There are three elements of creating meaningful change — whether it’s developing a new product or transforming a government agency or business function. This presentation highlights how to Dream, Discover and Deliver, and gives you a heads up about practices to embrace and pitfalls to avoid.
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.
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:
- Making a large organization feel small. When the board approached her about being CEO of the health care system she was reluctant to take it because she likes being involved with people and creating working environments that are positive, personal and open-minded. The board assured her that being CEO of a health care would not preclude how she like to lead.
- Saying yes to unusual ideas, like an employee who wanted to be able to creating fun drawings on the disposable gowns worn by the kidney dialysis staff. “This woman creates this amazing designs on her own time on the weekends. On Monday mornings the staff can’t wait to see what she has that week for them.”
- Helping people who are disruptors. These, she says, are the people with the ideas that can help you change and transform. One example she shared: a surgeon who wanted to put health kiosks in churches in the Detroit community. Doing so has been a hugely successful way to help people learn about health and wellness.
- Hiring people in with non-traditional backgrounds to help you see things in new and different ways. “This is essential,” Nancy stressed. One example: she hired Gerard van Grinsven, a long time Ritz Carlton executive to be CEO of the new Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, even though Bernard had no health care experience. His “otherness” has been a significant reason the new hospital has been so successful in its ambitious goals. (Here’s a link to a video of Gerard sharing his story about going from high-end hotels to opening a hospital.
- Bringing together different thinkers. Creative ideas happen at the intersections, said Nancy. Bringing different thinkers together across silos creates better ideas faster.
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.
Carmen Medina and I are on a mission to help rebels in the workforce be more successful. We believe these outsider thinkers inside big organizations have the answers leaders need to adapt, grow, thrive, even survive. As part of our journey into helping rebels we’ve been asking ourselves all kinds of questions to understand why leaders don’t listen more to rebels. Yesterday Carmen posted about her recent epiphany on Rebels at Work. Here’s her “aha” about diversity initiatives and rebels.
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.
Never, ever publicly embarrass, threaten or upstage a Bureaucratic Black Belt (BBB), those protectors of the status quo, upholders of processes and procedures, fighters for following the rules without exceptions, righteous minimizers of risk.
Similarly never start a fight with them. You will lose.
BBB’s can be formidable foes. You may never win them over or convince them to approve your idea. The best case is to neutralize them so that they don’t fight you and your rebel ideas. By neutralizing you’ll have a better chance of finding a way to work around them.
This is an important lesson for rebels, mavericks, change agents and innovators. The BBB’s are often our greatest obstacles. Not necessarily the official decision makers, but the people who can drain our energy and derail our plans. Selectively involving these gatekeepers is a necessary step in removing obstacles.
BBB’s hold all kinds of positions, though you will find more in Legal, Finance, and Human Resources, Customer Service, IT, Quality Management, and Environmental departments. If a person’s job involves any sort of regulations, compliance, product quality or public reputation risks, they are more likely to be a BBB of some degree. They have to, really. Don’t blame them for doing their jobs.
Which brings us to the first technique for neutralizing BBB’s.
Understand what it’s like to be them.
Put yourself in their position. What are they held accountable for? What happens if they make a mistake? Don’t properly enforce a government regulation? Not follow a standard procedure and get audited? They succeed by being fearful of what could go wrong. If they mess up, public humiliation for the entire organization is at risk.
If they’re not born that way, they become wired to say “No” to anything even slightly out of the norm.
We rebels see opportunities, they see danger.
So empathize with them. Feel their pain. (We know this can be challenging especially if you’ve been foiled continually by BBB’s, which is likely.)
Bring this empathy to your conversations with them, letting them know that you get how difficult it must be to be them. “It must get frustrating and lonely being the person who has to always remind people of the risks,” you might say. All people want to be seen, to know that people understand what it’s like to be them. Especially BBBs, who may have an even more difficult role at work than rebels.
This empathy is likely to ease the tension, perhaps put them at slightly more ease with you.
Who is The Person Most Revered?
Also helpful is to understand who in the organization the BBB respects, fears, wants to please. There is always someone. Find out who that person is, what’s important to him or her, and who or what influences him or her.
Then invoke the name of the Person Who Is Revered when dealing with the BBB. Better yet, figure out how to get support from the Person Who Is Revered, and tell the BBB that so and so supports your idea. The tiger is likely to back down a bit. Not entirely, but enough that you’ll find more space to navigate.
Ask questions vs. sell your ideas
BBB’s, like most of us, like to be recognized as smart and influential, so do feed this need by asking the BBB for advice. (This also helps you figure out what this person most wants or fears, more data points to factor into your neutralizing strategy.) You might say, “Diane (The Revered One) is interested in seeing how we might be able to make this idea work. If you were in my shoes, what would you do? What advice can you give me that might be helpful?”
If the BBB says something annoying and unhelpful like, “Diane should know better. That idea will never work here,” The next question to ask, “What would have to be in place for the idea to have any outside chance of working?” This data will help inform what you need to do, or how to position the idea. Questions are your friends in dealing with BBBs, as is listening.
Selective disclosure and conversation goals
Know, too, that you have won some points by involving the BBB. These people get angry and become stronger foes when you ignore them. Which is what we’d like to do because they can be so unpleasant and FRUSTRATING. Understand when and how to keep them in the loop. Disclose what you must, but not everything.
It’s also important to not wing it when going into meetings: Have a goal in mind whenever you have a conversation with a BBB. What do you want them to do, or not to do, after the conversation happens? The more clear and precise your goal, the more likely you’ll achieve it.
Free flowing, unstructured conversations with BBBs can be dangerous because we rebels tend to get passionate and excited about what’s possible. Passionate possibilities send warning signals to the BBB. “Danger! Danger! This person is not staying inside the lines; they are even talking about painting the lines orange instead of regulation blue. Beware of what she is saying. Stop thinking about what she is saying and launch into why this is not possible. Shut her down. Now.”
Lastly, thank BBBs when they are helpful. Public recognition for their efforts, especially with The Person Most Revered, will go a long way in making sure that they leave you alone.
Remember, BBB’s are unlikely to EVER fully support you. You just don’t want them to stop you.
You cannot win over Bureaucratic Black Belts.
Your job is to neutralize them so they don’t try to kill your idea.
Thanks to Michael H. Samuelson, author and founding CEO of The Health & Wellness Institute, for allowing us to share his 5th observation from his eBook, ” Wellness in the Workplace 2.0: 10 Key Observations from 35 Years in the Field.” His current title is one we love, “Chief Irritant.”
Let’s be honest. It’s much easier—and certainly safer—to sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action than it is to do something. That is, of course, unless you have passion, commitment, laser determination and God on your side.
Well, actually, skip that last one. She’ is on everyone’s side. At least that’s the pitch that supports the military-industrial complex (we should have listened to Ike) and looks nice on all of the banners.
Let’s just stick with passion, commitment and laser determination. When these three driving forces are present you can’t sit still, you can’t wait for someone else, and you can’t shut up. You stir and spit, shout and stomp your feet. You seize the torch that has been passed to you and your generation. You are Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. You take the crown out of the Pope’s hands and you crown yourself. Time is fleeting, daylight is burning, there are causes to advance and worlds to conquer!
“Emperor” too much? Okay. How about CI? Chief Irritant. You are the sand that produces the nacre that builds the pearl. So, let someone else sit back, complain, and wait for others to take action…just below the surface there are pearls in-waiting and you are the irritant that makes it all happen.
Let the spitting begin! Caution:
Sophocles was right, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” As I have stated before, there are times when the boon, the prize, the newly found wisdom you bring to “fix things” is rejected. No matter the treasure, it is still disruptive in a world that knows not, or little, of its existence or value. What you may view as “The Answer” may well be viewed by others — particularly those in control — as the newest problem (read: YOU) to be dealt with, swiftly.
It’s no fun being spat upon. Trust me, on this one. I’ve been there. I’ve stimulated copious amount of spray, toweled off, and lived to irritate again. Being a CI is not always an easy ride but I like to modestly think—modestly—that along with picking up a few dents in my armor, I’ve also triggered the formation of a few pearls here and there…
10 Ways to Succeed as a Chief Irritant…Without Really Trying
1. Fasten Your Armor (you’re going to need it)
2. Pursue Your Need for Popularity Elsewhere
3. If You’re Not the Boss, Find a Champion in the “C” Suite
4. Practice “No-Oblique-Speak”
5. Compromise on Tactics…Not Ethics or Integrity
6. Irritate Without Judgment or Arrogance
7. Beware the Ides of March (et tu ______ )
8. Have a “No Jerks Allowed” Rule…Embrace the Spirituality of Imperfection
9. If you think everyone around you is a jerk…Look in the Mirror
10. Repeat after me, “Spit is Good”
“Lois, I need to tell you something,” she whispered nervously as I walked into the ladies room. Then she quickly searched the stalls to make no one from her management team was there.
“I know why the workshop isn’t working,” she said with conviction.
Now I was on high alert, having walked into the bathroom frustrated and discouraged about the leadership workshop I was leading. The topic was on how to lead meetings so that healthy conversations and differing points of views could be aired to arrive at better decisions. But the energy in the workshop was low and the engagement almost non-existent. Was it the material? Was I having an off day? Do these people not have meetings? Could I turn this around after the break or should I just end it and put all of us out of our misery?
“It’s trust,” she whispered. “I’m fairly new here and can see the problem. But no one sees it because they confuse friendliness with trust. I have to go. Please, never, ever tell anyone I told you this.”
Yowza. Having worked with this client before I never would have thought that trust was an issue.
Organizational silence = shutting off ideas
After the break I started the session with “organizational silence” research from NYU Professor Elizabeth Wolfe Morrison. (Here’s a great article by Professor Morrison; the chart in this post is from her as well.)
“Perhaps what’s really at play here is nothing about how to lead meetings. It’s about your organization. Meetings simply mirror the culture. In most organizations silence is pervasive because leaders are afraid of negative feedback and harbor beliefs that they know more than the rank and file, and that employees can’t be totally trusted.
“Moreover,” I continued, “We leaders are often trying to protect our status and sense of certainty. People speaking up shake up our status and we often inadvertently shut them down. If not in words, then in our body language.”
Then one brave young man raised his hand. “Yes, it feels kind of unsafe to say anything at our meetings. I don’t get the sense that people really want to hear my point of view.”
Then people started talking. After two and a half hours we were having the real conversation.
How often do we all silence others because of our fears and beliefs? What harm does that do to our companies?
The hidden causes of maintaining silence
“A troubling aspect of the dynamics that create and maintain silence is that they are hidden from view and often unrecognized” says Professor Morrison. “Management may see that employees are not engaged, but may assume that it is because they are self-interested or not motivated.”
I’m still reflecting on the workshop to understand the real issues. I have come to one important realization: these executives may have taken away nothing about leading meetings that matter, and it doesn’t matter. What they did come away with is a recognition of that organizational silence exists in their company and it’s not a good thing.
How to break the silence? Professor Morrison offers these suggestions:
- Don’t shoot the messenger: In terms of prevention, managers must work hard to counteract the natural human tendency to avoid negative feedback. They must not only seek out honest feedback, on a regular basis, they must also be careful to not “shoot the messenger” when they receive bad news.
- Create safe climate: Managers must also work hard to build an open and trusting climate within their organizations, one in which employees know that their input is valued and that it is safe to speak up.
- Really want to hear it: If employees sense that those above them do not want to hear about potential problems and issues of concern, they will not talk about them. Managers must recognize this dynamic and convince employees that they do want input.
- Replace top managers: One way to create such a change (of open communication) is to bring in new top managers. This will not only enable the organization to break from its past, but will signal to employees that there is a commitment to changing the status quo.
There is no easy way to create safe corporate cultures and inviting and accepting differing points of view. I believe it’s a practice. Like practicing your golf swing, tennis serves, meditation, drawing and patience.
We’re never done. We can only be aware that we need to be aware.
“What happened? What was in it?”
“I told them that we’re losing our internal entrepreneurs, the very people we need if we want to be able to innovate. We’re at great risk at falling behind the competition. We either change the culture by seeding innovation rebels throughout the company or our best people are going to continue to leave.
“Then I told them what I wanted. A one-year funded pilot to help put innovation rebels in place. I showed them a plan, expected results and how we will measure results.”
Paul had been talking about the need for culture change for a couple of years. But it took reading a rebel riot act to wake the executive team up.
The reverse rebel riot act?
The origins of “The Riot Act” were an English law, enacted by Parliament in 1715. If more than 12 people “tumultuously” assembled and refused to disperse within an hour of a magistrate reading a proclamation, they would be charged as felons.
In the last century “reading the rebel riot act” has come to be a common expression. It means the boss was setting an employee straight, or giving the whole team a necessary kick in the ass, a wake up call to stop whining or slacking off.
Reading the riot act is like a high-intensity intervention because no one seems to be listening.
In 1915 the coach of the Kansas City Rebels baseball team read his players a riot act. The Pittsburgh Press reported:
“Manager Oakes, a conservative, peaceful manager, has dropped the mask of easiness and is fighting mad…instead of delivering heart-to-heart talks, for which he is famous, he delivered a flow of cutting southern eloquence that sunk deep into the hides of his players…It was all to the point — very much so — and in plain words meant that the men on the team would have to play baseball and play it right or there would be several checks shy when payday rolled around.”
Today we’re starting to see a different kind of rebel act. Corporate rebels reading the riot act to management to wake them up to needed changes.
Greg Smith certainly read the riot act very publicly to Goldman Sachs when he published his “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” Op-Ed a couple of weeks ago.
If your company has a transparent corporate culture, people can read the riot act as a way to create positive change, like Paul at the large insurance company. Reading the riot act means that you still care about your organization. You want to help change and be part of the change.
And if your culture is closed culture, not willing to listen? Well, that’s when you get lambasted in The New York Times and throughout social media. Like Goldman Sachs. Like the controversy at the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
What makes a good rebel riot act?
- Succinct summary of the problem and its risk to the business. No mincing words.
- Data, or at least several credible anecdotes, to support the point. This can’t be viewed as your opinion. It is you showing a pattern that has negative consequences.
- A proposed plan to correct the problem. If you’re going to read the rebel riot act, be prepared to ask for what you think can solve the problem.
- Willingness to lead the change. What you expect to accomplish and by when.
The more a rebel act hits on what the organization really values, the more likely people will be to listen to your proposed alternative approach. The successful “reverse rebel riot acts” I’ve seen that hit a chord zero in on:
- Hurt revenues
- Lose talent (especially talent that generates revenue)
- Fall behind the competition
- Break promises
- Hurt the company’s reputation
- Potentially embarrass high-profile executives
Be ready for potential fallout
Reading the rebel act to established powers that be is risky. Paul succeeded in getting a one-year innovation rebel pilot funded. But he knows that if he is unsuccessful, he will likely be asked to leave the company.
In trying to do a leveraged buy-out of an employer, I read the riot act about needed leadership changes. I lost, and felt the need to leave.
In other cases, rebels are labeled as “trouble makers” after reading the rebel riot acts. A lonely place to be.
Yet it is often possible to rebuild bridges, especially if your riot act was in support of the organization’s vision and goals, which always makes good sense.
Take a deep breathe, and remember what Thomas Jefferson once said: “On matters of style, swim with the current. On matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
Sometimes it takes reading a rebel riot act to stand like a rock.