There are lot of conversations about imagining the future. Although it is not easy to make the future when you are on your own –for instance, when you follow an entrepreneurial path– at least the future is somehow under your control.
But how do you make that future happen or try to advance a different point of view, particularly when you are inside an organization?
I worked at the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for 32 years. The last 20 years of my agency career I considered myself a heretic. Eventually I found other people in the agency who held similar views and we formed what I called The Rebel Alliance.
Before sharing some of the lessons I learned about being an effective rebel at work, so that you will not make the same mistakes, I want to share three truthiness –almost universal laws:
My first piece of advice is “master the bureaucratic landscape” and befriend the bureaucratic black belt.
Usually, proactive people, self-starters and agents of change do not want to have anything to do with bureaucracy. They see bureaucrats as enemies. However, to be an effective rebel at work, to make change happen, we need to learn how the bureaucracy works almost as well as bureaucrats do. One of the best ways to do it is to befriend a bureaucratic black belt. Follow, shadow and imitate one.
The second piece of advice is “do not do it by yourself. Find allies.” The first time I spoke about this topic, after I retired from the agency, it was at the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. A businessman in the room said, “I really believe what you are saying! I would like to pick out those rebels at work and help them. But how do I know if I am picking a rebel or a troublemaker?”
The answer is straightforward: a real rebel has followers. That is because people in the organization know the ones who are bullshitting and know the ones who really mean well. So, if it is a loner, most likely he or she is a troublemaker, but if you know he or she has followers, most likely we are talking about a real rebel.
The third piece: “Do not break rules. Change rules.” The good news about bureaucracies is that they make so many rules that they have trouble keeping track of them. The bad news is that, if you think certain rules are stupid and decide to break them, the bureaucracy will hunt you down before you get a chance to accomplish anything special. That is good advice from a CIA veteran.
My next point: “Stand for something, not just against the status quo.” Many people support and actually love the status quo, even if there is no healthy reasoning behind. A good example is academics. Even though we all know the university system is ready for a change, academics continue to support it.
To be an effective change agent, one has to deal with a lot of people who love the status quo and do it at the emotional level. Essentially, your change idea needs to come across like another man or woman to those status quo supporters: you need to encourage them to have an affair with your idea. That is the only way they will move away from that love for the status quo.
“Do not bore people with your ideas.” I see this a lot in organizations. People who want to make the future happen become obsessed with it, they become policy wonks. You know this is your case if people stop having lunch with you. Take a vacation from your ideas once in a while and always connect with people in terms of their emotional values.
“Do not go all in the first time” especially when management puts together a working group to look for the way forward. I learned in my government career the definition of a working group: a group that does not work.
I joined some of those working groups early on. I found myself there full of ideas. I told them everything I believed in. At some point, a woman said to me, “Carmen you have a bright career at the agency, but you need to stop telling people exactly what you think or you’re going to ruin it.” I was stunned! I thought the whole purpose of me being in the organization was to offer them my very best ideas.
And it might be true. What I learned over time is that you need to have a strategy and be very cautious, otherwise people will think stuff like “wait, it is a trap! It is a trap!”
“Avoid the dark side.” Do not become cynical and negative. To avoid frustrations, learn what your own give up line is. At that moment, take some rest and relax. You do not want to make a mistake that takes your change agenda to an end. I think it is a tough but necessary learning experience.
“Avoid the Athena trap.” Athena is the Greek virgin goddess of wisdom, who was born from Zeus’ head, wearing armor and fully grown.
When you propose your idea for something new, the first thing the master bureaucratic black belt is going to ask you is “how will this exactly work on November 11 when X, Y and Z happen.” If you are foolish, you will try to answer the question!
So remember: change cannot emerge fully formed on day one. Did the status quo arise fully formed on day one? No! It has been established over time. No one presented us with a blueprint for the status quo. But if you are a change agent, it is expected that you are able to lay out everything from day one.
You must answer the question though! Just remember to avoid that trap. You can start by saying that no great thing has been created suddenly –and no dumb thing either.
“Do things in the right order.” At one point in my agency career, I got higher up, so I told everyone “this is my vision, this is what I think analysis should be, this is what processes should look like,” and so on. I did not realize that by giving that visionary-type talk I was alerting all the passive aggressive in the organization about my intentions before befriending the bureaucratic black belts and before I had assembled a group of allies.
There is a phrase used in the military, “preparing the battlefield.” That is what I missed. My advice is breakout your idea, sequence the steps in the right order and be very disciplined about It.
“Accept the inevitability of conflict.” You do not want to invite conflict, but you do not want to avoid it either. In a lot of organizations, we have heard sentences such as “here we make decisions by consensus.” What a bunch of crap! Consents is a way to avoid making a decision. If you talk, talk and talk until everybody can agree to the lowest common denominator you might have avoided making a decision.
If your idea is important you are going to engender conflict. The reverse is also true: if it does not engender conflict, it is not important. Be willing to calculate how you are going to handle what I would call crunchy meetings and meet conflict head-on.
“Do not waste your opportunities.” If you are a change agent, you will have a chance to give a talk. I have been in situations where someone is proposing a change initiative without being fully prepared, without doing their homework and with a briefing organized in such a way that avoids bringing up questions they do not want to answer. When I was holding senior positions, I used to witness those kinds of briefings –they were like a tasty afternoon snack.
So, if you are a change agent, do your homework, understand how bureaucracy works and work effectively, because if you have a conviction for an idea, the worst mistake you can make is to fail to speak up.
I am Carmen Medina and these are my agile-thoughts
2021 © San Juan, PUERTO RICO by Carmen Medina
Carmen is an organizational heretic and all-purpose troublemaker whose only real expertise is asking stupid questions and noticing odd, new things that might amount to something…or maybe not.
Task-phobic. Expert on critical thinking, diversity of thought, and intrapreneurship. Received the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal and speaks to Fortune 500 companies, non-profits and governments.
Carmen likes to garden and cook things that she has grown. She has an extensive collection of Karaoke songs and you are always in danger of becoming the after-dinner entertainment.