Scientists show that an idea spreads when 10% of the people in an organization support it. Here’s how Working Out Loud may help you win approval — without executive approval.
Scientists show that an idea spreads when 10% of the people in an organization support it. Here’s how Working Out Loud may help you win approval — without executive approval.
Money is rarely the reason bosses say “NO” to new ideas. Here are the six most common reasons and how to get around them in order to get your ideas and proposals approved.
A very short story about blizzards and business crises,
My husband and I were hiking in the Orkney Islands and spotted a run-down, Stonehenge-like cluster of rocks on the other side of the expansive field. Rather than try to find a road, which could take hours, we opened the pasture gate and started across the field. Despite the cold rain. Despite the cows and that one big bull who gave us the evil eye.
After about 50 yards we started sinking into the mud. Past our hiking boots, halfway up our shins, soaking our pants. With every step came a loud sucking sound as we pulled our feet out of the mud.
As we slowly, slowly made our way across the field we became discouraged. Was mucking in this rain and mud worth it? What if the stones were just a pile of big rocks and nothing historically significant? Might the field become firmer and less muddy up ahead? Should we turn back? Once we make it to the rock Cairns, how do we get back to the inn? And, oh yeah, are you sure this is just mud and not cow dung, too?
Pursuing a new idea at work usually means a whole lot of uncomfortable mucking about in the mud. And the most effective rebels and change makers at work are both idea people and skilled mud sloggers.
While many entrepreneurs urge us to experiment and fail fast, that’s not realistic when you’re trying to create change inside a big company, government agency, hospital or school system. Things just don’t move at start-up speed, and failure is rarely looked upon as a badge of honor.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist spiritual leader, has said, “No mud, no lotus.” Without suffering through the mud, you cannot find the happiness of the lotus. Without grit, there is no pearl. He also believes that when we know how to suffer, we suffer less.
When we’re creating change there will be mud and all its discomfort and messiness. Perhaps this is a more useful wisdom than “fail fast” for those creating change inside of big organizations.
Of course we all yearn for for predictability, and faster if not instant-gratification. It would be nice to fail fast because we would minimize the duration of the “making something new work” suffering.
Creating change requires doing the homework, building alliances, forming a realistic picture of what’s possible, standing up to the naysayers, and steadfastly moving forward, planning the next step and the one after that. Many days sinking up to our knees in mud, others restraining ourselves from angrily tossing cow flaps at people who resist what we’re trying to accomplish, and some laughing and commiserating with our co-workers.
Our relationships with people at work may be the only way to suffer less. The comfort in being able to talk through a problem and have someone listen intently without judgment. The trust in being able to ask difficult questions and get honest answers. The kindness of an unexpected latte on your desk after a tough meeting. The surprise of hearing belly laughter floating above the cubicles.
The optimism from the human spirit lifts the suffering and injects new energy to keep going. Even though you may still be in the mud.
No one person can or should try to be the big idea change hero. We need our co-workers, collaborators, compatriots. They improve on our ideas and help us figure out how to sell it and get it adopted. As importantly, they ease the suffering of that goes with most change efforts.
It took us hours to get across that Scottish field that day, and neither the rain nor the mud ever let up. We did find a magical standing rock formation thousands of years old, and the bath that night was one of the best in my life.
This article originally appeared in Forbes on 1/18/15.
I hear a lot of stories talking with people about being a Rebel at Work.
Many people are angry at not being heard. Some are sad that their organizations are on a bad downward spiral, with management rallying around what no longer works. Others have checked out of work and checked into being complacent and “just getting the paycheck.”
For a while the complacent ones got to me the most. To go to work every day and not give a rat’s ass just seems like giving up on life itself.
And the cynicism? Scorching. It would be tough to work with someone with that kind of negative mindset.
But the stories that get to me the most are the people who don’t try to change anything because of the CHANGE MYTH. These people have come to believe — or been led to believe — that if you’re going to try to fix problems you need to be some sort of crusading take-no-prisoners, storm the ramparts hero.
You might imagine the type. A confident Steve Jobs wannabe talking about disruption, not backing down, pushing for “go big or go home.” The kind of person who doesn’t worry about failing, whether that means getting fired or quitting to find the next gig.
Has the Silicon Valley “failure is good” entrepreneurial spirit been taken as the way things work at work? Are people with good ideas becoming intimidated about stepping up because they are not Steve Jobs wannabes and they are afraid to fail and lose their jobs?
Last week Jen Meyers sent these two tweets that acknowledged the myth and, more importantly, acknowledged the fact that most people making change are doing so thoughtfully within the rules and corporate culture.
Because that’s how so much change happens. Bit by bit. Working with our co-workers vs. leaping from tall buildings in superhero change-maker capes.
If you’re a disruptor and get fired, your big idea dies. So much for heroism.
Whereas if you get smarter about working within the existing organizational culture, your idea actually has a better chance of happening. And you have a better chance of keeping your job.
(Because if we’re honest like Jen, we know that most of us can’t afford to walk away from our jobs. It’s not that simple.)
So maybe it’s useful to remember that having a good idea is easy. Being able to work with people willing to do the hard work to shepherd that idea through corporate politics, budget conflicts, and the often-messy roll out is a privilege.
PS — note Jen’s apt Twitter handle: @anitheroine. Nice
A meeting with a CEO who dislikes rebels and change agents reminds me of a most important lesson: the need to be prepared before pronouncing big ideas.
There is one week every September where I fully immerse myself in ideas, possibilities and new people. Last week I attended the Business Innovation Factory’s annual innovation conference. Here’s what I learned and was reminded of:
When we lay bare our vulnerabilities and dreams, we connect with people in rich ways. As author and venture capitalist Whitney Johnson said, “There are no regrets when you show up, and when you show up your dreams can find you. Dreaming is at the heart of disruptive innovation.”
I’ve attended every BIF conference and have noticed that innovators ask good questions, and those questions get people thinking in new ways. One of my favorites this year were what educator Angela Maiers uses to challenge high school students as part of the Choose2Matter movement: What breaks your heart about the world? What can you do about that? What do you need?
Food geek Scott Heimendinger kept his day job in technology and on weekends and nights wrote a food blog and started experimenting with sous vide cooking. Acknowledging that it’s OK to be risk averse, which he is, Scott just kept working away on his love for molecular gastronomy as a side project. Eventually, he found his new path as director of applied research at The Cooking Lab. Innovators just start without knowing what the outcomes should or will be.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, has created a new higher ed approach, aimed particularly for disadvantaged, often marginalized adults who want to get ahead at work. For just $1,250 people can earn an associate’s degree and learn the competencies they need to get a promotion and access the social mobility needed to have a better life. Rather than tweaking the traditional higher ed model or continuing to engage in side issues like student loan rates, SNHU created a new model that goes to the root issues: people want to learn competencies in new, affordable ways so that they can get better jobs FYI: Fast Company has named SNHU one of the worlds’ 50 most innovative companies.
Speaking of not being too big to change. Just as Pope Francis’ stunning interview urging The Catholic Cburch to preach more about mercy and less about dogma was published last week (Hallelujah!), Rabbi Irwin Kula was speaking on stage about the urgent need to un-bundle wisdom and practices from the people who own them, and to make sure that our moral enhancements keep pace with technological enhancements. “Religion is just a tool box,” he said. “It’s time to consider blending practices from all religions and make love and empathy the source of what we are designing for the world.” Amen.
The wise and generous innovation adviser Deb Mills-Scofield reminded people that it matters not how large or extensive your network is if you do not use it for good, sharing it with others to open up possibilities for them.
The easiest and fastest way to create more innovation in an organization is to accelerate generation change, said Bruce Nussbaum, former Business Week editor and now professor of Innovation and Design at Parsons The New School of Design. My thought: how do we help Baby Boomers share their wisdom and transition to new roles so that younger people can step in and create more of the change that is so needed?
Towards the end of the week after many consecutive 16-hour days of intense listening and provocative conversations, I was reminded of how much I value sleep and quiet think time.
The huge value of empowering the rebels inside organizations seemed to resonate with many, as did Carmen Medina‘s belief that optimism is the greatest form of rebellion and positive change. Rebels at Work see possibilities, not insolvable problems.
Playfulness, joy and unexpected silliness are essential to our humanity. Erminio Pinque, founder Big Nazo Lab, creates big, funky, life-sized foam creatures for parades and for their own special Big Nazo Shows. Erminio told me that the surprise of the creatures and costumes opens people up to being people. While going through airport security recently, the TSA screeners pulled the foam creature masks out of the suitcase and yelled across to their colleagues, “Hey Joe. Check this out.” Everyone in line forgot their frustrations and frantic schedules and laughed together. Like children in awe of the world’s wondrous surprises.
Tim McDonald, director of communities for the HuffingtonPost, and I sat together during the conference. As we said our goodbyes he gave me a big bear hug and explained that he sees meeting people via social media as “the real world,” and when he gets to meet them physically he likes to give big hugs. I love his approach to digital handshake, in-person hug. Talk about connecting.
The life of Carl Stormer‘s wife was upended when she had a massive stroke at age 43, and they learned to keep going and find meaning in a life that is not what one would choose. Carl’s wife believes that control is for beginners. And that, dear friends, was my greatest takeaway of an intense week of learning.
Every once in a great while you hear a question that changes how you look at things, how you approach strategy, design, marketing, innovation, and maybe even your own life. Here’s one that’s rocking my thinking:
In his book of the same name, MIT’s Michael Schrage says, “Successful innovators don’t just ask customers and clients to do something different, they ask them to become something different.”
Because customers are always changing, strategy shouldn’t focus on existing customers but on who tomorrow’s customers will — and should — be, and then designing our offers to help the customer become that person. To realize new attitudes, behaviors, values, and habits.
Once you articulate The Ask, you can more clearly see what you need to do to help your customers become someone different. This becomes the strategy discussion.
Schrage notes that few company vision statements address the customer. Most are about the company and provide little direction on how to add value to the customer. “A customer vision statement, explicitly identifies the qualities and attributes the organization aspires to create in its customers.”
* Note that you could insert client, boss, donor, citizens, association members and other types of customers into this question. How do you want to transform that group of people? How will they benefit? Do the benefits offset what they’ll need to do to transform?
Schrage’s short and provocative ebook is available on Amazon for $3.03. It’s a must-read, and its question is a must-ask.
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.
Many people think disagreeing means that we’re being unkind and insensitive. Or impolite. (Egads!) “Let’s take this off line,” they say.
What’s unkind to me is pretending an uncomfortable issue doesn’t exist when everyone knows it does. There’s a tension at work when this happens. Nothing is moving forward, corporate inertia is draining us, and we’re becoming ever more skeptical about the cry for greater collaboration.
Furthermore, the longer an issue is ignored, the more frustrated and demoralized people become. Even worse, trust and respect among people erode. And when that’s gone, the organization gets crippled.
“When someone comes to a meeting and states an opinion or makes a suggestion that his teammates don’t agree with, those teammates have a choice: they can explain their disagreement and work through it, or they can withhold their opinion and allow themselves to quietly lose respect for their colleague,” says organizational health consultant Patrick Lencioni in his excellent book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.
“When team members get to choose the latter option — withholding their opinions — frustration inevitably sets in. Essentially, they’re deciding to tolerate their colleague rather than trust him.”
More than most, we rebels see healthy dissent as a team sport, where everyone with something to contribute is expected to contribute. If you don’t speak up your silence can be interpreted to mean that you agree and have nothing to add.
We view dissent as a way of together getting stronger, like a team preparing to hike Mt. Everest. All the potential issues are honestly discussed and worked through to increase the likelihood of a successful expedition where no one gets hurt. We’re fed by the positive energy around these conversations. We appreciate and value what our colleagues have to say.
We also listen fiercely and ask frank questions. It’s about inquiry vs. preaching. But most organizations practice advocacy instead of inquiry in their conversations, say Sue Annis Hammond and Andrea Mayfield in The Thin Book of Naming Elephants.
“Advocacy is a win-lose form of communication…each person is trying to convince the other that he or she is right and there is only one right answer. Dialogue assumes people see the world differently…each person assumes he or she can learn something new from others.”
So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates? Here are some suggestions.
- How did your thinking on this issue shift?
- What one thing did you find most useful from the discussion?
- What was the high point of this discussion for you?
For more helpful ideas on facilitating healthy dissent, read Carmen’s post, “Advice for Managers: Do You Make It Easy for People to Disagree with You?”
“Mum, if you’re so interested in this folk metal band, why don’t you come to the concert with me on Friday night,” my 17-year-old son asked as we watched the band’s YouTube videos.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “All that screaming and headbanging and moshing. Do you know how old I am?”
Later that night I thought, why not? What might I learn if I went? Who might I meet and what kind of story might emerge?
The next morning I read a post by Seth Godin, “Ridiculous is the New Remarkable,” in which he wrote:
We can view the term ridiculous as an insult from the keeper of normal, a put-down from the person who seeks to maintain the status quo and avoid even the contemplation of failure.
Or we embrace ridiculous as the sign that maybe, just maybe, we’re being generous, daring, creative and silly. You know, remarkable.
Generous, daring, creative and silly? Mmmmm.
Then yesterday a big city mayor’s chief of staff called and asked if I could lead a retreat the Saturday after Christmas for front-line city managers who are burned out and frustrated. “Their jobs are never going to get easier, but maybe you could help them get re-energized and see that they’re part of something bigger.”
Again, my first thought was, “That’s ridiculous. I planned on taking a week off. I have no time to get my head around this. I don’t know any of these people, and I’d be giving my time away.”
So I agreed to do it.
This afternoon I have a call with a former editor at Random House about editing a book that I’ve been too afraid to push out into the world, and yet feel needs to get into the world. I’ve decided to self-publish the book, which seems ridiculous. Will anyone take it seriously if I self-publish? With Guy Kawasaki’s new book as my guide, I’m going to do it. (The books is APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur: How To Publish Your Book.)
You see, I’ve decided to make “ridiculous” a strategy for 2013.
When presented with situations that my gut screams “RIDICULOUS!” I am going to say yes. Ridiculous will be a filter for making decisions on how I spend my time, how I learn, and how I challenge my own assumptions.
Since I made this strategic decision yesterday, the year ahead feels quite exciting. Perhaps even liberating.
People often ask me how I make decisions about my business and my own professional development. In fact, last week someone asked about how I make decisions to support my “personal brand.” I hope I didn’t offend the woman when I burst out laughing and then told her why I think obsessions around personal branding are self-limiting. Perhaps I should write to her with a more considered response, “My strategic filter for my career development in 2013 is ridiculousness.”
I don’t know where this adventure will take me, but I am confident I will learn much, laugh much, and become a more creative and empathetic person.
Warmest wishes for a holiday season that’s ridiculously happy and rich in possibilities.
The two-hour session devolved into conversations about personalities, systems limitations, approval hold-ups by the legal department, problems uncovered by market research, frustrations with the sales strategy, and a concluding “why do we keep talking about the same problems over and over?”
People left frustrated, exhausted and angry. Not much of significance had been accomplished. Such a waste of time.
And no wonder. When conversations get pulled into the emotion of drama and problems our primitive brain takes over and shuts off our higher order intelligence, says Daniel Goleman in Emotional Intelligence. In other words, drama begets drama instead of any useful ideas on how to accomplish what’s at stake.
Interestingly I was in a recent academic meeting focused on innovation and creativity that also fell into the rat hole of drama, problems, details, and more drama. Guess how creative and innovative that two hours turned out to be?
Quiet Leadership author David Rock suggests two practices that I find helpful. Agree in meetings on where to focus the conversation: vision, planning, detail, problem and drama. Wherever possible, keep all conversations focused on vision and planning. In this positive, low-anxiety mental state we’re better able to think fully and creatively
When you have to discuss detail, focus on one detail in a 10 minute chunk. After 10 minutes, we lose our ability to concentrate on that topic, says John Medina, author of Brain Rules. “You’ve got seconds to grab someone’s attention and only 10 minutes to keep it. At 9 minutes and 59 seconds, something must be done to regain attention and restart the clock.”
I see another opportunity in staying focused on the bigger picture: it is in this positive frame of mind that we’re more able to disagree in productive, creative ways. Because our minds are calmer and we’re focused on shared goals in this mindset, we’re able to intellectually consider and discuss alternatives. There’s a higher order of thinking that’s possible during this mental state, say the neuroscientists.
Once we get into drama and pointing fingers at people and problems, dissent becomes dangerous and unhelpful.
Not to mention that there’s no emotional energy left for compassion or creativity.
I’ve taken a new professional vow: keep the meetings I’m in focused on solutions, and out of drama and problems. Want to join me?
Wonderful insight on change, creativity and collaboration from composer Philip Glass from last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine:
When I talk to young composers, I tell them, I know that you’re all worried about finding your voice. Actually you’re going to find your voice. By the time you’re 30, you’ll find it.
But that’s not the problem. The problem is getting rid of it. You have to find an engine for change.
And that’s what collaborative work does. Whatever we do together will make us different.
But today’s word is complex, more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a chessboard.
In a complex system it’s almost impossible for top-down leaders to create order, hard as they may try. Order emerges in complex systems from the bottom up, said Carne.
This metaphor is quite powerful to me. Are we leaders fostering participatory environments for people to create the change needed to succeed in an increasingly complex world? Or are we playing chess, with top down hierarchies moving the pieces? (And with the implicit assumption that executives know best?) Are we saying we want creativity but requiring employees to paint by numbers?
Change is a-comin. Are we brave enough to let go of status and certainty and create new participatory ways to work, to innovate, to prosper?
“Find the disruptive people in your organization. They have the ideas that will drive change,” said Nancy Schlichting, CEO of the Henry Ford Health System, a $4 billion healthcare organization with 23,000 employees.
Speaking at the BIF8 innovation conference last week in Providence, RI, Nancy shared what has helped her transform an ailing health care system and create innovations in health care such as a new $360 million health and wellness facility that feels more like a luxury hotel than a hospital.
Transforming healthcare is all about leadership, she said. Her leadership approach focuses on creating an “incredible” environment for every person to reach their full potential. How she has created such an environment:
Hearing her talk I was reminding of the wonderful poem by Kaylin Haught, “God Says Yes To Me.” Imagine if CEOs said yes, yes, yes to more of their employees, especially the disruptive corporate rebels?
Not only would organizations be able to innovate and change more quickly, a wonderful sense of joy would permeate the workplace — even in high-stress environments in struggling urban areas, like the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.
When asked by Adam Byrant, the New York Times “Corner Office” columnist, what he does to foster teamwork and innovation Autodesk CEO and President Carl Bass said he focuses on three things:
In the recent interview, Bass said:
It’s not uncommon in meetings for me to say, when I know something is very controversial and important, “For the next 20 minutes, I want to hear from everybody.” At the heart of it people have to take on and hold a point of view…I think one of the main roles for a leader is to get as many opinions as possible on the table.
I also appreciated Bass’ views on the need for leaders to set clear visions.
As CEO you’re the one who’s driving the bus. And if you’re erratic while you’re driving, everyone gets pretty nauseous. It’s really important to be as clear as you possibly can be and not just wake up one day and say we’re going this way and the next day we’re going that way.
Last week I flipped through the University of New Hampshire alumni magazine when it came in the mail, scanning my class notes to see who died, re-married, got an interesting new job. Another page caught my eye. “Being Disruptive — in a Good Way” by UNH president Mark Huddleston.
Mark explained that he had heard Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, speak at “The Future of Public Universities” conference — and that speech “wowed” him, and inspired him to begin creating a disruptive new educational model for UNH. A model that would help more students learn — for less.
What if we allowed online instruction to provide, where appropriate, the foundational knowledge, and directed students’ time on campus toward learning activities that maximize the benefits of these mentor relationships?
As online instruction improves, might we not devote more class time to teaching methods that take real advantage of students’ time together, such as team projects, discussions and critiques?
The article went on to talk about UNH’s new eUNH initiative to identify ways to use online learning to improve teaching and help students progress faster.
Aside from being intrigued with disruptive models, here’s what I liked about Mark’s article. It mobilized me to want to write a check to support the university.
Few of us want to work for — or financially support — organizations that are plodding along, doing the same things well. We want to be inspired by leaders and organizations that create new ways to support visions we care about. And who have the courage, leadership skills and discipline to move forward despite often formidable opposition.
(Sadly, last April the New Hampshire chapter of the union American Association of University Professors gave a 129 to 72 “no confidence” vote in his leadership. The change involved in disruptive innovation inevitably threatens some who would like things to continue as they have been.)
Now to write that check…
One factor distinguishes corporate cultures where creativity, trust, progress and and expedient problem solving abound. It’s safe to think differently, voice ideas that challenge the status quo, bring up the elephants hanging around the conference rooms.
If the environment doesn’t feel safe to employees, no amount of team-building exercises, awards for creativity, financial incentives for “employee suggestions,” or expensive organizational culture and/or innovation consultants will make a difference.
As humans our brains are wired to perceive threats faster than our logical minds work. When we perceive these threats we retreat, just as we would run if someone were physically threatening us. (For more on this topic, check out David Rock’s excellent book “Your Brain At Work.“)
People are afraid to speak up at work. They’re afraid they’ll sound dumb, make someone upset, get in trouble with their boss, maybe even get fired. This fear not only stymies good ideas it can cause tragedy.
The story of NASA’s Challenger space shuttle is legendary. People were afraid to speak the truth. And those brave engineers who did were eventually over-ruled by senior executives whose emotions were tied up around fears about “looking bad.” There were no ill intentions on anyone’s part. But clearly people didn’t feel safe dissenting forcefully enough to stop the shuttle, and the leaders were listening to logic and not hearing in-between the lines. They didn’t sense the engineers’ fears and concerns. Listening to someone’s words but not the feelings expressed in those words is half-listening.
The challenge — dare I say leadership 101 requirement — is for leaders is to create the conditions for safety, model that behavior, and require all leaders to do so as well. Easier said than done. We’ll dive into this in more detail in future posts, but here are 11 pragmatic ways to create safety in everyday work meetings and conversations.
More creative people is the largest factor in spurring innovation, according to this insightful GE Innovation Barometer 2012 infographic. Play with the chart and see what most spurs innovation in different global regions and countries. Yup. Creative people is almost twice as more important than any other dimension.
Where do you find more creative people to help your company grow? You most likely have the people, but you probably need to adjust your corporate culture and processes to allow them to be much more creative. Some ideas to consider. None require big budgets, just slightly different ways to work.
There’s much more to share. But for now know that you have incredible potential in your organization. I see untapped magic and talent all the time. People are waiting to be invited to do more in more new ways. As leaders, help your repressed creative souls break free. It’s the only way to innovate all the time, in small ways and big.
What one thing could you do next week to make your organization a more welcoming creative place?
Agnes DeMille was talking to fellow dancer and choreographer Martha Graham in 1943, worrying that her recent success with Oklahoma! was unwarranted. DeMille wanted her work to be great, but questioned whether she could live up to her hopes.
The story goes that the generous and genius Martha Graham turned quietly to DeMille gave her this advice. Advice that perhaps all we innovators, rebels and passionate professionals should take to heart.
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions.
It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open.