Category Archives: Change

The Tao of Rebel Management

Nothing less appealing than a dour reformer and other advice for rebel managers. Check out my newest post on rebelsatwork.com.

The Bearable Discomfort of Rebels

Check out my new blog post on the grittiness of being a rebel in the workplace. Rebelsatwork.com

 

Steve Jobs: Good or Bad Rebel?

Fifty years from now, I’m sure Steve Jobs will still be seen as one of the great business leaders of the 20th century.* But I bet the jury will still be out as to whether he was a good rebel or a bad rebel. What I’m referring to is my friend Lois Kelly’s excellent chart detailing the characteristics of good and bad rebels in organizations. What do we mean by rebels, or heretics as I often describe myself?  We’re talking about those people in organizations who have strong views as to how the organization can improve, how it needs to change. They are brave (or foolhardy) enough to stand against the prevailing doctrine of the organization and seriously argue for another way.

Whenever Lois or I have spoken recently about the need for organizations, in these times of demanding change, to make better use of the rebels within their midst, we get asked a very good question. How can you tell a good rebel from a bad one? Lois’s list is a good start at answering that question, but the curious case of Steve Jobs shows, I would argue, how in some cases you as a leader may never be quite sure what kind of heretic you’re dealing with.

Now to be fair to rebels/heretics everywhere, Steve Jobs doesn’t really qualify as a rebel in the way we mean it. Apparently from the very beginning of his corporate/entrepreneurial career, he was at the top of the heap, more or less calling the shots. In fact, it’s quite clear, once you begin to think about entrepreneurs, that being rebellious and restless is one of their essential drivers. One way to think about rebels is as the individuals in your organization who are one or two personality quirks away from being full-fledged entrepreneurs. As a leader, you should consider yourself lucky to have such an asset, if indeed you have a good one.

Which brings us back to Steve Jobs. Here is Lois’s list.

Stories about Steve Jobs suggest that he spent his life hopping back and forth between the pairs. (Confess I haven’t read the biography yet.)

  • Steve Jobs was a complainer….and a creator.
  • He was angry….and passionate.
  • He was me-focused….and mission-focused

Well, you get the point.

For me, the aspect of Steve Jobs character that is most difficult to excuse or explain away, and is implicit in several of the bad rebel characteristics, was his rudeness and meanness to other people. (He pointed fingers at others.) There are many stories to this effect, and my favorite (because it rings so true) is the account that Apple employees worried about being in the same elevator with Jobs for fear they would no longer have a job when the elevator doors opened. Jobs was indeed lucky that he was always the leader of organizations, not their employee, because we all know that such behavior in mere employees is rarely tolerated, and for good reasons.  In fact, it is hard to think of a more poisonous workplace situation than when a weak boss allows a strong but pathological employee to run roughshod over colleagues because she delivers on the mission.

Of course Steve Jobs’ personality did cost him the leadership of Apple during the 1980s, an event that he cited as one of the most important learning experiences of his life. But the occasional account that he mellowed over the past ten years or so just don’t ring true to me. The telling and convincing details just aren’t there. I suspect that Jobs, who reportedly ran through 60 nurses in the hospital before he found 3 he could tolerate, remained a difficult and demanding person all his life. But in the end, almost everyone, including some of the folks he abused, believed he was worth it.

The Rebel as Paradox, then, will pose the greatest challenge to the leader who wants to tap into rebel energy. Intensive coaching might help, but we all know spending disproportionate time and energy on one individual will often unbalance an entire team and/or mission. In the end, the Paradoxical Rebel may just have to move on, willingly or not, and your role as a manager/facilitator may only extend to providing the lesson that he might potentially learn from. His future might lie as an entrepreneur. Or the experience of failure may result in the necessary reflection to adjust behaviors. It is always more effective to reflect on experience than on advice. But in the end, it will always be the responsibility of the Paradoxical Rebel to demonstrate that his ideas are worth the price the organization must pay.

*Addendum:  As I was drafting this blog, I did some research on other great business leaders Steve Jobs might compare to. When you google “Great American Business Leaders” the first hit you get is Harvard Business School’s handy database on American business leaders of the 20th Century. It’s instructive just to scan the lengthy listings, scrolling past names such as Elizabeth Arden, Michael Bloomberg, Henry Ford, Edwin Land–the Polaroid genius whom Steve Jobs greatly admired, Edwin Luce, H. Ross Perot, David Sarnoff, and hundreds of others.

It is a pretty cool database, but you know it could stand some serious rethinking in terms of its categorization scheme. For each leader, several facts are provided: age, company, education. But the two categories that frankly struck me as odd were Race and work background of Father, i.e. skilled worker, small merchant, whatever. Why any institution would use the increasingly discredited “race” category as a discriminator of anything of value is beyond me. (I know Federal Law still mandates its use in many instances (and people increasingly are subverting it by picking other categories) but this database would not be subject to that law.) And the inclusion of the Father’s occupation but not the mother’s is just plain weird and totally inappropriate for today’s society. I do think Harvard Business School could do a little better here.

We’re All in the Same Bathtub

When I was much younger, 34 years ago, I ended up having to take Economics 101, 102 before I could start graduate school. I was in the DC area, poor (in the way college kids are poor, which is different from how struggling families are poor), and so I enrolled at Prince George’s Community College. The professor, whose name I can’t remember, was a smart fellow, an engaging teacher, and clearly quite conservative in his economic and political orientation. It was fun and I learned a lot.

During one afternoon lecture, I remember Prof getting quite excited about how wrong it was for government to promulgate laws and regulations that imposed non-economic costs on businesses. How it messed up the purity of economics, I guess. At the time he was citing examples such as the relatively new requirement for companies to control pollution. Everyone in the class nodded in agreement but I decided I couldn’t let that one go. I raised my hand and noted, based on my not very commanding knowledge of economic history, that over the centuries many different “noneconomic” costs had been imposed on businesses: they couldn’t employ children just to get the cheapest labor; they couldn’t force workers to toil in unhealthy conditions; they couldn’t build cars that were firetraps. In the end, it seemed to me then and it still seems to me now, businesses are just another element in society and culture, and they essentially have no choice but to operate in accordance with whatever the socio-cultural norms are at the time. Being a business doesn’t exempt them, neither does the argument that certain costs are noneconomic. Given that currency itself is a social construct, in the final analysis all costs are noneconomic, or so it seems to me. (I know that last sentence doesn’t really make any sense, but it does accurately convey my thinking (muddy) here.)

The “occupy” events of the past few weeks and the growing discussion of Corporate Social Responsibility have reminded me of that Economics 101 class. I can’t help but think that we keep making silly distinctions about what category things fall into–such as economic vs. noneconomic, domestic vs. international, nature vs. man-made–when the rather obvious reality is: We’re All in the Same Bathtub. The “occupy” protests really are about trying to change the current social norms as they apply to business and profit. My guess is the very act of protesting is already changing those norms, but it is also probably true that the fact the protests are occurring indicates the norms are already changing.

In doing a little research for this post, I found an interesting discussion on this blog about economic and noneconomic costs in society. The following expresses what I’m thinking much better than I ever could:

Donohue-White submits (with very good reason) that every “market economy is shaped by the culture in which it exists, and, in turn, it affects the daily practices and customs of the people that comprise it.” By the rather broad term culture, she means the sum of “customs, traditions, and practices of a people.” In turn, the market exerts an influence on the culture in which it subsists, fostering particular sets of virtues or vices. Market and culture–while certainly conceptually distinct–are inextricably bound up in the concrete, practical affairs of a people. On this view, the market cannot be properly evaluated without recourse to the culture and society that shapes it AND to the impact the market has on this same culture and society. The “economic rationality” exhibited by many contemporary corporations seems to be largely devoid of the consideration of non-economic “costs,” particularly with respect to treatment of workers (wage, outsourcing, lay-offs), wealth accumulation and disregard for local and expansive tradition.

Because we’re all in the same bathtub, the argument that socially responsible behavior is not relevant to corporations or doesn’t make good business sense just falls apart.  US companies for example are already feeling the consequences of our declining education system. They can’t find the highly skilled workers they need, or at least not enough of them. Their transportation costs are rising because of the decaying transportation system. Internationally, I remember people making the argument that Somalia was not worth anyone’s attention, and so we ignored it. Ten years later, Somali pirates over the last two years have cost business $7-12 billion once you count all the related costs.

As automation and internet networks intrude into every line of business, I’m betting these changes will not only cost jobs; they will eventually shrink the size of corporations, including their profits and revenues. I can imagine a day when corporations evolve away from being primarily money-making activities to actually embracing their social responsibilities as one of the fundamental reasons for their existence. Business and government both will become less important organizing concepts for society. At first corporations will embrace greater community involvement as a clever way to market what they do; eventually I think some of these community activities may actually end up generating revenues for them and perhaps creating new types of jobs for the economy. They may no longer be profit-making entities, although they will still make money. Already I think you can see signs of this in the rise of NGO’s and other nonprofits in the world economy. Public Services International notes that NGO’s are now the 8th largest economy in the world, employing more than 19 million paid workers. The US is currently home to about 1.5 million nonprofits, with 30-50K being created every year.

Being in the same bathtub applies to the world economy as well. When the bathwater gets dirty–i.e. during the global financial crisis–everyone suffers. Until we discover sentient (and prosperous) life on other planets, we will have to find a way to make this financial system work, despite its imbalances. There is simply no other place for China, or any other country, to invest its trillions.

One final link. The latest piece in the Harvard Business Review by Rosabeth Moss Kanter powerfully discusses some of these dynamics. Money quote:

Only if leaders think of themselves as builders of social institutions can they master today’s changes and challenges.

On CIA, typewriters, and sensemaking

Check out my guest blog post on IBM’s Smarter Planet blog.  http://asmarterplanet.com/blog/2011/09/10766.html

Turkish Insights

Today is my 8th day in Turkey, a country I had not been to until now. (I’ve had the good fortune to visit much of the world, with the exception of Latin America and Asia, which are underrepresented in my travels.) I had no idea before the trip began that this journey would be such an eye-opener. Turkey is bursting with the new energy coursing through the planet. Unlike the US and the West, which at this moment appear overwhelmed by problems of their own making and undermined by an epic clash in values—particularly in the United States, Turkey strikes you as a country optimistically committed to its future. I know Turkey has problems—after all every society has, but they do not appear to be defeating the optimism of the Turkish people.

Some impressions I’ve made:

Turkey is pointed toward the East and has the opportunity this century to truly optimize its natural position as the connector between the East and the West. I suspect, however, that Turkish businessmen and the Government, if forced to choose, will declare “Go East, young man.” Flying around on Turkish airlines I’ve studied their route map. Today, they fly to 14 destinations in India, China, and the rest of Asia, compared to six destinations in the Americas, 4 in the US, 1 to Canada, and an intriguing connection between Istanbul and Sao Paolo, Brazil. True, Turkish Airlines has an impressive flight network in Europe, flying to nine German cities alone, but this is almost matched by its comprehensive coverage of the ‘stans, other former Soviet Republics, and the Middle East.

Turkey is still traveling on the uphill slope of its potential curve. Turkey is edgy in a good way. Just a short walk on the streets of Istanbul reveals all the cracks and fissures in the society. For example, every possible perspective on the role of women is seen walking on the boulevards: the great majority of women dress Western but head scarves and veils are also common, particularly in Istanbul. But most people on the street seem to be happily exploring how all these different value structures can best fit together, rather than choosing to believe there is a problem. It is altogether common, for example, to see women eating together at a restaurant, dressed in the full range from Vogue magazine to village traditional. I’m not familiar enough with Turkish politics to know if this generosity of acceptance extends fully to their politicians. I suspect that it doesn’t, knowing that politics, at least in the modern era, seem to thrive more on dwelling on problems than on devising solutions. But I can’t imagine Turkish politics has yet sunk to the level of American politicians, who are now fashioning their campaign platforms around our differences.  I’ve asked our tour guides questions, for example, about Turkey’s attitude toward Greece. My questions are dismissed as silly; we’ve grown beyond that. If only the West could learn again how to grow past problems, rather than dwell on them.

Turkey, I think, is not so often discussed when we talk about Islam, politics, and the Muslim religion, but we need to focus on it (and Indonesia) more as we think about how Islam will contribute to the setting of new global norms in the 21st century. Turkey, at least, strikes me as a very positive example. On September 11th, between 8 and 9 am East Coast Time, our tour group was sitting in Suleyman’s mosque in Istanbul, listening to our guide explain Islam. About halfway through the talk, many members of our group made the connection between the date and our context, and I think many of us—but not all—were happier to be in a mosque than to be in the US at that very moment. Turkey’s Islamic identity produces some interesting nuances in its relations with China. The Turks consider the Uigers to be part of the ancestral Turkish nation; the two languages have many similarities. So when we think about how international politics will evolve in the decades to come, one mental model we need to discard is that all situations involving significant differences will involve the US. You can imagine, for example, tensions between a country such as Turkey and China developing over the question of how China treats its Muslim population.

I could list more impressions, at this point all positive. Social media seems to be everywhere, for example. But the bottom line for me and many in our tour group, including veteran financial advisers and investment types, is that Turkey is much more appropriate exemplar for the world today than the US. And that was an impression I had no expectation having when I arrived.

Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Events in Middle East have led me to reflect on the talk I gave in September of last year at the Business Innovation Factory. (You can read the prepared text here or see the video of my speech here)  I was noting how the world is changing and how that in turn requires a different sensemaking method. The key paragraphs:

If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

(A little later in the talk.)  

Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals.

A Political Statement, of Sorts

This morning I wrote back to a friend who had asked me what I was up to these days. This particular friend, whom I haven’t seen in 20 years probably, is very interested in politics of the conservative spectrum and so I wrote a rather long paragraph that connected my interest in social media to my political views, such as they are. After rereading, I’m resposting here. Parentheticals represent text I added here but were not part of my original email response.

“…I have over the years developed a very small brand as a senior government executive who really believes in social media and the need to reconceptualize the concept of work. And let me tell you…I really believe in the transformative power of what these technologies achieve, which is effective connectivity between people, effective enough to let people self-organize to do important things together without the need for government or some other artificial authority. When I was in college 35 years ago it struck me that government was essentially “middleware” in human society–that conviction has never left me–so in that sense I am definitely not a liberal (at least not as it is understood today.) (The idea that government is something humans created to deal with transactions they could not otherwise handle themselves did actually invade my head at some point during my undergraduate years at Catholic University, where I majored in Comparative Government. I couldn’t at all imagine how humans could or what would allow us to thrive without government, but I developed the conviction that we would in fact evolve to this point. In the work context, managers fill that government role, and I similarly think social work, social business, networked work–pick the term you think least inadequate, will change the role of managers. Instead of controlling the work of individuals, they will transition to monitoring the health of the business network.)

(Although this view would seem to place me at the conservative end of the political spectrum), I am extremely turned off by the ethnoracist/xenophobic beliefs of some “conservatives”–not all. Some of the anti-intellectual bent is also a turn-off; I don’t care what they say, Ayn Rand was not the acme of intellectual achievement in the 20th century. I think perhaps I might vote for Carl Reiner, P.G. Wodehouse, or Preston Sturges! I am almost equally turned off by the elitist views of many liberals–not all. So I find myself not really represented by any political party, which would bother me more if it weren’t for the case that I think there are much more important things to spend energy on than partisan politics. My essential political/philosophical conviction is belief/faith/trust that human society still has a lot of upside potential–so in that respect I call myself progressive. I tire very quickly of individuals who have a kneejerk reaction against any new idea. My bias definitely is to be much more tolerant of individuals who are enthusiastic about the new.”

Sex and Money

A couple of weeks ago I began wondering whether same sex marriage was about much more than sexual identity. Was it, instead, one of the early moves in a long process that will gradually reconceptualize human society?

What a crazy thought, I thought! But I parked the idea, on yellow sticky notes, thinking I needed to get back to it and unpack it even more. (At this point I interrupted this blog post to tweet: New ideas squirmy little creatures, difficult to pin down. You’re not even sure you like ’em. You need to catch them to get closer look.)

Three tweets were actually involved in my first feeble attempt to capture the idea:

Wondering if same-sex marriage is about more than just sexual preference. Thinking it could be first step in reconstructing society.

How does human society change if sexual drives and acquisitive desires no longer the key motivational constructs for our lives?

Most religions seek to control sexual drives and acquisitive desires for common good. Sex and greed tend to drive violence.

Then a friend and follower commented, re religion:

Largely by treating women as something akin to evil.

Perhaps a bit harsh, but can’t deny the historical record.

The daunting girth of the idea and the need to find other treatments of it, because I imagine these must exist, also delayed any attempt by me to address it.  And then I realized this morning (or maybe just reconciled myself to accepting as a convenient excuse) that it was highly unlikely I could ever, through my own research or words, do the topic justice.  So what follow are comments I know in fact are incomplete and insufficient.

The Catholic Church, with which I am most familiar, argued last century that agreeing to contraception would eventually lead to a cascading series of social changes that were bad. And they have been proven correct in their causality chain if not their value judgment. Contraception has “led” to abortion, which in turn has led to what Pope John Paul II called the culture of death. People disagree as to whether society today is better or not than it was 100 years ago and more to the point about what “better” is. But the original point the Church was making, that seemingly minor acts of legislation or social change can have major downstream effects, seems unassailable.

The heterosexual family unit has been the building block of most Western societies for some time now. (But interestingly enough not the main building block of many (most?) mammalian social structures, many of which organize themselves into same-sex groups, except during the mating season.) Changes in the composition of that building block unit have already altered society, and same-sex marriage and parental teams seem likely to continue this trend. But what’s most intriguing to me is what a society less organized around concepts of male-female sexual relations would look like. I don’t know and I won’t live to see it, but it intrigues. (It’s not clear to me, by the way, whether same-sex relationships are really that much different from heterosexual ones. Concerning that latter point, this piece three years ago in Time Magazine is thoughtful.)

Are there some early indicators of this shift? The declining birth and marriage rates in most of the West seem to point to something. A few weeks ago the media was amused by the stories of Japanese men’s declining interest in sex, although my Google search shows this story appeared at least seven years ago in USA Today. Finally much is written about the different, more tolerant attitudes of Millenials toward a range of social issues, although I tend to be skeptical about how enduring generational change really is. We “want-to-teach-the-world-to-sing” baby boomers certainly didn’t take a back seat to anyone on acquiring material wealth.

Sex and money–powerful drivers of the modern world. Capitalism is the ultimate expression of a society that organizes itself around money. And yet today, now that a decent interval has passed since the collapse of communism, people are writing seriously again, even in the Harvard Business Review, about whether there is a better set of organizing principles for modern economies. If we can rethink our attitudes around money, can sex be far behind?

We the People

Four tweets I posted this morning in search of a blog:

“About 500 years after government as social institution achieved full operational mode, the socials themselves are having buyers regret.” It’s not easy to assign a date for when modern government began, but the 17th century, with its scientific revolution, the long reign of Louis XIV, and Europe’s expansion in earnest into the Western Hemisphere seems as likely a spot as any. During that century, you still had strong allegiance to the theological justification for government, divine right of kings and all that rot, but philsophers in the 18th century began to react by asserting some essential human rights.

“Governments, i.e. Functionaries, think themselves separate from and above people and groups. Au contraire Govt is below both, their creation.” It’s hard to resist thinking, if you’re a senior Government official, that you have somehow attained a higher level that the average Jane. (I know. I was one of dem for almost ten years!) And without you even realizing really, you begin to treat laws and regulations as if they are the primary source. WHICH IS LIKE REALLY WRONG!! Laws and regulations are secondary and tertiary sources: the primary source in democratic societies is the will of the people. My time in government taught me there really is no such thing as bureaucracy. Instead, what really happens is that we all become Bureaucrats. Bureaucrats worship false Gods.

Even in dictatorshps, government survives in large part on the consent of the governed. The people find it difficult to generate enough willpower and fortitude to overthrow it. (What we saw in Egypt was an inspiring example of what happens when the people do in fact get their Motivation going.) I don’t mean in any way to criticise individuals or blame the victims. I doubt I could be so courageous. But I’m simply repeating what my priest-professor once said in a Catholic University philosophy class: The only way you can be compelled to do anything is if someone physically picks you up and makes you do it. Otherwise everything is coercion, and the success of coercion always correlates to the strength of the will.

“Social networks, computing power allow individuals, groups 2 redress balance of power btw them & institutions of Govt. Trend will continue.” For much of human history, government, once established–even democratically, began to accrete to itself more and more power, in many cases, particularly with 20th-century authoritarian regimes, creating effective monopolies of power. Today, the balance of power is sliding rather
inelegantly but joyfully away from government and toward the Socials, the people and the groups they form. We are only seeing the start of a dynamic that will affect all institutions, even democratic ones and private businesses, that have allowed their actions to wander away from their popular mandates or customers.

“In a sense Govt laws and regulations are like the terms and agreements u receive when u install new software..cept u really can NOT ACCEPT.” As I wrote these tweets I was reminded of the Terms and Agreements you never can read–I mean really who would have the time and power of concentration?–but nevertheless must default accept to install new software. When we join a group we accept similar terms and agreements, except the ones written down are supplemented by unwritten ones you figure out yourself through trial and error, like playing a giant game of Myst. Demonstrations and popular uprisings are not unlike mass selections of the “I do not accept” and “I do not agree” options. To function better as societies, we need to make the “I do not accept”option much less traumatic–by the way, software developers need to do the same for this step to become meaningful again in software deployment. Government and business engagement in social activities and networks and their willingness to adjust in real time and meaningful ways to feedback are the only ways to ease the trauma of rejection.