Tag : organizational change

Knowing when to quit

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.




Jackson Pollock painting or chessboard?

Most institutions — be they governments, corporations, education or health care systems — try to run things as if they were playing chess, each move orderly, sequenced.

But today’s word is complex, more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a chessboard.

So Independent Diplomat Carne Ross suggested at last week’s BIF8 innovation conference.

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?

CEO Nancy Schlichting: find the disruptive people

“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.


The appearance of diversity vs. the impact of diversity

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.

Neutralizing Bureaucratic Black Belts

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.



Without an irritant there can be no pearl

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”

Bathroom confessions, leadership truths


“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.”

Radio silence.

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.

So I read the board the rebel riot act…

“I was so frustrated with the board and executive team’s resistance to new ideas that I finally read them the rebel riot act,” an insurance executive told me.

“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.


Safety first

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.

11 ways to create safe organizational cultures

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.

  • Open meetings differently:  To encourage everyone to feel comfortable participating, open a meeting by going around and asking each person to comment briefly about the topic. I often ask people to share their insights and observations in a sentence or two.  No one comments on what the person has said, just respectfully listens as you go around the room (or on a conference call.) Two things happen. Everyone’s perspectives have already begun to be shared, even the shy types among us. By speaking and being listened to people are more likely to contribute again. It feels a bit safer already.
  • Focus on what you’re good at vs. problem fixation: when you convene a meeting or a brainstorm session to talk about problems, everyone comes to the table with a threatened mind-set. After all, if it’s a problem, someone’s responsible for it. In addition, the negative stimulates are threat brain triggers and shuts down our creative thinking. A valuable practice to learn is Appreciative Inquiry, which through a different path of questioning builds on a team or organization’s strengths.  To learn more about AI, check out the Appreciative Inquiry Commons, hosted by the Case Western Reserve University’s Weatherhead School of Management. The book “Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Approach to Change” provides a great snapshot of the practice and its value.
  • Data vs. judging: before rushing to judge what a person is saying, stop. Consider the idea or opinion as a piece of data to be examined. Even if it makes your bile rise, there’s something to be understood in why the view is making you angry. Then apply a little empathy. What’s it like to be that person? Why is this important to him or her.  You’ll glean valuable insights by taking this approach. And you’re showing people that they can express ideas without someone dismissing them or biting their heads off. (Know, too  that we can send this “anger” message in our body language even if we don’t verbalize disagreement.)
  • Listen in between the lines for what’s being felt:  How people talk about something conveys more information than the words themselves.  As leaders, listen for the emotion beneath the words. Acknowledge those as real and important pieces of information. Acknowledge that anger, frustration, and other types of emotion are real and part of our work. “You must be getting pretty tired and frustrated from trying to get people to buy into this. What kind of help do you need?”
  • Don’t let titles interfere: people are no smarter or less smart because of their title. Focus on the purpose to be achieved and listen and value everyone’s ideas.  Then focus on the idea —  before worrying whether Mr. Big Title will like it or not.  Also  invite more diverse people and thinking into meetings. Too often meetings are convened for people with the same titles. This is for directors. This is for senior vice presidents. This is for Level 4 professionals. The same groups can get stuck in a rut. Mix it up.
  • Suspend certainty:  This is the cousin of judging vs. data.  If you make it a practice to challenge thinking and explore possibilities, it gets safe for people to think more expansively and creatively. If you don’t have to be “right,” you free up that pre-frontal cortex to make new connections and see previously unseen patterns. This is how insights and “aha’s” happen.  Certainty confines, asking us not to create art but to paint by numbers.
  • Don’t worry about getting through the agenda: Getting through the agenda doesn’t mean the meeting succeeded.  The question for all meetings is “what do we want to accomplish?”  Digressing from the agenda is often the best way to get there. I was recently leading a meeting and after the opening where everyone shared their “insights and observations” from the previous meeting, we had landed on what we needed to do next. The meeting had been scheduled for two hours. We were done in 45 minutes. The only agenda item we covered was “introductions.” Yet real progress was made. Everyone felt good.
  • What hasn’t been said that should? This is a great question to ask at the end of a meeting. Sometimes people are sitting quietly stewing, or feeling afraid of raising a point. By inviting people to speak up, you often get to the real conversations that need to be had.
  • Look at dissent as learning: When people disagree they are not being difficult. They are raising a different view.  Too often our reaction is to shut them down, get back to the nice flow of agreement and gentle progress.  Insights come from dissent. It’s a powerful way of learning. Help make it safe for people to disagree by sharing a few agreements such as, “it’s OK to challenge ideas, policies and opinions but it’s not OK to attack people.”
  • Ask good questions. Good questions guide good conversations.  Good, provocative questions and respectful listening not only create meaningful conversations, they make it safe for more people to participate in those conversations.  A helpful resource is this  booklet “The Art of Powerful Questions,” by the brilliant folks who started The World Cafe.
  • Laugh more. Nothing is more welcoming and indicative of a safe, friendly environment than hearing people  laugh.


3 simple ways to create a more optimistic, successful corporate culture

I dare you to watch this TED Talk by psychologist Shawn Achor and not see ways to change your corporate culture to be much more positive, open to ideas, optimistic and successful.

In it Shawn shares five simple ways that his team has successfully helped trained people in companies to rewire their brains to be more optimistic and successful: gratitudes, journaling, exercise, meditation, and random acts of kindness. All are fairly easy to do and cost little.

The three I find most useful:

  1. Three gratitudes: write down three new things you are grateful for every day for 21 days.
  2. Journaling: write about one positive experience that’s happened in past 24 hours.
  3. Random acts of kindness: write one positive email a day thanking or praising someone in your social and/or professional network.

Enjoy. On top of being so smart, Shawn is a great presenter.

Why leaders subconsciously reject change

When our brain senses that our status is being threatened, our thinking shuts down.  We avoid the person or situation making us feel so uncomfortable, and we often stay away from any activity or idea about which we’re not confident. Worse, we label the other person as “wrong” so we can be “right.”

We don’t necessarily do this consciously. It’s just our brains’ natural response when our status is under attack, say the neuroscientists.

So when  corporate rebels and mavericks challenge an organization’s status quo and executive decisions, leaders’ brains go on high-alert. Their decisions, their plans, their position feel threatened and under attack. The neuroscience research says this threat to status activates the same brain regions as physical pain.

The leaders’ knee-jerk reaction is often to label the people with the fresh new ideas as troublemakers. Or not having enough experience to really know what they’re talking about. And jeez, that kid isn’t even a manager, what could she  know? (See how put downs can make you feel better and restore your status?)

Guess what this reaction does to people with the fresh ideas that you need to lead? They run for the hills. Maybe they try to approach you or another executive again, but you’re likely not to welcome what they have to say.  Through words, tone or body language you broadcast the message throughout your organization: your ideas are NOT WELCOME.

And then you wonder why the culture isn’t more innovative and creative. Why too few people speak up with substantive comments at meetings.  Why it seems like you’re the only one with the answers.

Time to get your brain in line and recognize your “threat” triggers so that you can control them —  instead of them controlling you.

Who needs to change their ways: leaders or rebels?

Some executives have told me that “rebels and change agents need to learn how business works. You can’t just disrupt things and expect everyone to change.”

But should the corporate rebels be the ones to have to adapt their style? Or should leaders find ways to better understand how to control their threat triggers so that they can create a safe, welcoming climate for new ideas?

To me, this is the responsibility of the leader. All people can benefit from understanding and managing what trips them up. But with the prestige and financial compensation of being a leader comes the responsibility for first and foremost managing oneself. So your head is ready to be in the game of leading.

Humility and reappraising

This is why so many great leaders are humble. Humility reduces the status threat. It puts people at ease talking with you. It clears the leader’s mind of emotion so that he or she can really understand what people are saying.

Another way to manage the brain is to reappraise situations that start to trigger your emotions. What’s  the other person’s perspective? What does he want me to understand? What does she want me to do and why?  Look at what’s being said as data and nothing more.

Economic and competitive threats are relentless, causing their own set of threats and associated behavioral responses. But to succeed companies need new ideas and the best ideas are likely to come from the rebels and mavericks inside your own organization.

As a leader, help those people who can most help you succeed. Even if they make you uncomfortable. Maybe especially because they make you uncomfortable.

Help yourself by seeing challenges to the status quo as possibilities not attacks on your position.

20 ways to be a more effective rebel, maverick, edgewalker, change agent

So many corporate mavericks and rebels have great ideas, but those ideas often never see the light of day because of the way we truth-tellers and fire-starters behave. As a lifelong outlier — yet successful business executive — here are some of the things I’ve learned, often the hard way,  that may help you or the rebels in your organization.

1. Be positive: recommendations that are stated in the affirmative, that show what’s possible vs.what’s wrong, are more likely to be heard and acted on.

2. Frame it: frame how your idea helps the organization’s goals, cause, purpose. The more relevant the idea is to what everyone wants to achieve, the more open people will be to the idea.

3. Ask questions that highlight the possibilities vs. further damn the problems.  Possibilities create energy, problem dissing saps it.

4. Judge ideas, not people.  The first creates useful conversations, the second hurts, disrupts and usually dead-ends.

5. When angry, stop and wonder why. This has been especially helpful to me. I used to get so angry that I’d immediately react, or should I say over-react. Wondering why a person or company did or said something provides helpful perspective. The more we understand hidden motivations the more we can frame our ideas.

6. Strive for influence not power: influence inspires and motivates people to believe and act; power requires them to do so. Influence evokes possibilities, power evokes fear.  Power requires authority, titles and positions. Influence can be earned by anyone, no titles required.

7. Start the flame, tap into the collective brilliance of others to fuel the fire:  Change agents and rebels are the ones with the courage to be the first to stand up. To move from ideas  to action, bring in others who want to help. One person with a contrary idea usually gets little attention. Three people with a shared passion around a contrary idea start to get noticed.

8. Share the glory:  Revel in achieving something that benefits many, sharing the credit and the glory of all involved.  During my freshman year in college a philosophy professor told us, “Those who know know.” Even if it’s never publicly shown.

9. Communicate in ways that create clarity from complexity:  People need to understand what the idea is, why it’s relevant, and how it will provide value. Too often we get caught up in the “how we’re going to change things” before addressing the other important issues: context, relevancy, value.

10. Address the cost/value tradeoff:  are the benefits and value of the new way commensurate with the costs of change?

11. Let it breathe:  people often need time to absorb a new way, think on it for a while. As rebels we see things sooner and clearer than most and  get impatient with other people who aren’t as fast and decisive as we.  If we go too fast, we can mow over people, hurting the chances of being able to affect change.  In my corporate rebel research study, one write-in comment summed it up, “know that our velocity scares people.”

12. Pick the right boss or executive sponsor: find that person who appreciates your creativity, your fire-starting ideas, your naked truth-telling — and who can help guide and protect you  through the complexities of organizational politics and decision making.

13. Ask good questions, become a keen listener:  These two skills will serve as your advanced navigational systems as you chart through often foggy and potentially dangerous corporate seas.

14. Learn how to facilitate messy collaboration workshops to improve on your ideas, get buy in from others. People act on what they believe in. The more people who participate in shaping a new way, the more likely it is that they will adopt that new way.

15. Show how success can be measured.

16. Address the fears:  understand what people fear about the idea; respect, explore and test their assumptions; and/or explain how you plan to remove or minimize those fears.

17. Learn how to have constructive conversations. Most organizations are use to discussions (usually in the form of PowerPoint) that advocate for ideas, a win/lose form of communications. Constructive what/if conversations examine assumptions, open up possibilities, invite everyone to contribute, and value all points of view. A good book on this topic is “Naming Elephants: How to Surface Undiscussables for Greater Organizational Success.”

18. Be thoughtful in all you do: Thoughtfulness engenders support, abets truth telling, brings more humanity to our work, and adds more meaning to our cause.

19. Know when to walk away: perseverance is important. But so is knowing when to walk away, when the support for your idea just isn’t there. It may have nothing to do with you or the idea, the timing might not be right. Or the risks may be too great for the corporate culture.  Or people might not believe it’s really possible.  Don’t let your idea turn into a negative soapbox, where you lose your influence and rob yourself of energy and health. As Yogi Berra supposedly once said, “If no one wants to come, there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

20. Believe you are enough.

No easy answer for leaders resolving conflict


My most painful professional memories come from being part of teams with brilliant people that brilliantly imploded. Instead of achieving great things together, we clashed and the conflict dragged us into dark, ugly places.

How could it be that such experienced leaders and talented professionals flamed out? I had led big organizations before, so how come I failed to lead these other organizations out of conflict?

In “Leadership Without Easy Answers” Ronald Heifetz says that the root cause of most conflicts are due to conflicts in values. If a group doesn’t honestly surface those values and deal with them, the group blames the leader for not solving the problems, rejects the leader, hires another leader, and the cycle repeats.

Heifetz believes that the role of a leader is to help the organization surface the conflicts and frame and facilitate conversations so people can listen to and appreciate others’ perspectives. Heifitz’ book focuses on tackling big, complex problems in big organizations. But the lessons apply to small groups as well.

Similarly  I heard coach Jeffrey Van Dyk recently say, “There are no problems to be solved, just truths to be revealed.” Conflict resolution requires us to dig deep and honestly to uncover the truths. Then we can see the way forward.

This is hard work. I believe that the aspiration of the organization has to be so compelling that the people commit to doing the hard, messy work of getting to the root cause.  (Of, course you have to know  your “why,” which many companies don’t.)  People also have to truthfully acknowledge what they care about. No saying the words that sound right, but what you really, really believe.  Sometimes that will fit with the group’s values. Sometimes not.

If you pay lip service to your values — and they don’t jive with the group’s values — the conflict will continue.

The leader’s job then is to spot these disconnects and talk privately with those executives or team members. Often asking them to leave is the best course.  Or perhaps you are the executive who needs to walk away.

I’ve experienced both situations. In one case I didn’t ask someone to leave soon enough, letting  an influential executive’s personal beliefs wreak havoc, hurting relationships and the group’s ability to deliver exceptional work. In another, I was the one who had to walk away.

Values strikes many as “squishy” touch-feely work. But there’s nothing soft about conflict, especially the kind that can rip an organization apart.

If you love what your organization is trying to achieve, the hard work will be worth the struggle.


PS — Happy Fourth of July to my American friends. The reason why our country was founded and continues strong is that we talk about our issues, grounding those conversations in the values we hold dear. Without deeply sharing the same values, conflict will rage.



The 90-30 conundrum

Approximately 90 percent of people who participated in Foghound’s recent Corporate Rebel Study said that they agreed that involving rebels more helps improve corporate culture and develop a more innovative company.

BUT only 34 percent percent are “very satisfied” with rebels’ ability to provide that value inside their organizations.

Companies want these rebels’ fresh thinking but many corporate cultures are getting in the way of that happening.   For while companies want to innovate the study found that they are uncomfortable when people challenge the status quo, question executive decisions, go around the rules, and ask too many questions.

If changing quickly to  tap into marketing opportunities and challenges is more important than ever, perhaps it’s time to change what our organizations value, model new behaviors as leaders, and teach rebels how to share their ideas in ways that trigger conversations vs. provoking anger.

I’ll be blogging more in the coming weeks about rebels.  Please feel free to share this research in your organizations.  I look forward to hearing more about your experiences in creating organizations where change agents are valued vs. viewed as trouble makers.

Extreme frustration = compliance or dissent

What happens when frustrations in an organization reach a boiling point?

People either check out and say, “Just tell me what I need to do.”

Or they get angry and act out, “We’re mad as hell and aren’t going take this crap any more.”

Compliance or dissent. Both  suck the life out of people and an organization.  At least the vocal dissenters are engaged enough to care and want to do something to improve things. The compliant auto-pilots are much more checked out.

Yet my new research on corporate rebels, to be released in two weeks, finds that executives are far more annoyed with the dissenters who challenge the status quo.  They’re even more annoyed when their leadership decisions are questioned.

Last week I heard a story about a well-regarded, passionate physician at a major teaching hospital who questioned his executives’ decisions in a public forum. Her intention was well meaning. But she was shown the door two days later after years of service. Guess how many talented, frustrated people at that institution are likely to slide right into compliance.

Compliance at a time when heath care desperately needs creative solutions.

What’s a leader of a frustrated organization to do?

  • Open your mindset. People are not challenging you personally. They see problems they want to solve. They aspire to do work that means something more than just putting out today’s fires.
  • Articulate a purpose. Yours as a leader (See this great post from Harvard’s Bill George, “Why Leaders Lose Their Way.”)  Yours as an organization. Why do we exist — beyond the generic  “delivering a profit to our shareholders” or “delivering quality health care.”
  • Change how your organization runs meetings so that everyone has a say. Open by going around the table and asking each individual to share his or her observations and insights.  Try it. You’ll begin to accomplish more and people will feel more valued.
  • Involve people in creating the tactics to achieve the big goals and strategy.  People don’t resist change. They want change. They resist acting on plans that they don’t think are the best way to achieve the goals. This is a different, more collaborative way of creating plans. It might take longer than a few people hunkered in a conference room to bang out the plan in three days. BUT if you tap into people’s collective brilliance, they will come up with tremendous ideas and then MAKE THOSE IDEAS HAPPEN.
  • Know that you don’t have to have all the answers. Your job is to inspire people around a simple but powerful vision of what you’re aiming to accomplish, Your job is to ask new questions. To listen.  To provide more ways for more people to have a voice and know that what they do, think and say matters. To let people vent when their intentions are good. (Angry, destructive people should be booted out, of course.)

People want their work to matter. Let their voices be heard. Involve them in creating better ways.  It may be the only way to succeed in a world of  such seismic change.

Getting to Maybe: How the World is Changed

In the movie Jerry Maguire, Renee Zellweger’s character tells Tom Cruise that he had her at the first hello. Well, this warning to the book “Getting To Maybe: How the World is Changed” had me at the first page:

Warning: this book is not for heroes or saints or perfectionists. This book is for ordinary people who want to make connections that create extraordinary outcomes.

What riveted me to this book on social innovation:

  • The authors fascinating yet easy to understand application of scientific complexity science as a way to understand social innovation.
  • The book’s thorough research and presentation of patterns of social innovation
  • The compelling stories of diverse social innovators – what triggered them to start, how they navigated their journeys, and the shared patterns of those diverse journeys
  • The use of poetry to ground each chapter, counterbalancing the art of change with the science of systems change.
  • More thoughtful, original, and thought provoking insights than I usually find in a professional book.
  • Many, many practical ideas that I can see how to apply both to my professional organizational change management work and my responsibilities as a trustee on non-profit organizations.
  • How relevant it is in today’s world with nations in the Middle East transforming and our school systems, unions, health care institutions and governments undergoing complex, profound and needed change.

The yellow highlights in my book are too numerous to list, but here are some of my takeaways.

Getting to maybe vs. concrete, measurable outcomes

“Maybe” comes with no guarantees, only a chance. But “maybe” has always been the best odds the world has offered to those who set out to alter its course…”Maybe” is not a cautious word. It is a defiant claim of possibility in the face of a status quo we are unwilling to accept.

Why complexity science?

  • Traditional methods of seeing the world compare its workings to a machine. Complexity science embraces life as it is: unpredictable, emergent, evolving and adaptable.
  • Connections or relationships define how complex systems work; an organization is its relationships not its flow chart.
  • Using insights about how the world is changed, we can become active participants in shaping those changes.

Being heard: speaking the vision and passion

Effective and innovative organizations keep alive the that vision and passion, that sense of calling…Part of the challenge in being heard is to hone what you have to say and practice saying it in a way that connects both emotionally and intellectually, both affectively and cognitively

Working with powerful strangers

  • If the system is to be transformed as opposed to overturned, collaboration between the radical and the establishment must be created.
  • In any discussion of power and its redistribution, link the issue directly to the organization’s mission and keep it in that context.
  • Power dynamics will surface in connection to mission fulfillment; which is appropriate; there it will challenge those in power to examine the depth of their commitment to real change.

Evaluation, measurement, accountability

  • Set information targets, not just performance targets.
  • Use developmental evaluation, charting a changing path of innovation by providing rapid feedback.
  • Frame changes from you’re learning as developments, not just improvements, and a key difference in perspective. Especially with funders.
  • Support learning as a meaningful outcome – and reporting on learning as a form of authentic accountability.
  • The highest form of accountability is internal. Are we being true to our vision? Are we dealing with reality? Are we connecting the dots between here-and-now and our vision?  Are we walking the talk? How do we know if we’re not?

Scaling innovation

Scaling up is rarely a linear process that involves doing more of the same.

A different approach to strategic planning

  • Make big-picture, strategic thinking an ongoing part of decision making, not something done only periodically in retreats.
  • Devote resources to identifying and tracking important trends. Make strategic analysis about the connections between local efforts and major trends a regular part of your work.
  • Develop a fierce commitment to ongoing reality testing, especially seeking and being open to critical feedback and standing still to see the bigger picture.
  • Instead of cheerleading, cultivate the skills of rigorous pattern analysis and reality testing.

Quotes I loved

  • Thinking is a form of action.
  • A goal helps to channel the energy but doesn’t create it.
  • Keep the goals front and centre —  let the means emerge.
  • Hell is not failing, hell is delusion.
  • It takes courage to act in the absence of certainty and clarity. But to not engage, to not connect does not mean we protect ourselves from uncertainty.

I’m a voracious reader, and highly recommend this book by Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton — especially for those involved in innovation, organizational change and social transformation, or for those who wonder and perhaps worry about how we can solve today’s seemingly insolvable social issues.

Ignore the obstacles

Are we wasting too much time solving problems?

We spend a lot of time solving problems in business. Some days I feel like we’re benevolent pit bulls, sinking our teeth into root causes, doing current and future state analysis, and constructing detailed roadmaps for breaking down the obstacles.

But what about the other way? Instead of focusing on the negatives, what if we obsessed on our aspirations and strengths? What would happen if spent more time imagining the value of doing more of what we’re especially good at?

Management guru Peter Drucker believed that building on an organization’s strengths snuffs out many of the problems:

“The task of organizational leadership is to create alignment of strengths in ways that make a system’s weaknesses irrelevant.”

Appreciative Inquiry authors and experts David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney share similar views:

“The positive core of an organizational life is one of the greatest and largely unrecognized resources in the field of change management today…Human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about, and this propensity is strongest and most sustainable when the means and ends of inquiry are positively correlated.”

At your next management meeting, think about carving out some time to ask new questions around your strengths. Based on my experience you’ll uncover some remarkably motivating ideas, and you’ll  find the energy to pursue those positive opportunities in a way that you just don’t get with solving problems.