The more we understand how things work at work, the more likely we will figure out the best way to get support for our ideas and make them a reality. We can’t change the culture and its associated politics and cultural norms. We can, however, learn the organizational environment well enough to navigate through it to increase our chances of success.
A common rebel mistake is getting so excited about an idea that we blurt it out to colleagues and maybe our bosses, and expect them to say, “Wow. Amazing. Let’s make it happen.” That rarely works, and sometimes backfires. In some organizational cultures, people who do this are labeled as “talking out of their ass” or “ass talkers.” Not pretty or helpful to a rebel’s credibility.
So before you share your ideas with others, spend as much time as you can learning the organizational landscape, as well as all the ways previous reform or innovation efforts failed.
In this chapter, we’ll share ideas for learning:
To be effective, we need to become students of the way the organization actually works (as opposed to the way we wish it might work or think it should work). Especially important is knowing what the organization values (stated or unstated) and how decisions are made.
People in organizations pay attention to what the organization most values. At its most basic, this is about understanding the essential elements of the organization’s culture. To get at what’s most valued, ask yourself questions like:
What’s most valued will guide you in positioning your ideas. Are customers most valued? If so, can you link your idea to customers in some way? Are ideas about administrative issues, such as parking, not valued? If so, is it worth your professional reputation to put a lot of effort into trying to change parking privileges? (Could you frame parking privileges as a customer issue? For example, happier employees will go the extra mile to help customers.) The more you can link with what the organization values, the more likely it is that your idea will be considered.
As part of a much larger creative project for a Melbourne hair products manufacturer, Phil Schlemme pointed out that the company was using 100 percent virgin plastics for all its packaging, which conflicted with the company’s recently defined green initiatives. Here’s Phil’s story.
“On a Monday we held discussions about moving to recycled plastic (which uses 70 percent less energy in the manufacture). There was great resistance from within along the lines of ‘too hard’ and ‘can’t do it now, costs too much.’ I pressed my point that it was a little incongruous to have newly defined vision, mission, and values only to reject movement toward a more sustainable future at the very first hurdle. A long conversation with the plastic bottle and tub manufacturer ensued and issues of supply and quality were raised.
“By Friday of that week, we had working samples and a provisional agreement for 100 percent recycled plastic pellets in the three plastics we needed and the change was made at no extra cost. The toolmaker was also consulted to thin the walls of the packaging without affecting structural performance, thus saving more plastic. One week to dramatically change the direction and performance of the company. Subsequently, we won Gold at the Australian Packaging Awards in the Export Category for our commitment to the environment and were recognized by Sustainability Victoria.”
Take a look at how decisions are made overall. Is the organization surprisingly democratic in its processes and does it value consensus? Or is there a strong executive who has the authority to make command decisions? Does it have many independent power centers or is there more of a traditional hierarchy? Who influences whom?
Knowing this helps determine the people with whom you need to build relationships. As you build those relationships, find out what’s important to those people and their organizations. By doing so, you can connect your ideas to what’s important to those decision makers. For example, if the steering committee that makes decisions about technology is intent on reducing complexity, show how your idea reduces complexity. If HR decision makers are looking to attract a younger demographic, show how your idea will appeal to millennials.
What’s the rhythm and pace of your organization? How long do executives typically serve in their positions? If you work in a government organization, which leadership positions are likely to be affected by a change in administration? Reform efforts can fail when their champions move on to other positions.
It is also important to learn how the money works. When do planning and budget meetings start for the next fiscal year? When is the plan and budget locked down? If planning meetings for the next fiscal year start in July, you probably want to present your idea by June at the latest to get into the July discussions. If you propose your idea in the fall, the chances of it being considered or funded may be minimal. Learn when and how to insert your idea into the timing of decisions, which varies in every organization.
While you’re following the money, pay special attention to how new ideas get funded. Sometimes an organization will have a structured approach to investing in new projects with a formal approval process. In our experience, this can be both good and bad for rebels. It’s good in that the organization at least recognizes the need to refresh its processes on a regular basis, but bad because these innovation and new investment allocations can become political, with favored executives getting funded first at the expense of quality ideas.
You may find that your organization has not set aside a specific investment fund, in which case you will likely have to convince a program manager that your idea needs to be one of his goals. You may need to come up with a way of testing your idea that requires many fewer resources, which is hard! Our experience is that even ideas that don’t appear to require new funding can have hidden costs. Even something as trivial as making a small change in a drop-down menu can end up as a line item on someone else’s budget.
By exploring at least five “why” questions in your analysis, you go deep enough to uncover the real implementation problems for your idea. (By the way, this technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its manufacturing methodologies.)
Another approach is perspective taking: the ability to see things from others’ perspectives. Too many of us run into a dead end because we push ideas forward based on how we see the situation without stopping to consider the decision makers’ viewpoints. Understanding what it’s like to be them can give us clues to how to position our idea—or how likely the idea is to be considered. (This can save you a lot of angst and wasted energy.)
Organizations are made up of people. All change affects people. You may have a strategy that could double sales, cut costs by a third, and win industry admiration. Nonetheless, it still affects people. To be successful, figure out how people feel and what anxieties or fears your idea might provoke, and then factor that into how you frame, socialize, and implement your idea.
Organizations don’t change; people do.
“Leadership” doesn’t say yay or nay to an idea; people do.
The most important part of mastering the organizational landscape is understanding the different types of people who populate it and which relationships are especially important to build. Most of us tend to develop relationships with people we like and who are like us, and avoid people whose views and mind-sets are really different from our own.
But when it comes to creating change, we need to develop relationships with people who can help us or stop us. We’re talking primarily about the people who fall into the category of bureaucrats. They’re pretty much everyone’s favorite people to mock and disparage, but our advice is to invest your energy in better understanding the varying roles that bureaucrats play in organizations. We’ll even go so far as to suggest that befriending some of these bureaucrats could end up being one of the most useful things rebels can do to improve their chances for success.
So, what exactly is a bureaucrat anyway? More than a century ago, Max Weber, one of the fathers of sociology, described a bureaucrat as a person who faithfully uses his judgment and skills in service of a higher authority and who “must sacrifice his personal judgment if it runs counter to his official duties.”
Based on our experience in government and business, we think Weber’s definition is not adequately nuanced. Some bureaucrats are interested in nudging the organization in the right direction, while others are more concerned with completing their to-do lists on time and on budget or even—gasp—advancing their own careers.
Here are four of the most noteworthy types of bureaucrats you’ll encounter (see Figure 4-1).
We use the term bureaucratic black belts (BBBs) to describe people who have mastered their organization’s rules and culture and whose primary motivations appear to be making sure that the organization’s rules are followed and operational integrity is maintained.
If you recall the thinking styles discussed in Chapter 2, BBBs are likely to be strong present thinkers, more motivated by getting things done than by imagining how they could be done better. BBBs are pros at making all sorts of things happen by leveraging the organization’s existing regulations. BBBs hold all kinds of positions, though you will find them most in areas such as legal, finance, HR, customer service, quality management, compliance, and sustainability. If a person’s job involves any sort of regulatory, compliance, product quality, or public-reputation risks, that person is more likely to be a BBB to some degree. Such workers have to be, really. Their responsibility is to make sure things go as planned and to protect the organization from disruptive surprises.
BBBs can be anywhere. We’ve met presidents of ad agencies, heads of sales, leaders of government departments, CEOs, and even heads of innovation strategy who were full-fledged BBBs. Micromanagers are BBBs extraordinaire.
BBBs may consider our creative, intuitive thinking style as flighty, not grounded in what’s needed to run the organization. As defenders of the integrity of the process, they are rightfully and responsibly concerned that the turbulence of a new idea might upset important procedures and norms. This may make them suspicious and skeptical of a rebel’s ideas from the get-go.
Tugboat pilots are often some of the most valuable members of an organization’s leadership team because of their ability to navigate difficult organizational terrain, whether congressional hearings, new leadership, bad publicity, or new administrations. Like mountain goats, their first step, their first bureaucratic response, is always spot-on. They can recall every detail of an organization’s history and leverage it to their advantage.
They differ from BBBs in that their orientation is not conservative, per se. They are motivated not so much by making sure the organization’s rules are followed as by figuring out the best way to get the organization’s mission accomplished. They are much less likely than rebels to imagine significant new approaches, because they value expediency, sound tactics, and near-term results.
Tugboat pilots are masters of context and of reading people. They seem to have recognized early in their careers that their innate skills are suited to guiding others and embrace that mission with enthusiasm. You sometimes see a very experienced tugboat pilot who has been the righthand person of a senior leader for many years. The senior leader is likely to be dynamic and hard-charging and perhaps was once a rebel, and their symbiotic relationship is quite productive. The tugboat pilot is the person who helps turn the leader’s often instinctive insights into policies and processes the rest of the organization can implement.
Because of these characteristics, a relationship with a tugboat pilot can be invaluable to a rebel. Unfortunately, they don’t wear nametags identifying themselves, so we need to do some homework to spot them.
One approach is to talk with people like chiefs of staff and executive assistants. These people can help you identify the tugboat pilots. (They might even end up being the tugboat pilots themselves.) When you connect with tugboat pilots, ask them open-ended questions, such as what makes for a good meeting in the organization or how senior leaders like to receive information. Tugboat pilots pride themselves on holding crisp meetings, so seek their advice before presenting your ideas.
But beware—the instincts of tugboat pilots are likely more conservative than yours. Taking a chance in dangerous waters is just not their style.
Benevolent bureaucrats can slow your progress down, but not because they want to stop you. These kinder, gentler bureaucrats may calculate that your change idea has a chance of winning support from senior leaders, and they want to be associated with the Big Deal in some way. They don’t know enough about your initiative to provide substantive value, so they pick on small things.
For example, HR may step in and say that to succeed you should use its new interactive training methodology and world-class learning platform. Or the former journalist in the marketing department may nitpick language describing the initiative. “Is this really the right word to describe what you’re trying to achieve?” Or the IT people want more meetings to discuss how to establish baseline analytics so that the program measurement will be as accurate as possible.
Before long, you find yourself stuck in a multitude of bureaucratic meetings that can slow project progress to a crawl.
What to do?
Ask the benevolent bureaucrats to give you their recommendations in writing by a certain date (the sooner the better so that you can stay on track and focus on the most important next steps for advancing your initiative). Often they’ll miss the deadline.
Thank them for their ideas and tell them you’ll circle back to them when you think the timing is right to focus on training or wordsmithing or analytics.
By all means, keep going. Don’t let the benevolent bureaucrats’ desire to be somehow involved slow you down.
Your success is about achieving results important to your organization. Going to unnecessary meetings with nice people whose ideas aren’t especially relevant slows down results and success.
Wind surfers are one of the most difficult personality types rebels will find in the organizational landscape. Wind surfers are BBBs with strong personal ambitions who have mastered the organizational landscape—and every angle to ascend the hierarchy. While they may have held convictions about how the organization could improve early in their careers, over time and usually without conscious awareness, their ambitions overcome their desire to improve the organization’s effectiveness.
Of course, they would deny this and insist they are just playing for the right time and opportunity, but the opportunity never seems to come. And in the meantime, their views on what the organization needs to do shift with the prevailing winds of leadership.
The organizational astuteness of wind surfers is prized by more adventurous leaders, who can often use their support to get their own initiatives implemented. Wind surfers are always happy to do the bidding of those above them in the hierarchy but are reluctant to back ideas that come from below. This is why we think rebels should approach such personalities with great caution. You are unlikely to gain a hearing from them. If you do, know that their primary motivation will be to explore how your idea can help them. You might still be able to use their assistance, but do not expect wind surfers to have your back if the rest of the organization begins to resist your ideas.
There are many types of people in the workplace, and it is not our intention to pigeonhole them. On the other hand, we want to share common behaviors of bureaucrats whom we have known as rebels at work. The more we know how things—and people—tend to work, the better the relationships we can develop. From now on, we’ll refer to bureaucrats collectively as BBBs unless there’s a good reason to call out one particular type of bureaucrat.
Is your idea especially important to the organization right now? Do you think it could make a difference? If so, make friends with those individuals in the organization who can help you make it happen. Remember, most people don’t see as far ahead as we do or make the intuitive leaps in connecting how an idea will have a positive ripple effect. They need us to slow down and communicate in ways that make sense to them.
A good first step is getting to know people as people and giving them an opportunity to get to know you. We ask people who take our courses to do this, and they say it is one of the most helpful things that they have done at work in quite a while. Set up lunch dates with BBBs so that you can begin to understand them. In these informal relationship-development conversations, try to learn what it’s like to be them. Put yourself in their place:
As unlikely as it may seem, BBBs and many others in your organization may actually love the way things are and believe the status quo is just as it should be. One of the greatest mistakes rebels can make is failing to understand that many leaders want to preserve what they have because they genuinely believe in it.
Those who oppose ideas for change aren’t stupid or acting only out of self-interest. For many, the changes we advocate strike at the very essence of something they believe in deeply. Understanding this will impact your approach. You are less likely to underestimate those who don’t support you and much more willing to engage in real conservations with them to identify areas for synergy.
One of my favorite jobs was building a public relations division of a respected advertising agency. Our young team did remarkable work, bringing in new clients, developing creative approaches to our profession, attracting national talent, and growing revenue at a faster rate than the advertising side of the business. We felt unstoppable.
Our band of rebels also felt frustrated with the agency’s conservative ownership. So it was thrilling when I started talking with the owners about ways to buy out their ownership. Imagine, I thought, what we could do without these kind yet obstructive benevolent bureaucrats controlling the company.
When we discussed terms of the deal, I was frank about what I thought needed to change. There were too many people working on the advertising side of the business who had not kept up with industry trends and who accepted good enough as good enough. That would have to change. Our business couldn’t grow if we had all this old-thinking baggage.
What I failed to realize is how much the owners valued the loyalty of their long-time employees. To them, loyalty meant more than creativity, even though we were selling creativity. While I was talking about possibilities and change, they talked about stability and job security.
Negotiations broke off, and I left to take another position, reluctantly leaving one of the best teams I had ever worked with. If I had tuned into the owners’ perspectives, I may have been able to position my ideas in ways that scared them less. I could have acknowledged their concerns for their employees and discussed ways to help those people develop. But, as many rebels do, I spent more time thinking about ideas for what the agency could become and not enough time developing relationships with the owners so that they would be comfortable allowing me to implement those ideas.
Developing genuine empathy for those in the organization with bureaucratic tendencies is foundational for building relationships. Tune into their anxieties. We know this can be challenging, especially if you’ve been continually foiled by BBBs, but it’s essential to getting to know them.
Bring this empathy to your conversations, letting people know that you want to understand their perspective. All people want to be seen and to have people understand what it’s like to be them. This is especially true of BBBs, who may have an even more difficult role at work than rebels do. Empathy is likely to ease the tension and will perhaps put BBBs slightly more at ease with you.
Developing these relationships is in essence a negotiating step, and empathy is one of the five core skills in negotiating, according to Robert Fisher and Samuel Williston of the Harvard Negotiation Project. The other four, which are also useful for rebels, are:
This may feel like “sucking up.” It is not. It is acknowledging the humanity of each of us and connecting on that level. Kindness is an incredibly powerful tool for creating relationships and positive change at work.
It’s important not to wing it when going into meetings. Have a goal in mind whenever you have a conversation. What do you want people 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 can be dangerous because we tend to get passionate and excited about what’s possible. Passionate possibilities send warning signals to bureaucrats concerned more about order. “Danger! Danger! This person is not staying inside the lines; he is even talking about painting the lines orange instead of regulation blue. Beware what he is saying. Stop thinking about what he is saying and launch into why this is not possible. Shut him down. Now.”
Preparation for presenting ideas is so important that we devote Chapter 5 to this topic.
One of my best friends at the CIA alerted me when my behavior needed to be toned down. We were both senior managers discussing a new concept: I generated metaphors and analogies that I thought made everything crystal clear but that Peter was at a loss to understand. In a matter of seconds, I was painting a picture of how work could be completely different in five years, while Peter just wanted to know what would be a good first step.
At that point, Peter said, “Carmen, you’re really scary when you get like this.” He was good-natured and we both laughed. But I also understood that I was overwhelming my audience. From then on, I’ve been more aware when I cross my passion threshold. I still love metaphors, for example, but I use them more judiciously. I’ll stop in the middle of a presentation and ask the audience if they’re still with me and if they’re OK, acknowledging my intensity and sometimes getting a laugh in the process.
Lastly, thank people when they are helpful. Recognizing their suggestions—particularly in the company of other people—builds your relationship, acknowledges their status and expertise, and goes a long way in making sure that they leave you alone. Remember, many lifelong inhabitants of the organizational landscape are unlikely to ever fully support you. You just don’t want them to stop you.
It is unlikely that you can win over all the inhabitants of the organizational landscape, particularly BBBs. Your job is to befriend them so they don’t discredit your idea.
These types of positions are different in each organization: special executive assistants, managers of administrative operations, budget officers, chiefs of staff, or office managers. The learning and nuance you gain from these types of “inner workings” positions will prove invaluable for the rest of your career.
Your work in this chapter is foundational to everything else you will do as a rebel. Work through the questions in Appendix A to assess how well you know your organization. This preparation will make it difficult for others to deny the organizational need for your idea, to discredit the idea’s value, or to discount your legitimacy.
 Bureaucrats are everywhere: in government, in large corporations, and even in small companies.