Category Archives: Rebels/Heretics

Explaining the Worldwide Conspiracy for the Preservation of Mediocrity

(RecoveringFed has been less than robust this past year, in large part because of the push to complete the book by Lois Kelly and me: Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within. largecoverThe good news is that it’s with the publishers–O’Reilly Media–and we’re expecting it to materialize before the end of the year–with luck perhaps even before Thanksgiving. You can pre-order from O’Reilly here and from Amazon here. And now for some new RecoveringFed content!!)

Because the world is generally inhospitable to Rebels at Work, the Worldwide Conspiracy for the Preservation of Mediocrity continues unabated. You can see the conspiracy in operation every time individuals and organizations settle for less than they should. I think most of the members of the Worldwide Conspiracy are unwitting. Oftentimes they believe they’re doing good. They would hate to be called settlers.

Stories torn from recent headlines illustrate how the Worldwide Conspiracy gains its adherents. Like many malevolent forces, the Worldwide Conspiracy sometimes uses innocuous, even noble words to disguise its true goals. Words like Consensus and Career.

For example, the word Consensus pops up frequently in the recent reporting on former Federal Reserve bank examiner Carmen Segarra’s secret taping of workplace conversations. The tapes indicate that the desire for consensus made it difficult to express contrary opinions. Consensus is one of those noble-sounding concepts that are actually not so attractive when you try to implement them. Consensus, by its very nature, is a way to avoid making decisions–a way of settling.

Career ambition is another dynamic that the Worldwide Conspiracy uses to its advantage. Of course, you want to succeed in your career; you want to be a high performer. And we’re told all the time that success in the workplace is as much about relations and emotions as it is about substance. And that’s how the Worldwide Conspiracy begins to capture you. Your desire to remain on some important person’s good side leads you to hesitate when something difficult needs to be said. Whatever you do, you don’t want to ruffle that particular set of feathers.

Formula is another interesting tool of the Worldwide Conspiracy. For the sake of efficiency, tasks are routinized, parameters are set and formulas are established. Staff are rewarded for applying the formula effectively. But the problem with formulas is that from Day One, their alignment with reality begins to slip. As the divergence grows, organizations delay reconfiguring the formula for fear of all the lost productivity and inefficiencies such a process entails. And so the organization settles.

Finally you get Complacency. Everyone becomes comfortable with doing well enough. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” The Worldwide Conspiracy’s most popular slogan. And thus you end up sincerely believing that mediocrity is the practical solution.

I am reminded of Pogo

Rules I Try to Live By

So the idea for this post began last week when a GovLab fellow was telling me that he thought he was finally figuring me out. (GovLab is a leadership development/innovation program I work with at Deloitte Consulting; actually I think of myself as the GovLab Yoda. I was of course interested in anyone willing to talk about me for an extended period of time. Bring it on!) And he said that a phrase he associates with me now is “And another way to look at this is…” This pleased me as I pride myself on being a contrarian thinker–a natural rebel trait. (I was going to edit out the word thinker and just say contrarian but I actually believe there is a difference between a contrarian and a contrarian thinker. A contrarian will say NO to many things; a contrarian thinker just wants to always examine the other side before coming to a conclusion–if indeed a conclusion is appropriate.) (I can tell already this post will contain many parenthetical statements.)

Anyhoo, I said, “Well Yes. I think that’s right. But another thing I’m trying to impart is that…”

1. Nothing is insignificant. My 32-year career as an intelligence analyst taught me, at least, that anything and everything can matter. In the early 1990s I read a book called Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop, which pretty much changed my intellectual life forever. complexity(If indeed it can be said that I have an intellectual life.) The book is an easily-digestible introduction to the principles of Complexity science. What it taught me is that big changes can be started by little things and ever since then I have thought of myself as an Analyst of Little Things.

2. You never run out of bullets. While we’re on lessons drawn from my analyst career, this phrase was told to me by a manager early on in my apprenticeship. He was recounting some work he had done as a young analyst on an insurgent or guerrilla group somewhere in the world. He had figured out, literally, how many bullets this particular group had, how many bullets they used per day, and therefore thought he knew exactly the date when the guerrillas would run out of bullets. My boss’s manager had saved him from this rookie mistake with the sage advice that “You never run out of bullets.” I.E. something will happen, some contingency will occur, that will upend your careful projection. As you can tell I never forgot that piece of advice. A more general and perhaps useful way of rephrasing it is: Linear Projections Ain’t So.

3. Everything stays the same…Until it changes. The last of my analysis-related rules. Change is a slippery rascal. It taunts you with false hope. (Or endless anxiety if you fear the change.) And then, many times when you’re least expecting, it pounces on you like a cat.  (All blog posts benefit from a Cat Gif)

153 cat gif

The world is just chock-full of rulers, practices, conventions, assumptions long past their Best By Dates. (It was even worse 30 years ago I think.) Estimating when the change will occur is pretty much a loser’s game. Even guessing correctly just once will mark you as a genius forever.

This rule also draws upon elements of complexity thinking. Everything looks like it’s staying the same because the change energy is brewing underneath the status quo line. Up until the moment it breaks through, you probably won’t be aware of the change. It’s not unlike how little earthquakes presage huge volcanic eruptions.

Being able to anticipate the imminence of big change is the ultimate test of any analyst, I think. As I said prediction is difficult, but understanding what is brewing below the status quo line should be the goal of every analyst. Always unpack claims that any kind of analysis is right 90% of the time. How much of that number is accounted for by correct predictions of continued stability?

4. The ends never justify the means because rarely do human projects reach their ends. So LIVE your Means. I don’t think this needs much explanation really. Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. Live your principles…all..the…time. 

5. The best thing God made is one day after the other. My grandmother used to say this. My grandmother’s name was Obdulia, but she was better known as Doña Yuya. (A friend of mine enjoyed that name so much that she called her car that.) As I write about my abuela I realize I never once heard her boast about herself.abuela

6. Try to see the humor in everything. It is particularly important to see the “funny” in things that are making you mad, like bureaucracy, or people who aren’t thinking, or the Internal Revenue Service, or our current political system.  (Come to think of it the American political system has zoomed way past humor and is now making a strong bid for absurd.)

7. Everything has meaning. It’s your problem if you don’t appreciate it.

The Ten Habits of Non-Conventional Thinkers

One of the things I do a couple of times a year is lead a discussion on conventional wisdom. It wasn’t my idea to do this. I was asked a few years ago by someone who was teaching a class on intelligence who wanted to hold a session on conventional wisdom. He thought I was the perfect person to lead it. Whatever…

Conventional wisdom is like the monster under the bed for intelligence analysts. We’re all afraid of it but we can’t quite describe what it looks like. Some worry very much that they are actually guilty of it themselves. But we’d rather not talk about it.

I struggled with the assignment because I felt that to talk about conventional wisdom I needed to use examples. Otherwise it wouldn’t be meaningful. But of course my example of conventional wisdom might be someone else’s strongly-held beliefs. I finally hit upon the idea of talking about conventional wisdom in the context of cosmology. If you study the history of man’s understanding of the universe and its origins, you become aware that it is actually the story of conventional wisdoms (plural intentional). The prevailing theory is replaced by a new theory that sooner or later becomes conventional wisdom ripe for replacement by the next new theory. Second verse same as the first.

The lessons I draw could also be reversed and thought of as best practices for people who don’t want to be conventional thinkers. And so here they are. The 10 habits of non-conventional thinkers just in case you want to be one too.

1. Non-conventional thinkers are very suspicious of what anyone says they “know”.  They consider knowledge a pretty slippery character who is largely the creation of whatever sensemaking tools are popular at the moment. When we develop new tools, we develop new knowledge that often topples down all previous architectures of knowledge.

2. Non-conventional thinkers eschew tidy, neat thinking. They like messy ideas. They go looking for them. They are not taken in by common human crutches such as the desire for symmetry.

3. This is hard, but non-conventional thinkers try to avoid falling in love with their ideas. They are mean to them, even abusive. (or at least they should be!)

4. Non-conventional thinkers don’t censor themselves. They try to say out loud or write down everything they’re thinking. I think too many people don’t even offer up the good ideas inside their heads.

5. They talk to and listen to very diverse people. They enjoy reading about ideas that are way out there. Last night on Netflix I watched a fascinating biography of William Burroughs. My Netflix Horoscope right now says I enjoy watching cerebral biographical documentaries.

6. They don’t think much is sacred. Not even Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. It seems like he was also a kind person. But he famously hated the idea of an expanding universe. Because astronomers and physicists were so in awe of him, they tried to explain away for about 20 years data that pointed to a big bang.

7. Non-conventional thinkers love to attack disciplines and ideas that have been static for a long time. They like even better to attack truths.

8. They love to look at things from completely different angles. They want to see the very finest details. They actually prefer to know exactly how things work. Non-conventional thinkers take no perspectives for granted and expect to find an element of truth even in the most outlandish points of view.

9. Non-conventional thinkers like to stimulate their thinking with sillinesses. They will engage in little rituals that fertilize their brains. Today I colored.

10. Non-conventional thinkers never stop looking.

The Rebel Life: Random Observations and Learnings

Please do wander over to for my latest musings on being a corporate rebel. Here’s the link: The Rebel Life

Sentiment and Leadership are a Necessary Partnership, Like Water and Flour

A couple of Sunday morning metaphors, one illuminates why change is hard.  The second is Lessons from a CIA Manager #23: Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough.

I actually just posted some quick words over at on why rebels need to stop advertising themselves as destroyers of the status quo. By making that your focus, you risk confusing the means with the ends. But you can read more about that here.

In that piece I used some garden metaphors to describe the more subtle relationship between forward change and the status quo. And I was reminded of what people say about home remodeling. Builders always say it is easier and cheaper to build a new home from scratch than it is to remodel extensively an existing structure. And they’re right. Making structural changes while retaining that which is good or necessary of what already exists has got to be just about the hardest of organizational activities. But sometimes that’s the only path that’s available to you as a rebel.

  • To build a new business from scratch you have to stop doing the work and providing the services that presumably people still need. A non-starter.
  • To gain enough backing to start making at least some of the necessary changes, you have to take into consideration the views of those who love the organization and its culture in a Billy Joel kind of way or Bruno Mars. Unless you can figure out how to fire them all, or transport them to a parallel universe, you have to make change happen with the talent you already have.

Second Metaphor. Sentiment and Leadership are like mixing Water and Flour in a Dough. Here I was inspired by a tweet this morning in the regular Sunday morning tweetchat #spiritchat .

Too much compassion w/o healthy detachment from another’s processes leads to compassion fatigue #spiritchat

 It’s from Debra Reble. (now that’s a cool last name.) And it reminded me of the difficulty I had in senior positions trying to reconcile the desire to be compassionate with the larger responsibilities of leadership. The last ten years or so of my Agency career I actually had an articulated goal of being MEANER, although a coach I worked with convinced me to think of it as becoming more powerful. (That was helpful.) I thought of it as being less sentimental, not having less compassion. But it’s the same thing. I recognized that my responsibilities to a broader group of people meant I sometimes had to take actions or make decisions that were harmful to an individual, perhaps even someone who was a good friend. (You can justify your actions by saying that you are promoting a greater good, but really, are we that confident of the causality between our actions and desirable outcomes? I’m not.)
But the answer I learned was that you can’t abandon compassion/sentiment. You have to balance them constantly against the demands of management like you need to balance water and flour in a dough. Water makes the dough stickier; flour makes it less so. And anyone who has made any pastry or pizza crust from scratch knows that its’s a process of constant adjustment. There is no school solution. It’s all in knowing the feel of the dough in your hands. And only experience will enable you to translate that tactile feel into knowledge for making better decisions and interventions.
Too much compassion without detachment from your personal attachments leads to decision mistakes.
Too much leadership without compassion for human realities leads to group misery.

Useful Tactics for Rebel Managers

Another redirect to but I’m hopeful I’ll have some new RecoveringFed content up soon. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered why being a rebel is just like being an NFL running back, then read here.

The Tao of Rebel Management

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

The Bearable Discomfort of Rebels

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


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.