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.
You may have heard the self-help gurus talk about how paralyzed people have become by all their stuff, jammed into their houses, garages, storage units. It’s overrunning people’s lives and making them miserable.
The same thing is happening at work. We have so many programs, processes, special initiatives, goals, strategic mandates, task forces, and focus areas that people are overwhelmed. I recently met with a company task force that was trying to figure out a way to communicate the brand messages, corporate vision, company purpose, employee values, and four new “pathway to success” programs, all with their own titles and acronyms.
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:
1. Show up more. (Or better, always.)
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.”
2. Good questions start good ideas.
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?
3. Do the work, the path will appear.
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.
4. Nothing is too big to change.
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.
5. Oh, God.
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.
6. “A network is worthless if you do not give it away.”
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.
7. The fastest way to change is…
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?
8. Sleep is not over-rated.
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.
9. Optimism is the greatest form of rebellion.
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.
10. Oh joy...
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.
11. Digital handshake, in-person hug.
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.
12. Control is for beginners.
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.
Two weeks ago I was leading an American Marketing Association workshop about how to gain approval and adoption of new ideas. We covered the first four items on the following list through a series exercises and then I asked everyone which of #5 – 10 they most wanted to spend time on.
1. What’s at stake?
2. Make the status quo unappealing
3. Use the SCARF model
4. Uncover the hidden motives
5. It’s an experiment
6. What’s the real issue?
7. Move away from drama
8. Befriend the Bureaucratic Black Belts
9. Stay under the radar
10. Know when to quit
People loved #10. I have to confess I was surprised and perhaps not prepared enough. How do you know when it’s time to let an idea go? Or stop trying to get a project funded? Or get people interested in adopting a new way? Or even leave a job?
Here’s what I suggested:
- Rate importance: Ask your boss or client how important a particular project is to them on a scale of 1 – 10. If it’s below six, it’s just not that important. At this point you’ll probably have a hard time getting it to 9 or 10. If they say 7 or 8, ask them what it what would make it a 9 or 10. Then listen very carefully.
- Just ask: “We’ve been talking about this idea for a while, but it doesn’t seem to be moving ahead. I think it helps us (insert important organizational goal). What do you think is holding it back? What advice can you give me?”
- Is the energy waning? Do fewer people show up for meetings about the idea? Is the idea put early on the agenda (probably still interested) or last (if we don’t get to it, no big deal.)? Is it even on management meeting agendas?
- Not performance objective worthy: If you set your annual performance objectives and your boss doesn’t view your big idea as an important for your objectives, he or she doesn’t think the idea is important.
- How much are your colleagues willing to help? If your work friends just aren’t into helping you with the idea, it may signal that they don’t see the value of it. Another sign that it may be time to quit the idea.
- Are you becoming not yourself? If you’re starting to be angry, judgmental or righteous, this might be a sign that it’s time to let go.
Yogi Berra allegedly once said, “If the people don’t want to come, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”
Sometimes the time isn’t right for an idea. We rebel thinkers work ahead of most people, and it takes a while for them to catch up with our ideas. Sometimes you just need to wait a while and reintroduce the idea.
Sometimes you may need to more clearly communicate the value and relevance of the idea. It’s easy after a while to get so down into the weeds of how a project or idea will work that people have forgotten why it’s such a good idea in the first place. (Go to #1 on the list: show them what’s at stake, what the idea makes possible and how that’s so much better than what exists today.)
Don’t beat yourself up or take on all that failure language or people will begin to see you as a problem person vs. the creative person who knows how to come up with great ideas.
Even if this was the greatest idea you think you’ve ever developed, know that there will be more great ideas. Creativity doesn’t stop.
Unless, of course, you spend all your energy hanging on too long to an idea no one cares about.
When your horse dies, get off.
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.”
Practices for inviting healthy conflict
So what can you do to move from advocacy to inquiry? To help foster healthy dissent vs. angry debates? Here are some suggestions.
- Establish agreements: set some guiding principles at the start of a meeting and keep them posted on the wall as a reminder. If someone starts to violate an agreement, bring everyone’s attention back to the list on the wall. Here are some guiding principles that I have found helpful:
- Judge ideas, not people.
- Focus on solutions and ways forward; stay away from drama and problems.
- Observations are more useful than opinions.
- Let each person complete their thought; avoid interrupting.
- Ask questions that illuminate, not interrogate.
- Ask questions that are brief and to the point without adding background considerations and rationale, which make the question into a speech
- Respect other people’s truths.
- If you want your views to be heard speak now. Not later in backroom side conversations.
- Set the tone: Open the meeting by going around the room and asking everyone to respond to a soft but relevant question where there is no right or wrong answer. No one comments on what a person says, just respectfully listens. This helps to put people at ease, build personal connections, make sure everyone’s voice is heard, and get comfortable with listening. I recently asked a group about the most creative thing they had done outside of work in the past month. The answers were hilarious, and that laughter set a relaxing, collegial tone to dig into important issues.
- Set up what’s at risk: Frame the conversation by succinctly stating what’s at risk and why it’s so important to debate the issue and get everyone’s views. This focuses the conversation and reminds people why it’s worth their time and honest input.
- Make sure you have enough time. Issues worthy of inquiry and debate usually require more than the typical one hour time allotment. One hour meetings are good for updates and touching base. Strategic conversations where we value everyone’s involvement need more like three hours, maybe a even a day or more.
- Facilitate or use a facilitator. Effective facilitators carefully listen, guide, inject good questions to open up new conversation veins, move people off dead horses, prevent any one person from hogging the conversation, help the group to recover if someone has said something hurtful, and adhere to the meeting agreements. If you are facilitating, know that it will be difficult to participate. As a participant you’re focused on the ideas not the meta conversation. Understand what role you’ll be playing, participant or facilitator.
- Ask the wind-down question. It usually gets to the real issues: About 30 minutes before the meeting is to end ask, “What hasn’t been said that should? Is there something you feel we’ve been avoiding? If we never talked about this issue again, would you feel satisfied that we honestly examined all the important aspects of it? If not, what needs to be said?” Inevitably someone speaks up and speaks the truth and the real conversation starts.
- Close with insights: After summarizing highlights and next steps, ask everyone to briefly respond to a closing question, which further respects views and makes sure voices are heard. Possible closers might be:
- 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?”