leads us to see cycles and we begin to predict our response.  We live amidst expected change.  “We anticipate the change and respond, or we can predict what will occur.” (Bellavita)

Further, in Eastern traditions, the whole is always considered.  Wheatley quotes a Buddhist teaching story that reminds us how everything is related and interdependent.  You cannot consider a leaf without also appreciating that its existence required “earth, water, heat, sea, tree, clouds, sun, time, space.” (142) When you ask an audience to select the “one that doesn’t belong” from the grouping of cow/chicken/grass - the response from a Western mind may come from a reductionist background (grass), while an Eastern-trained mind may respond ‘chicken’ - as the cow has a relationship with the grass.  Those of us with Western-trained minds are attracted to this approach that respects relationships and interdependencies; even as we live and teach according to the reductionist scientific tradition.  It feels more natural to us somehow, as if some deeper truths are hidden in the Eastern tradition.

When we come to the workplace, however, we are told we are part of a machine, with established processes and goals.  We step into a world that encourages an external locus of control - everything meaningful happens outside our office. We are not in control of our environment, and we are left to focus on a part of the whole.  The ‘whole’ is someone else’s job, likely a flag officer or executive.  We don’t like it, it feels unnatural, but we adapt our expectations accordingly.  We change what we expect, and take on an identity of isolation.  Over time, this is how we work.  Our identity is shaped, at odds with what feels natural during our time with our families.

Along comes the change (KM) agent.  Telling us to share with others.  Understand and respect the whole.  Take responsibility for helping others know what we know.  Appealing to the naturalist in us; telling us to embrace change, consider interdependencies, and live amidst paradox.

But.  Our workplace hasn’t changed.  Performance reviews remain focused on predicted goals regarding our isolated function. Success metrics are not obviously tied to whole system performance. Incentives do not encourage relationship, but competition at the expense of the whole.  The change agent hasn’t been able to change core aspects of our environment, and we feel as if we are asked to grow a leaf with no heat and insufficient water.  Our anger is not directed at the faceless organization to which we’ve adapted our expectations - but the person asking us to apply skills we use to live outside the workplace to improve the organization.  It is appealing on an emotional level, but we cannot see its feasibility “here.”

Bellavita offers some perspective that should inform any prospective ‘change agent,’ observing that our response to change depends on the temporal aspect.  For change that has occurred: we adapt and adjust.  For change that is occurring: we have (hopefully) the opportunity to initiate action and influence events, to shape the change that will affect us, our organization and our environment.  For future change: we anticipate and plan for what will occur. (112)

Katzenbach and Smith find “the most effective efforts simultaneously provide top-down direction, bottom-up goal achievement and problem-solving actions, and cross-functional system and process redesign.” (209)  (As an aside and caution, I heard Jon Katzenbach speak a few years ago and he said if we were writing the book now, it would reflect more the “wisdom of networks.”)

Recommend:

Accept the conflict, the people resisting change are both encouraged and depressed by your work.  The resistance will feel personal, and may even be expressed in personal terms.  Use anecdotes and stories that link our natural skills at change management, paradox, and holistic thought to the workplace challenges.

Place the change in temporal context.  If past, provide tools for adjustment.  For current - press your leadership to allow for broad participation to influence how the change occurs.  For future, same:  provide for broad participation in planning.  Heckscher (228-230) provides a case study of the IBM Values Jam, where thousands of voices were heard in developing the new corporate values.

Help the leadership understand its role.  Heckscher offers that a leader’s job in change is to build a shared purpose and build the network.  This is counter to their training, most likely, and requires a leader who is able to understand the changing notions of control and authority.  “Yet this is also an immensely creative context within which to work because the absence of certainty, security and a sense of belonging is of itself a source of inspiration in terms of exploring new ways to reach out and engage others in dialogue about how it and we might go on together.” (Williams, 72)

My wife observed that, in our personal lives, 'there is no one else in charge.'  Perhaps the definition of 'being in charge' needs to change, as people develop new expectations regarding their role in the workplace.  If people know how to navigate their messy existence, perhaps it is time for us to leverage those adaptation skills in the false machines of the workplace.


Bellavita, C. (Ed.). (1990). How Public Organizations Work: Learning from Experience. New York: Praeger.

Heckscher, C. (2007). The Collaborative Enterprise:  Managing Speed and Complexity in Knowledge-Based Businesses. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (2006). The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Wheatley, M. J. (1999). Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers

Williams, R. (2006). The Experience of Leading Public Sector Organizations in a Performance Management Regime. In R. D. Stacey & D. Griffin (Eds.), Complexity and the Experience of Managing in Public Sector Organizations. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hawk Method of Management

Let’s face it. You cannot truly measure employee output, once you are managing people who are not producing or processing widgets per hour - people we call, erroneously, “knowledge workers.”  People who are useful and productive because of the relationships they maintain, the external sources they consult to solve problems, and the imagination they bring to the workplace.  What measure informs us regarding the appropriate number of relationships, how many external sources they should monitor (how many subscriptions or journals do you provide for them?), and how many hours they should spend free-associating, daydreaming, or otherwise ‘bring creative?’ An extreme focus on process metrics will lead to such things.  Since you are hard-pressed to measure outcomes, (and if outcomes occur it is difficult to measure your product/service’s role in the outcome), it becomes easier to ruthlessly measure compliance with desired processes.  You read up on what works after attending a leadership conference, then enforce compliance with the steps that ‘get us there.’ If management is about herding employees to compliance, how else do you measure the manager’s worth?

Admit it: If you could, you would hold your employee’s hands, stand over his shoulder, and direct every keystroke.  Only then could you be assured the employee’s time was being spent productively.

Yesterday, I watched as a hawk floated on a thermal updraft, expending very little effort as he surveyed his domain below.  I marveled at how he was able to float above the high pines, yet maintain an awareness of movement below, sufficient to suit his needs.  A short while later, frankly after I had much forgotten the hawk above, I heard a small bird chirping.  I don’t speak bird, but this didn’t sound like a song I’d heard before.  It was a high, insistent, repeated bark.  I looked up to see the hawk, no longer circling effortlessly, but flying figure eight’s in the sky, its legs out straight below it.  With its claws wrapped tightly around a small chirping bird.

This went on for some time.  The small bird was still technically in flight, and still able to sing its song, although I suspect the lyrics conveyed a new urgency.  The small bird was flying higher, likely, than it ever intended, surpassing its parents and peers.  Yet, the scene was not about making the bird more efficient, except as food.

Over coffee this morning, I imagined the metaphor which is now obvious - and which may not be working for the reader, to be honest.  Controlling the bird’s every movement was critical to the performance metric for the hawk - but only because the bird was not meant to produce anything more than its corpse.  Awareness of the complex environment below was made near effortless by harnessing a peculiarity of the environment - thermal updrafts. The hawk adapted its wingspread and became more glider than flier.  Deciding to engage in a one-on-one with the small bird cost the hawk, although not as much as it cost the small bird.  Engagement with a single actor in the environment expended much more energy, and - not to be lost - denied the hawk any further input regarding the rest of the environment for the last minutes of the small bird’s life.

The metaphor works for me, to a degree.  I find myself engaging in repetitive conversations with those who cannot consider any method of management that diverges from predictive control mechanisms. For some, loyalty to hierarchy seems preferred to experimentation or dissent. A leader's network and practices optimized for a previous work assignment are applied without modification to new positions and teams.  It is useful to consider the agendas at work in most conversations - but especially when people insist on compliance to process at the expense of outcome.

That last sentence seems evident to the worker, and represents much water-cooler (a.k.a. Twitter) talk.  The chirping on Twitter (and the metaphor takes an unfortunate turn) regarding leadership or management practices often sounds as if people are flying figure eights in the sky - much against their will, and towards an uncertain end.