For those of you that don’t directly know me, I can have a tendency to cause problems. I like to think of myself as a knowledge worker. That means that I tend to make my living utilizing my brain power as opposed to my muscle power. That also means that when people ask me questions, I (sometimes mistakenly) think that they are asking me to use the sum total of that brain power, experiences, training, and cognitive capabilities to provide what I think is the best response to their queries.
Many times, however, it seems that people who ask me questions are not actually looking for my response. They are looking for their response. They may already have an answer that they like, they just want me to agree with it. Sometimes I do. Many times, I don’t.
My wife, who also happens to be a very smart lady has learned that when she asks me something, the probability is asymptotically close to zero that I will provide her the response that she is looking for. Her solution to this situation has been to stop asking me questions or for my opinions all together. She now just goes ahead and does whatever it was she had already decided was best in the first place.
Sometimes I find out about it later. Many times, I don’t. I am told we are both happier with this arrangement.
In the past, this approach to business has stood me in good stead. I think it was pretty much this way for everyone. If your judgement was good, and you were right more often then you were wrong, you progressed forward. However, as times have changed in business, this approach to answering questions, or taking on assignments, has now led to me sometimes being viewed as something of a rebel in the process driven world.
As I said, initially this classification didn’t bother me, as such. I actually looked upon it with a certain sense of pride. I think part of it was that business and organizational process was still somewhat in its relative infancy as a methodology for management, and part of it was that for the most part I could still get things done. I would examine a problem, create a solution and chart a course for implementing it.
We had a business structure that was built on a Risk – Reward basis. If you had a better way of doing things and had the belief in it such that you put it out in front of the team and defended it, there was a real probability that you might get the opportunity to actually do it.
As the old saying goes: Be careful what you ask for. You might just get it.
If you were right, and you implemented a solution that did improve things, you got the opportunity to continue on your trajectory. On the other hand, if you were wrong, or for whatever reason were unable to implement your solution, it was usually some time before you got another chance to do something new.
As the inexorable tide of process continues to rise within organizations, this approach to career trajectories appears to be a thing of the past. There is less and less room for rebels within a process driven system. There is less and less opportunity, and just as importantly capability, to effect change as the purview of process has continued to grow.
I had been thinking about this dichotomy for a while.
All sorts of quotes and thoughts have come to mind.
Japanese literature has many books about the tragic heroes throughout its history. Those that chose to stay true to their ideals and suffered defeat and paid the ultimate price for doing so. Many are now revered in Japanese society for what they did. Despite knowing that they were fighting a battle that they could not win, they chose to continue to fight.
I respect that. But it is not lost on me that they didn’t win. And they got killed.
If you are interested in reading any of this stuff, there are several books that I would recommend: The Nobility of Failure – Tragic heroes in the history of Japan, by Ivan Morris, Musashi, by Eiji Yoshikawa, and Liam Hearn’s fully fictional Tales of the Otori series are all good.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is an excellent quote from Sam Rayburn. For those of you that don’t know him, he was a U.S. Representative from the 4th District in Texas. He was also the longest serving Speaker of the House in history, serving in that role for seventeen years between 1940 and 1961.
He also has a modern tollway named after him here in the Dallas area. You have to pay if you want to drive on it.
He said: “If you want to get along, you have to go along”.
Spoken like a true politician. I am not so sure if that is a really good way to proceed either, although there do seem to be many today in business that appear to subscribe to it.
I recently came across a quote by Marie Lu, who is a contemporary author of several series of young adult books. I haven’t read any of her books yet, as it is readily apparent that I am somewhat beyond young adulthood at this point. The quote struck such a chord with me that I will probably have to go out and read at least some of her books to see if they can live up to the expectations that this quote has set for me.
She said: “If you want to rebel, rebel from inside the system. That’s much more powerful than rebelling outside the system.”
Corporate organizational and process structures have now become so ingrained from a business and operations standpoint, that it is almost impossible for an individual to step outside of them and be perceived as offering anything constructive or beneficial to the business. Notice that I said almost. People such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Jeff Bezos at Amazon and the late Steven Jobs at Apple all have stood as individual rebels who stepped outside the then corporate norm with great success.
It should also be noted that in order to achieve their ultimate goals that they had to stand so far outside the then corporate norm as to have to create their own new corporations and models. There were precious few if any companies that would have accepted their radical approaches to the business issues that they took on.
They didn’t seem to accept the then standard process. They believed in their own judgement.
However, many of us may not have had the absolute vision or solution on the scale that these rebels did. We may see what is wrong within the organization that we currently find ourselves in. We may see what needs to change in order to improve the business or opportunity that we are in. We face a conundrum. We know the structure or process in question is not optimal. We also know that if we rebel against it, from outside of it, the inertia of the process will more than likely continue in its present direction.
Do we stand by what we believe is correct and rebel (figuratively of course) from outside the process, or do we join the process with the hope and plan on changing it from within?
There are several people who seem to have been credited with the phrase “If you can’t beat them, then join them”. I saw various attributions which included Jim Henson (I don’t seem to remember any Muppet saying this), and Mort Sahl (a comedian from the 1960’s), but both Bartleby.com and the Yale Book of Quotes attribute the quote to Senator James E. Watson of Indiana, with its first appearance in the Atlantic Monthly magazine in February of 1932.
It seems that Marie Lu has put a new spin on a much older idea. The new spin is that Joining the system or the process does not necessarily mean the acquiescence and submission to those principles that it once did. But rather, the only way to now generate effective change for a business process or a system is now from within it.
Again, for those of you who know me, you probably understand how it pains me to say this.
External rebels within a defined business structure and process are probably going to go the way of the previously mentioned Japanese tragic heroes who may have been fighting a good and just battle in the face of insurmountable odds. While they might have been right, they didn’t achieve their goals. They didn’t survive either.
Those that went along in order to get along didn’t achieve their goals either. They may have survived but I’m not sure that really is a preferred existence.
I think the process driven structures of business today are now in such a state that the only way to effect meaningful change to them, is to do so from within them. External influence on a process has a decreasingly small effect on them. That means that you will have to join them. That doesn’t mean total acquiesce and allegiance to them. It just means that going forward in today’s business world, it appears that one of the only ways to change a flawed business process will be from within the process itself.