What's the problem?

Photo by  Marek Okon  on  Unsplash

Photo by Marek Okon on Unsplash

“The secret is to find the important problems and focus on those,” explained Monique Savoie, founding president of the Society for Arts & Technology (SAT) in Montreal, which some call the MIT of Canada (although it is so much more), and a visionary on the interdisciplinary challenges of bridging science, art and technology.

Monique was responding to a Fortune 100 executive’s question about how to better prioritize resources and talent, cultivate more creative, flexible organizational cultures, and attract and keep talent.

While the response may seem simplistic, it is not. Great solutions result from of getting the problem right, and then focusing work on solving that problem. Acting like scientists in challenging our assumptions and then developing and researching hypotheses with the people who might benefit from a new approach.

Solving the right problems, the most important problems, also motivates team members. It is “employee engagement” at its best. Almost all of us want to be working on something that matters.

“What is the most important problem for us to take on?” may be one of the most helpful questions to consider in this annual planning season.

Another wise leader, Meg Wheatley, also urges us to more clearly see what needs to be done and then doing it.

Are You an Optimist or a Pessimist?

Some people want to put us into a category.
Some people only feel good when they know where they fit.

Are you an optimist?
A pessimist?

Really, there’s only one right answer. You have to be an optimist.
Otherwise you’re a drag. No fun to be around. Dr. Death.
And a new term, you’re from the “Doomsphere.”

In the past, we were taught to note our worldview by looking at a glass of water.
Is the glass half empty? Is it half full?

Your answer defines your identity: Gloom and doom or hopeful and great to hang
out with.

What a nonsensical question this is. Is the glass half full or half empty?
Who cares?!

The right question for Warriors is:
Who needs the water and how can we get it to them?
What is the work that needs doing and how can I contribute to making it

No labels. Just seeing clearly what needs to be done and stepping up to do it.

Margaret Wheatley ©2019

Is this the time?

People over Profits.jpg

Budget, planning time

This is the time of year most organizations do planning and budgeting. Are you looped into how to get your idea into the budgeting and approval cycle?

Important for the time being

Brilliant ideas go nowhere unless people in the organization feel the ideas are relevant, important or urgent. Are there signs that this might be the time for your idea? Have you clearly shown why and how the idea supports the 2020 strategic through-line?

Time for a through-line?

Does your organization even have a strategic through-line, a connecting theme that ties together every department’s goals and plans? If not, is this the time to help create one? It may be one of the most helpful and under-used leadership planning practices.

Unlike quantifiable goals, through-lines provide a narrative, human thread that paints a picture of the adventure the organization is taking on for the year. Good through-lines are about 15 words. One way to jumpstart your thinking is to fill in the rest of this sentence: “This is the year we’re going to ……”

An idea for the times

External factors -- like climate change, sustainability, equality, employee wellbeing -- are so vocal and visible that many leaders are asking, “How do we balance profit and humanity?”  If the economic system that puts profit ahead of humanity is not sustainable, what can we do?  If conversations like this are happening, this opens a door for Rebels to step in and propose new ways. Or even propose a way to think about new ways. 

Our Rebel value is not just in our ideas, but in our skills in helping our colleagues think in new ways.

Time for others

 Is this the time to help and support other Rebels in your organization? What might you be able to do, however small or large, to help your teammates make their ideas successful? 

Our Rebel value is not just in the ideas we develop, but in our compassion and generosity helping others with their ideas and projects.

Down time

Would some down time rest that big brain of yours? Would stepping back from relentlessly pushing your ideas help you gain some helpful perspective? Effective Rebels practice self-care – taking walks outside, turning off notifications early in the evening, making time for friends and family, reveling in small pleasures, from seeing a local band to reading a novel or watching a movie.

Disruptive times are fraught with fear and despair for most.

I urge you to rebel against fear and make your possibilities real.

Hold on to optimism.

Create small moments of joy at work. The energy from joy is infectious, positive, and makes the adventure – and its inevitable slogs and organizational land mines – worthwhile.

When we started Rebels at Work 10 years ago Carmen and I said that the world needed Rebels more than ever. Maybe our timing was off. Because now is the time.


Adelante, dear Rebels.

 Lois, co-founder, Rebels at Work

Perseverance loves to party

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After 2.5 hours of an intense 5Rhythms dance training I was about to literally collapse. The music started to slow, and I thought, “Finally, we’re winding down.”

But no.

Our wonderful teacher Heeraa paused the music and told us that in our exhaustion we would dance our best dances. Our judgmental heads were too tired to interfere with how our bodies really wanted to move.

She might have even said something about being too tired to give a shit how we danced. But I may have been hallucinating.

I do clearly remember that she assured us that our best insights come from listening to what our bodies tell us.

Then she cranked up the trance music.

My bossy pants head said, “Stop now, you don’t have to keep up with people 30 or 40 years younger.”

My body said, “C’mon girlfriend, stop playing that age excuse card. Let’s fly around the dance floor. Perseverance loves to party.”

A weird way to up my tenacity

I think I kept going until the end.

That night I felt exhausted and content, kind of peaceful, and maybe numb because not a bone in my 63-year-old body was complaining.

There’s a lot of wisdom from conscious dance practices.

But this weekend I reflected on perseverance, especially as it’s one of my weakest character traits, like a lot of Rebels at Work.

When we persevere, too exhausted for our brains to get all emotionally wound up in situations at work, we often see things and people in new ways.  It’s like those aha moments while we’re dozing off to sleep. We’re not thinking anymore and all of a sudden, a brilliant idea pops.

Or as we’re persevering new people join us. If we care that much to keep going, the least that they can do is help get us/our projects to the finish line.  As my body moved on the dance floor it picked up energy from everyone else. One guy even took me in his arms, and we did a quick little waltz to the drumbeat of trance music.  He gave me new energy.

Most of all, I was reminded that if we practice, we can get better, even at things that we’re not innately good at, which for me is perseverance.

And the payoff of tenacity?

I’m sure there are many. Playing the long game to finish difficult challenges can be especially fulfilling and meaningful.

But for me it was something quite simple and luxurious: my body rewarded me with the soundest sleep I’ve had in years.


Ice maker vs. ice breaker?

Photograph by @Chris_Regg

Photograph by @Chris_Regg

Those HR "ice breakers" for corporate meetings often have the opposite effect.

Instead of helping people get to know one another better and creating an environment of trust for an offsite meeting, they often make people uncomfortable and really anxious.

Then as the ice breaker hits the wrong note, the "oh-don't-take-things-so-seriously" bad boy/girl comments kick in, which makes people feel even worse.

The Charades nightmare

One of my friends was recently promoted to the executive team of a large global company, reporting to the CEO. She's smart, funny, extremely competent and an extrovert.

At her first leadership offsite the HR exec announced that they'd set the stage for the meeting by playing Charades.

My friend's worst nightmare. She hates Charades, for good reason. She's just not very good at it. But here she was, trying to earn credibility with her new peers and having to play Charades.

People laughed and easily guessed one another's phrases. All except my friend's. No one could figure what she was trying to express.

Like she couldn't feel any more humiliated, the CEO said, "Geez, that was awful. You'd think that our marketing head should be good at a communications game."

Forget silly ice breakers, ask a meaningful question

I believe establishing a relaxed, inviting vibe for an offsite meeting is essential. And I've always hated corny ice breakers. The time together at work offsites is so precious, why squander it on silly exercises?

(Except, true confession, I did love learning about some bad Bill Gates behavior during an otherwise bland Two Truths and a Lie ice breaker years ago. Juicy and probably a walk into unprofessional gossip territory.)

My experience is that a good question that helps us understand what's important or valued by our team mates is a far better way to kick things off.

  • Who was your first boss and what did you learn from him/her, good or bad?

  • What excites you about being here?

  • What breaks your heart about work?

  • What most matters to you?

  • Courage has four traits: bravery, honesty, perseverance and enthusiasm. Which one of those traits is your courageous superpower?

Charades can be great fun. But some things shouldn't come to work.

Game of Thrones Reminder: You've Got the Power

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Watching Games of Thrones Sunday I was reminded that we Rebels at Work often have the power we need to act. We don’t have to “get permission” from bosses or the hierarchy within which we work.

Now, back to Winterfell, that cold, dark castle in the north. As the old gang was sitting around the fire and sharing war stories over wine Tormund Giantsband was shocked to learn that Brienne of Tarth wasn’t a “ser” like her male peers. He boasted that he’d make her a knight if he was a king.

Jaimie Lannister chimed in to point out that it doesn’t take a king to make someone a knight.

A knight can make someone a knight.

And then Jamie knighted Brienne. Knight to Knight.

Do we mistakenly tell ourselves we can’t do things that are within our power?

As importantly, are we helping and supporting our peers to claim their power? To act like the Knights they are even though the Kings and Queens have not bestowed fancy titles?

“In the name of the Warrior, I charge you to be brave.”

Creative expression is a different kind of holy

This year I find myself taking photos of gates and windows. Must be a hint to look further and deeper.

This year I find myself taking photos of gates and windows. Must be a hint to look further and deeper.

When forms ask for my religion I write “creative expression and kindness.” 

Which always makes harried receptionists smile.

But my response is thoughtful, not sarcastic.

Kindness is obvious. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” 

Creative expression is a different kind of holy. It’s about caring for our own spirit.

One night in my early 30’s I found myself in a hotel room in London so sick and feverish that I could not move.  Couldn’t get to the bathroom for water. Couldn’t lift the phone to call down to the front desk. This wasn’t flu sick, this was scary high-fever, delirious sick.

As I lay in the twin bed, my pajamas soaked through in sweat,  I started praying with the only part of a prayer I could remember from a childhood without much religious education, “In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

In my haze I had this epiphany, “Oh, the Spirit is me.  I’m praying for my own spirit for help. Not just those other Gods.”

The next morning, I was fine. It was weird. After such a fever I thought I’d be sick for a couple more days. Or at least be exhausted that morning. Nope. Rested, ready to go to work.

That’s when I started to believe in this spirit of mine, and began to explore ways to get to know it better.

The spirit knows

A definition of religion is a “belief in a superhuman power.” For me, my spirit is my superhuman power. It’s not rational and logical like my brain. Yet it gives me pleasure,  heals hurts and helps me figure things out in a way my analytical brain cannot.

The way I tap into that spirit is doing creative things and expressing myself creatively – writing, art, dance, improv, storytelling slams, cooking. And from these small practices I’ve noticed that:

Writing helps us understand.

Art helps us see.

Dance and music help us feel.



Just slam the words down

 When I was living temporarily with my mother as she was dying I wrote a blog post every day to stay sane and track what was happening.  I’d share the daily updates -- some hilarious, some so sad -- with family and friends to keep them posted.  I read them aloud to my mother at night, which opened up beautiful conversations.

During a difficult time in my marriage I took the advice of my writing teacher Ann Randolph: “dare to bare,” and wrote about the time my husband had to give me an enema. Oh boy, did I bare all. In the writing I saw love in a new way. And I realized how my husband’s kindness and selflessness was something uncommon and to be grateful for. 

People often tell me they want to write a book about their life. Most don’t really want to do the work to publish a book. They just need to write down their stories for themselves. To understand what the heck happened.  

Slam down the words. Even just for 10 minutes. That’s all you need.

If you have a good, nonjudgmental friend, ask him or her to listen to you read your words aloud.  Speaking what we write is a way to honor what’s in the words, and often remove some shackles.   For me, that can be more rewarding than publishing a book.

A peek into our subconscious

Visual expression opens other channels, giving us a peek into patterns and subconscious thoughts, much as some people find in dreams.

I take photos of things that capture my attention. Sometimes I mash up photos in collages. Other times I doodle. I always bring hundreds of postcards to my work with executives to give them a more accessible language to express where their organization is stuck and what they want to be able to do.

Every once in a while, I look at my images and wonder what they’re telling me, what they need from me.  Some years the woods call me. This year I’ve noticed photos of gates, windows and doorways.  Time for new possibilities and things to explore and learn?

Let’s dance

But my favorite form of creative expression is dancing. This is from a woman who had been relentlessly teased by family for dancing like a spaz, totally uncoordinated and unable to follow dance steps.

On Sunday mornings I do Journey Dance, which is a form of ecstatic dance.  (Our group reverently calls it Church Dance.)

No rules or dance steps. Just great music and dancing to your own groove. Some mornings my dancing looks more like skipping, twirling, or arms wide open welcoming the world like the opening scene of Maria in “The Sound of Music.” 

I often find myself unexpectedly laughing. This past Sunday tears just crept up and I wept. I am not the type to cry in front of people, even family.  We New Englanders are adept at keeping that emotional stuff tamped down.  But the sadness and anxiety that is very real in my life right now needed a place to show up. 

The music was Seal singing “Both Sides Now” at Joni Mitchell’s 75th birthday special. Turn that up loud, close your eyes, and sway.  Oh, my loving soul.

Creative expression = spirit guidance



Creative expression in all its assorted forms helps us heal, understand and find pleasure in our lives. It is a great gift accessible to all of us, all the time.

We are all creative.

Deeply spiritual.

Full of grace.


I wish you the courage to express you to you.

This year I have the great, great pleasure of designing a program and practices around creative expression for the Antacara Frontiers experience, to be held in Southern France. Here’s information about what promises to be a truly amazing retreat and opportunity to explore.



Meg Wheatley on Sane Leadership in an Insane World


What if you went to work every day knowing that your boss was devoted to helping you and everyone in the organization become more generous, creative, and kind?

That she made sure that the team met quarterly to sit around and think together about problems and opportunities? And that she valued creating a sense of community and contribution in your organization as much as meeting the demanding corporate measures and metrics?

Despite the crazy, destructive world we live in, a work environment that believes in our essential goodness and potential just might make life more bearable. Maybe even joyful on many days.

In an insane world, we need this kind of saner leadership,  explained Margaret “Meg” Wheatley, in a webinar hosted yesterday by the Institute of Coaching. Meg is a teacher, co-founder of The Berkana Institute, and author of many books including the most recent “Who Do We Choose to Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity.” 

(Full disclosure: I have been a Meg Wheatley fan for years; she’s brilliant, kind, generous and oh so creative and prescient about emerging trends and their implications on work.)

Rediscovering generosity, creativity, kindness

“We need leaders who have an unshakeable belief that people can be generous, creative and kind, and who will create the conditions to help people rediscover the basic human qualities of generosity, creativity, community and kindness,” she said. “This is leadership sanity.”

Without this belief, organizations default to bureaucracy, which kills the human spirit and causes us to retreat into self-serving behaviors.

To be able to help others rediscover their capabilities, Meg believes that leaders* today need a spiritual practice to take themselves out of themselves and become more aware of a greater reality. This might be a contemplative practice, meditation or absorption in making art, playing music, participating in sports. Anything that takes us into a zone of life on a grander scale than us and our work.

She also suggests leaders reflect on their own experiences where the best of the human spirit was alive and well. What conditions existed that made that possible?

(*And we’re all leaders if we so choose.)

Other highlights from Meg’s talk:

 For others: Putting service over self and working on behalf of others is the only true fulfillment. The relevant question today is not “What is my purpose or passion?” but rather “How do I serve others based on what the world needs?” Focus on others, not ourselves.

Time tragedy: The greatest tragedy at work is that we’ve lost the time to think. We act from reactivity, not intelligence. Restoring thinking at work is a revolutionary act.

Thinking together: People love having an opportunity to think together.  We feel motivated – and less anxious and fearful -- when we rediscover what thinking and working in community can add to our lives. Leaders need to build in regular time for people to sit around and think together.

Hope addicts: We are a culture addicted to hope. When you bring in hope, you bring in fear because they come from the same source of energy. Organizations are full of fear and anxiety, which generate self-protective behavior, anger, and conflict.  

Expectations: Clarity is the other side of hope and fear. There is often serenity and joy when we clearly see the work that needs to be done and step in to do it without any expectations of failure or success.  It’s work worth doing no matter how it turns out.

Joyfulness: There is a sense of joyfulness when people come together to do work worth doing and have time to think and develop meaningful relationships.


It’s our turn

And I leave you with this from Meg’s book “Turning To One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future”:


“Several years ago, I read of a Buddhist teacher who encouraged people filled with despair over the state of the world. His advice was simple and wise: ‘It’s our turn to help the world.’


“Because a leader is anyone willing to help, we can celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders. Some people ask, ‘Where have all the leaders gone?’  But if we worry that there is a shortage of leaders, we’re just looking in the wrong place, usually at the top of some hierarchy.


Instead we need to look around us, to look locally. And we need to look at ourselves. “

The Commitments: Self-Compassion, Wild Packs, Finding the Good

Choose your wild self by @LoisKelly

Choose your wild self by @LoisKelly

“The most insightful conversations about leadership are not coming from leadership conferences,” I tweeted after reading some uninspiring Tweets about the leadership presentations at the Global Drucker Forum in Vienna.

The irony wasn’t lost on me that I had just wrapped up facilitating a leadership retreat for women executives.  Not a conference. No experts. No thought leaders. (Geez, I hate that term; it’s so 1990s. Just like a lot of assumptions about leadership.)

Instead, it was a time for these CEOs, CFOs, and COOs to reflect, have honest conversations with one another, quietly consider what they might want to let go of, and frankly and often boisterously wonder what they might want to do very differently.

I suspect that perspectives shifted because these women had the courage to go deep into themselves and not simply assess their “performance” from the safe context of titles, labels, board assumptions and financial measures. (Another aside: performance seems like another outdated work word. How about contributions instead?)

I’ve led this type of retreat many times this year, in many parts of the world, for people in many kinds of professional fields and industries. Every individual comes away with different priorities. But three practices especially resonated this year.

 More self-compassion

The first is the need for greater self-compassion.

“I am so, so tough on myself” is a recurring theme. (Especially among women.)

Our drive and ambition often become internal demons. These nasty demons hold our brains hostage, blinding our ability to see clearly and sucking away our positive energy.  We become too self-critical and judgmental.

When we practice self-compassion the demons go away – or at least get quieter --  leaving us with more positive energy and a clearer view of our work, according to Professor Kristin Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

Self-compassion is not self-absorption, self-pity or being selfish. It is simply treating ourselves kindly, as we would treat a good friend.  An interesting research finding I like to share with skeptics: self-critics are less likely to achieve their goals.

Finding the good

The second theme is appreciating what IS working well.

In Positive Psychology there is a practice called “hunting the good stuff,” where you write down three things – however small -- that went well in the day, rather than defaulting to what went wrong.

This daily practice of noticing positive experiences builds gratitude and optimism.  We begin noticing the good more than all the problems that need to be solved. (Side note: The U.S. Army uses this practice as part of its Army Resilience Training.)

In addition to doing this as a personal practice, I suggest teams do this at the end of the week. Everyone simply shares the three good things about her/his work week in your online community or via email. As the week wraps, you see what you collectively have accomplished, which is always more than you realize.

Run with your wild pack

The third practice most leaders commit to is their wild packs.  (Thanks to branding consultant Jeffrey Davis for introducing this phrase to me.)

While most of us have supportive friends in our lives, it’s harder to find those who challenge our thinking and assumptions, inspire us to take risks, urge us to take creative leaps outside our comfort zones. These are the people who stretch us because they care about us. We don’t necessarily get “atta girls” from them, but we get intellectually and creatively challenged. They stir us up in good ways.

Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success, says that disagreeable givers are some of our most valuable colleagues at work.  And, I would suggest, as friends.

"Disagreeable givers are the people who, on the surface, are rough and tough, but ultimately have others' best interests at heart," Grant says. "They are the people who are willing to give you the critical feedback that you don't want to hear--but you need to hear. They play devil's advocate. They challenge the status quo. They ask tough questions.”

The 2019 big commitments: self-compassion, looking for the good every day, and finding more time for people who bring out our wild and wondrous selves.

Wiser, wilder, more joyful

As for me, I’m committing to practices – and people – to help me become wiser, wilder, and more joyful.

I’m also committing to helping people break the cycle of old-boy, alpha leadership so that more people can work in togetherness cultures. Where every voice is heard and valued, and where we respect intent and contribution more than titles and status.

Wishing you a season of joy -- and the courage to commit to one practice that will make you a more brave-hearted, compassionate leader.




Stay in the Swamp

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People are fleeing the swamp of synthesis – that terrible, magical, challenging place where we birth new ideas.  It is a swamp filled with discomfort where we look at our research and the hundreds of Post-It notes on the wall and search for patterns and insights that lead us to the “aha” solution.

In IDEO’s project “mood map” this is the synthesis phase. And as depicted in the map, it is where our spirits are the lowest. This is the hard, hard work of design and problem solving.

IDEO Mood Meter Struggle of creating.jpeg

And because it is so difficult, many of us rush through it. We want to get out of the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty – and the feeling that we may never get it right.

Is this why we “fail fast”?

When we rush this phase and the initiative turns our mediocre or a bust, we have logical reasons to justify the “fail.” Not enough budget for research. Unrealistic deadlines. Customers aren’t ready for that much innovation.

The most popular and ridiculous excuse is putting on the badge of honor of “failing fast.”

I speak at conferences around the world and this year it seems as though every speaker is urging people to fail fast.  Aside from this meme starting to sound trite, I have a hunch that a lot of the fast failing is because we spend too little time in the swamp of synthesis.

The beloved Buddhist monk, teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh has famously written that “suffering is a kind of mud to help the lotus flower of happiness grow. There can be no lotus flower without the mud.”

Similarly, suffering through the synthesis phase of ideation is necessary to grow our ideas. There can be no innovative ideas without wading through the mud in the synthesis swamp.

How long to slog, when to get out?

But how do you stay in the swamp long enough, despite the discomfort, and how do you know when it’s time to get out?  I have no definitive answers here, only observations from facilitating creative teams and doing my own creative work.

First, it’s important that leaders understand the importance of the synthesis swamp and that they need to allow time for this phase. Most are too impatient.

 A CEO once said her company hired me for “creativity on demand.” At first, I was honored by the compliment, but then I realized why the company’s people were so frustrated and exhausted. Creativity on demand is not sustainable, nor is it sufficient for complex problem solving.

Perhaps we need to educate executives on what to expect. Maybe it’s a 30/40/30 model: 30 percent research, 40 percent in the swamp, and 30 percent testing.

My personal challenge when I’m lost in the swamp is beating myself up. “I’m not creative enough. I take on projects that are impossible. Maybe I’m just getting too old for work this intense.”  You get the gist.

Borrowing advice from Jill Bolte Taylor, author of My Stroke of Insight, I speak to my brain as though it’s a group of children, and tell them, “Stop it. You’re making a racket and not being helpful at all. Whining solves nothing.” A little self-compassion and shutting down the “whining children brain” helps me think clearly.

With that clarity, I ask questions like:

·      Are we trying to solve the right problem?

·      Asking the right questions?

·      Looking at the right research? (Often there’s too much.)

·      Have the right people in the swamp with us? (Groupthink often blinds our ability to fully see.)

Call your wild pack

I also call people in my wild pack, those friends and colleagues who are what Adam Grant calls “the disagreeable givers.”  They interrogate my thinking, challenge my assumptions and ask difficult questions that jolt me out of my critical thinking and creative rut.

Like the synthesis swamp, these wild pack friends make me uncomfortable.  And they are invaluable because the stretch my thinking, point out sloppy work, and dare us to take different approaches.  

Most of us have plenty of colleagues in our support pack -- people with compassion and kindness urging us on – and not enough in our wild pack.

When I was writing my first book I asked a well-known author and brilliant and cantankerous consultant to read the first draft. I was in the swamp and knew something was off. He told me that the first two chapters were so boring and ridiculous that he frankly couldn’t stomach reading any more.

I was crushed. And he had done me such a favor. The book eventually won awards, but it could have been a disaster if I had rushed the manuscript to completion.

 Document your time in the swamp

My final observation is to write about your time in the swamp after you’ve once again emerged from wading through the mud, self-doubt and frustration, and developed an excellent new idea.

What helped you stay in it? Who and what helped you get through it? How and when did the “aha” s emerge?  Keep these notes so you can refer to them the next time you’re in that synthesis phase.

And when you’re really stuck, try to extend the deadline, turn everything off, go for long walks, and have your support pack give you a little TLC.

No mud, no lotus.



Dream Teams

One way to shake up a team's thinking is to make sure you have rebels, angelic troublemakers and other distinct and possibly dissenting perspectives as part of the team.

One way to shake up a team's thinking is to make sure you have rebels, angelic troublemakers and other distinct and possibly dissenting perspectives as part of the team.

Teams with diverse viewpoints, approaches to problem solving and life experiences outperform groups of the “best and brightest,” as researchers like University of Michigan’s Scott Page have long shown.

BUT diversity isn’t enough. In fact, diversity can contribute to organizational silence, where people hold back from speaking up and offering their ideas.

Consider the studies by David Maxwell that found 90% of nurses unwilling to speak up to physicians even though they knew a patient might be at risk. Or the 93% of people who said they don’t speak up when they know there’s a risk of an accident of work.

How could they not speak up? Being different is uncomfortable and when we’re uncomfortable we tend to hold back. Especially in cultures that allow abrasive behavior and abusive bosses (and physicians). It’s not safe to dissent, so people don’t.

Diversity also increases conflict, which people abhor. Every time Carmen and I speak and ask people about their greatest challenges when introducing new ideas, conflict tops the list.

“If organizations embrace diversity, they risk workplace conflict,” says Dr. Nigel Bassett-Jones of Oxford-Brookes University. “And if they avoid diversity, they risk loss of competitiveness.”

Add to that the research from Harvard, Berkeley and University of Minnesota that found most corporate diversity programs have “no positive effects in the average workplace” because when employees become scared that they might offend someone, they disengage, which contributes to more organizational silence.

The reality is that our brains are hardwired to want to be with people like ourselves – and naturally fear strangers or the unfamiliar. (Google “xenophobia” and “amygdala.”) That’s why so many of us naturally gravitate to groups, neighborhoods, and work teams with people like ourselves – and avoid the different.

How DO you create Dream Teams?

Dream Teams book cover.jpeg

So how do you create Dream Teams where different people come together, overcome the tension of their differences, and work in open, direct ways that keep you in the magical “Zone of Possibility?”

That’s what Shane Snow explores in his excellent new book, “Dream Teams: Working Together Without Falling Apart.”  Shane is a great storyteller and weaves together fascinating research and stories from music, business, police forces , sports, and the gaming world to provide ways to embrace cognitive friction.

Some of my favorite takeaways:

Cast your teams: “Routine problems don’t require much (or often, any) cognitive diversity, while novel problems benefit from it greatly. Based on that do a casting session for who you need on the team. When  you take this approach we start to think of our differences as gifts.” (HT to Keith Yamashita.)

Bring in more rebels: Having a naysayer in a group shakes up thinking in valuable ways.  “Dissenting views by a minority of individuals stimulate the kinds of thought processes that lead to better decisions, better problem solving and more originality,” per Dr. Charlan Nement of UC Berkeley. The presence of a minority viewpoint helps groups look at issues “on all sides.” In other words, you need people to provoke group think and kick you out of inertia.

Play more: “Neuroscientists have demonstrated that play and laughter can actually change our brains to be less fearful…Playing can physically help the brain to get braver…and make us less afraid of cognitive friction.”

Don’t value your values too much: Shared values make us more likely to think the same, stop searching for better solutions once we have solutions that work, and add to organizational silence. “Seven out of ten American employees in companies with strong values hush up when their opinions are at odds with those of their superiors,” according to research by Warren Bennis at the University of Southern California.

Cultivate intellectual humility “Intellectual humility makes one more correctly judge when it is time to change” and is a predictor for openness to changing important opinions, curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, ability to detect the validity of persuasive arguments. In other words, a more open-minded culture needs people with intellectual humility.

Activate oxytocin and empathy with stories: “When our brains release oxytocin for a person who is not in our in-group, the bias we have for them disappears. And one of the key ways we can do that is through sharing good stories.” This is why it’s so helpful for teams to share their personal stories, from hardships growing up to who in their life helped them achieve a dream.

(Conversely, don't get played by stories and language that is intended to light up your amygdalae. "One of the most effective ways to rally people to do unspeakable things to other humans is to use stoies that take away their humanity and make them the enemy.")

Read more novels: “People who read a book or more per month, the data shows, are significantly more likely to have high intellectual humility than those who rarely read.” Stories cultivate empathy.

I highly recommend Shane’s book. And don’t miss the footnotes.

Facilitators and psychics


I hate telling people that I love facilitating board and leadership team off-sites.

Because most really good sessions lead to uncomfortable situations and conversations. And I have to let people feel that discomfort.

If we move on too quickly and keep things “nicey-nice,” people won’t see the real issues that are causing the discomfort.  More importantly, they won’t feel the issues. Without that emotional disturbance, nothing will change.

Inevitably the executive who hired me gives me a worried look like, “Hey, this meeting is going off the rails. Get it back on track.”

But clients don’t hire me to keep things on track. They hire me to help them figure out obstacles, opportunities, new ways forward.  To find clarity from complexity.

I almost always find that clarity by observing what – or who -- is causing the train to derail. 

In many ways, good facilitators are like psychics.

We see the issues people are avoiding. The assumptions that are blinding them. The big opportunities that they so desire – and yet are so afraid to commit to. We see looming danger. Extraordinary and overlooked talent. Strategic goals that sound brilliant, but people don’t really care about. (Or they’re the wrong people for those goals.)

In other ways, good facilitators are messengers and truth-tellers.

We ask pointed questions to make sure people focus on the real issue at hand.  We tell people what we are observing from their conversations. And, especially uncomfortable for us, we often have to challenge the alphas in the room so that they tune in to what’s really being said.  So that they listen to their colleagues.

So much discomfort, so much clarity

During a recent session the chairman of a non-profit historic preservation group announced out of the blue that he thought the offsite was a big waste of time. Yet what came out of the meeting was a bold, electrifying new vision, grounded in activism, that has transformed a once-stodgy non-profit.

The owners of a $250 million private company wanted to figure out whether they should invest in the company or sell it. “Can our management team take this company to the next level?”  After the offsite meetings with the management team, it was clear to the leaders that they couldn’t. The thrill of building a business was long gone. 

Should we stay private or do an IPO, wondered the founders of a software company. Once we moved beyond the rational discussions about capital and got into how it would feel working with investment banks, institutional investors, and financial media, the founders found their own answer. The privately held, multi-billion enterprise continues to thrive.

Can our Church Council become a creativity and innovation think tank, the Bishop wondered. Can we re-imagine the purpose of the council to do important, new kinds of work?  Apart from the fact that one participant fell asleep during the retreat, the answer was a resounding “No.”   Though they participated respectfully in the day’s exercises and conversations, people simply wanted to come together to hear from the Bishop, share news from different parishes, and take care of Diocesan financial and administrative business. Starting and ending meetings on time was especially important to them. No, these committed churchgoers wouldn’t be the think-tank creativity source.

I’m reluctant to say I love facilitating leadership retreats because it’s such intense, emotionally draining work.  There’s nothing fun about it when people give you the skeptical eye for leading them into difficult conversations or exposing truths that they wish they could avoid.

Or maybe even falling asleep on you.

But I do love facilitating because it helps people see clearly.

Like any good psychic.

(NOTE: some leadership retreats are intended to be relational, others are for learning something new. The ones I’m talking about are for coming together to address a strategic issue or opportunity. When bringing people together, be clear about the purpose.)


Nike: How a Covert Group Forced Change

REBELS Just Do It.jpg

The breaking news of women at Nike revolting and forcing change is a case history in how good Rebels at Work succeed.

First some backstory.

When women at Nike brought their concerns to managers who they were supposed to be able to trust, they were ignored. When they went through formal HR processes to report harassment and unethical behavior by male colleagues, HR also ignored them. While many executives were aware of the problems, they "looked the other way."

So the toxic work environment continued and women were repeatedly passed over for promotions by less qualified men, publicly demeaned and called things like "a stupid bitch," sexually harassed, and excluded from being part of an inner circle of male decision makers. 

But a couple of months a go a small group of women banded together and revolted. Six top executives have resigned in the last month, the brand's reputation is tarnished, and the CEO is under pressure. 

Using "good rebel" practices to revolt

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While our "good rebel/bad rebel" chart is not definitive, it has helped us spread the word over the past eight years on how to make change in large organizations even if you don't have positional authority. Here's a look on how Nike women put some of these practices to use.

Attract support, do it together:  The first rule of all effective change is to not go it alone. But rather create your own Rebel Alliance, just as the women at Nike did.  There is power in numbers.

Overcome reluctance: Like most Rebels, these Nike women revolted reluctantly. They loved Nike enough to tackle an ugly, pervasive problem and a group of powerful men. But there was fear about retribution from male executives and hurting their reputations. Few of us gleefully want to rebel. Rather, it's a duty.

FOR vs. just against: According to Amanda Schebiel, a former Nike employee, "No one went to just complain. We went to make it better." Rebels don't just complain. They want to create solutions to problems that are effecting the success of their organizations and team mates.

Get evidence: to get attention, Rebels find data and proof to back up their claims. The Nike women covertly surveyed their peers about whether they had been the victim of discrimination or harassment. Once the CEO received that survey data, several top executives "resigned." Numbers count. Demonstrating the magnitude of an issue with data helps make the issue real in ways that are more difficult for executives to discount.

Change the rules vs. break the rules: The Nike Rebels didn't want to break any rules. They wanted to create new rules, oversight and diversity commitments that would allow everyone to flourish at Nike, not just the cabal. They wanted Nike to live up to its mission and values.

Rebels forcing companies to address problems

We recommend reading the excellent investigative reporting on the Nike revolt by New York Times writers Julie Creswell, Kevin Draper and Rachel Abrams.

It's a story all too familiar to many Rebels at Work.

And it is a story that reminds us of the power of people who love their company enough to band together, get the data, persevere and be heard.

“The kind of sweeping overhaul that is occurring at Nike is rare in the corporate world, and illustrates how internal pressure from employees is forcing even huge companies to quickly address workplace problems. ”

— "Women at Nike Revolt, Forcing Change At Last," The New York Times, April 29, 2018