Thoughts from a Change Agent

Today I recharged my batteries with a few great articles by and videos about Admiral H. G. Rickover, my favorite change agent.

First, I’ll share a clip out of his speech, “Thoughts on Man’s Purpose in Life,” given to various audiences over several years (a benefit of the pre-Internet age).

The task of finding a purpose in life also calls for perseverance. I have seen many young men who rush out into the world with their messages, and when they find out how deaf the world is, they withdraw to wait and save their strength. They believe that after a while they will be able to get up on some little peak from which they can make themselves heard. Each thinks that in a few years he will have gained a standing, and then he can use his power for good. Finally the time comes, and with it a strange discovery: he has lost his horizon of thought. Without perseverance, ambition and a sense of responsibility have evaporated.

My favorite line is “he has lost his horizon of thought.”  Wow! Who would want that fate? Who wouldn’t want to keep those following behind them from falling into the terrible trap of waiting until they are someone before they try to do something?  I don’t know about you, but that line pushes me to re-double my mentoring efforts to keep the spark of thought and action alive in as many minds and hearts as I can touch.

I followed up reading the speech above with watching some great footage of Admiral Rickover being interviewed by Diane Sawyer for 60 minutes.  The video is a quick 16 minutes, but within it you learn a lot about why Admiral Rickover is a great change agent to study if you want to improve your powers of perception. From what he does and what he says he believes, try to pull  the essential “whys” behind his “whats.”  Does that make sense?  He doesn’t tell you why he does things.  He just tells you what he does.  You are left to infer why and through that inference and testing your inference your mind grows.

Watch the video then read the rest of this post, because I want to share a few of the lessons I picked out of the footage, but I’d rather you know what points I’m referencing before you see my explanations of them.

Admiral Rickover. /. 60 Minutes from Paul and Holly on Vimeo.

Some of the lessons for change agents in this video.

1. All change agents, but especially those pushing the limits of technology and challenging an entrenched culture at the same time, require the good will of at least some people in power to protect them and let them work.  Rickover was passed over for promotion by the Navy over and over.  Senators and Congressmen continued to intervene on his behalf.  Rickover cultivated their support, but he did it in a unique way: through results.  He gave them results that were worthy of praise and allowed them to attach their names to his program’s achievements.  When Rickover learned unceremoniously of his forced retirement via his wife hearing about it on the radio, it isn’t surprising that many of his long-time congressional supporters had already either left Congress or were weakened in their power over a new Navy administration.  Without his protection, even his results weren’t enough to keep him in his job.  This model of results mattering for not when protectors leave is repeated over and over again in Gifford Pinchot’s book, “Intrapreneuring.” (It’s worth a read if you’re an internal change agent.)

2. Change agents need to focus on the results they are producing and the benefits of those results to the world.  They shouldn’t focus on what others think of them.  There’s a fabulous book by physicist Richard Feynman, titled “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” that carries forward the same message.  I loved how often Diane Sawyer tested Admiral Rickover to see if he would show some emotional response to others’ impressions of him.  Every time he refused, at times almost seeming confused about why she would bother to ask.  I too often allow what other people think to bother me, so I regularly use Admiral Rickover and Richard Feynman as my mentors in ignoring other people’s opinions.  If you are similarly stricken with a need for everyone to like you, I lend my mentors to you to use as well. They won’t steer you wrong.

3. Your answers don’t matter if the questions are wrong.  If you’re hoping to transform anything, this is a big lesson to learn.  The quality of the questions you ask will determine the quality of the answers you find and if other people are asking dumb questions, then it is incumbent upon you to ask better ones.  Don’t expect anyone else to do it for you.

4.  If you can’t think when things are slightly askew (e.g., an Admiral has sawed off a few inches from the front two legs of your chair) then you can’t think fast enough to solve the essential problems you’ll face if given responsibility over anything that matters.  One of my personal missions in life is to correct all those who have learned the wrong lesson from hearing “Rickover stories,” of the closet and the chair and the pony tail and other challenges to would-be nuclear officers.  Too many people look only at the surface, judge it with their own maliciousness, and presume that Admiral Rickover was drunk on his own power and tormented the men for sport.  How foolish that story is on even quick evaluation of the facts.  Here was a man who took his responsibility over a complex technology very seriously, who gave speeches on living a life of purpose without sloth or waste, and who didn’t care what other people thought.  Why would he waste one moment on such a purposeless act as pure maliciousness?  I find his use of what instruments he had at his disposal in his Washington office ingenious.  Quickly, he could induce a state of partial uncertainty in each candidate and watch their reaction.  If they folded, or defeated themselves, or worse, while being slightly put-off in an office, how could he expect them to act when challenges arose at sea, whether in a submarine or on an aircraft carrier, with a mission to complete and men to lead?  We can all learn from his disciplined purposefulness to make every situation a teaching and testing moment.  Think of how you can quickly test potential candidates to join your team to drive your change.  How can you simulate through a day-to-day situation some of challenges you know they will face while they drive the change?  How did they hold up? Do they need a little time to develop or would you rather not invest in having them on your team?  Your change may not be delivering the first nuclear powered submarine in only five years, but if it matters to you maybe it’s worth trying your own purposeful screening methods.

I could probably go on and on.  My friends do claim I’m obsessive in my admiration for Admiral Rickover.  I’ll stop my points for change agents and close by saying that I hope you are lucky enough in your life of scholarship, of searching for new learning, to find someone from which you can learn as much as Admiral Rickover has taught me.  He’s certainly one of the men that I will seek out in heaven on whatever day I get there.  (That may be one of the few places Admiral Rickover and I disagree.  I believe there is a heaven and I look forward to the day I get to shake his hand and thank him.  I’m better for his example.)

Good night my fellow change agents.  May you grow bold and courageous to live out the purpose of your life.  Why not try?

 

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Limited only by his own ability

There’s a great line in Admiral H. G. Rickover’s “Doing a Job” speech that reads,

In my organization, there are no formal job descriptions or organizational charts. Responsibilities are defined in a general way, so that people are not circumscribed. All are permitted to do as they think best and to go to anyone and anywhere for help. Each person then is limited only by his own ability.”

I keep this quote in the front of my mind and reference it regularly because it is an essential rule of operation for a network based change management system.  You must create the free space for a person to be limited only by his own ability.  Too often, even when we are attempting to free people from the confines of the old system and create the new, one of our first actions to design neat little boxes for people to shift to.  “Here’s your small job. Now wedge yourself into it and follow the rules.”  Blah!

Freedom to move, to talk, to connect, to think.  Freedom is essential to change.

Let’s do our job this week.  Let’s drive change.

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Heroes

We can look up to figures who came before us, call them our heroes, and attempt in our own small measure to model our lives on their examples.  Yet, often we aspire to be like the man or the woman at the peak of their achievement.  I don’t think we do this intentionally, but rather just take them at their most dominant moment because that is often the moment most emphasized or the identity most defined.

But often their true spark of nobility came not when they were at their peak, but when the conditions of their success were still uncertain and they kept moving forward anyway.

Readers of this blog know I have an intellectual crush on Admiral H. G. Rickover, father of the nuclear navy.  Yet, I’ve started to share this fact in a slightly different way.   When asked to list the people I admire (and yes, I am asked this often enough) I have begun to refer to Rickover not as Admiral Rickover but as Captain Rickover instead.

There was a time when he was an officer on the cusp of changing history or failing to achieve anything worth remembering.  In the face of a range of challenges, from indifference to active opposition, he continued toward his goal.  He took the blows, gathered the allies, and made a difference worth making.  I believe Captain Rickover is truly worthy of admiration.  You may disagree, but you are as free to pick your heroes as I am mine.

So, this early Friday morning, led by the example of a rogue Captain on a mission to change the Navy, I arise and return to the fight.  My mission: spreading the belief in everyone that regardless their station in the hierarchy theycan lead us to a better future if only they will try and drive change.

I’m going to try today.  How about you?

Alba in riviera - Riviera Sunrise

Paolo Lottini via Compfight

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Your baby’s ugly

I’ve acquired a new aversion.  I now hate the phrase: “That’s like telling him his baby’s ugly.”

The offending phrase is oft used to encourage you to soften your opinion against another person’s project/position/process/behavior.

The phrase is offered to encourage you to ease up on your loathing of the other’s thing (see list above).  It is hoped (I’m guessing) that in easing up, you will allow the other person to save face and, should the baby truly be ugly, abandon the child gracefully.

Okay, even the act of writing  the phrase’s explanation has made me angry.  This is going to be quite the rant…

Projects/Positions/Processes/Behaviors are not children.  We need to quit pretending that a coworker’s acquired job trappings somehow rise to equal their children.  Let’s leave the anthropomorphism to children’s stories where they belong.

Let’s be blunt.  Some people have firm, emotional attachments to their projects/positions/processes/behaviors yet they are not entitled to maintain their delusions at the organization’s expense.  To suggest otherwise again begs childish indulgences unsuited for organizations staffed by adults.

To cast shame on the person pointing out the flaws in another’s project/position/process/behavior is to attack the messenger.  This tactic has been around so long it’s its own subset of a Latin labeled fallacy, the ad hominem.

All this ranting to say, as clearly as I can:

An organization full of fear about calling ugly projects/positions/processes/behaviors ugly is an organization in the throws of collapse.

Today’s rate of change strips away any residual capacity organizations used to have to waste after preventing hurt feelings.   Being direct and truthful is no longer a nice-to-have organizational feature; it is essential to survival.

We must name the ugly babies.  None of us will survive if we don’t.  Why not try?

————————————————————————

p.s. You’re in good company if you choose to install Name the Ugly Babies methods in your organization.  In “Doing a Job” in 1982, Admiral H. G. Rickover said, “I insist they report the problems they have found directly to me—and in plain English. This provides them unlimited flexibility in subject matter—something that often is not accommodated in highly structured management systems—and a way to communicate their problems and recommendations to me without having them filtered through others.”

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Recycling – Project 1

In last weeks #GCDrive class I touched on a lot of the topics that have been featured as blog posts here.  To aid my new Guiding Coalition members with taking their new topics to heart, I thought I would recycle some of the old posts.

At some point last week I got off on a rant about the essential difference between submitting to:

  • Physics (which is indifferent to your submission or not — submission only has value for you, not for the physics-based system you are trying to control)

and

  • Man-made rules or policies or instructions, which may or may not be documents detailing an accurate way to submit to physics.

Back in February I posted a rant on the same topic, titled “Which Rules to Follow” and cited a story about Admiral Rickover (yes, I have an intellectual crush on him!).  The story goes:

Rickover was keenly aware that there are two kinds of rules.  He understood that laws of nature, such as the effects of gravity, or radiation, or excessive temperature or pressure, cannot be gotten around by fast talk, political influence, or subterfuge.  On the other hand, man-made rules are a different entity.  Some, such as laws passed by legislative bodies, must be obeyed, and he was scrupulous about this.  Others, such as bureaucratic procedures defining how one may carry out assigned responsibilities, sometimes can and should be circumvented, he felt.  In particular, those procedures that “everyone” followed because “it’s just our policy” he not only spurned but did so with great pleasure.” – As told by Theodore Rockwell in The Rickover Effect

Richard Feynman expressed the same sentiment within the Rogers Commission Report on the Challenger disaster when he said,

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

We’d all do well to have that over our desks to keep that truth in our active thoughts each day.

Now, let’s turn to communication:

And, self-preservation while driving change:

Well, that should be enough to keep any new Guiding Coalition member busy and get them poking around the blog to see what topics I’ve already touched that they may have missed.  I hope you enjoyed this recycling project.

Did you know there are 446 posts on this blog?  That’s a lot of content.  One of these days I’ll have to curate it down into an e-book or something.  If you’ve got an preferences for what topics should be featured in the book, drop me a comment.  Right now, that’s still a glimmer in my eye and open to much shifting and parsing.

 

 

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An office without books means…

A home without books is like a room without windows.” – H. G. Rickover

Maybe it’s because I’ve just finished Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, but I’ve begun to notice–more than I ever did before–who does and doesn’t have books featured prominently in their offices.  I know I have a book obsession, so the shelves upon shelves of books stacked upon each other is part mental illness (a good one) and part practical learner.  Yet, what does it say about someone with an office devoid of books?

I don’t have an answer.  It’s just more a curious question.

Your thoughts?

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A profession

To practice a profession one must have acquired mastery of an academic discipline as well as a technique for applying this special knowledge to the problems of everyday life.  A profession is therefore intellectual in content, practical in application.” – H. G. Rickover

There isn’t one accepted profession that seems to appropriately “fit” what it means to be someone who is driving change.  Whatever the profession is or should be called, I can wholeheartedly agree with Admiral Rickover’s statement that a profession is both intellectual and practical.  You need to know something and then you need to do something with that knowledge.

And, if you subscribe to Peter Senge’s description of personal mastery then you won’t read “acquired mastery of an academic discipline” in the narrow sense of “got a degree in X all those years ago,” but rather as a continuous building upon past learning toward greater intellectual mastery which then provides the ideas to carry forward to greater practical mastery in application.  Keep learning.  Keep doing.  You’ll be a professional.

Now, even if other people don’t know what to call you as you drive change, be sure to take the job seriously, and act as a professional anyway.  Study.  Apply.  Study more.  Apply more.  Keep driving.  Keeping winning.  If they have to call you something, let them call you great for all you’ve accomplished.

Join me in the ranks of the professionals.

Why not try?

 

 

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Be not afraid

Via non trita zaginiis traditionis suffocata est; non timere secare (The untrodden path is choked by the weeds of tradition.  Be not afraid to cut through.)”

I love these words and I love the story behind them too.

The words, “be not afraid,” remind me of a favorite Theodore Roosevelt quote which says, “There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first…but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.”

The story behind the quote amplifies its power.  I found this quote, a submitted inscription for a sword actually, while reading The Rickover Effect by Theodore Rockwell.  Apparently Admiral Rickover had been asked by a southern military school to provide an inspirational saying for the student battalion commander’s sword.  Past submitters included Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower.  Admiral Rickover assigned the task to Mr. Rockwell who, with a Latin student, crafted the above saying.

What I find fascinating about the story is that Admiral Rickover allowed a staffer to come up with a saying that he would then take credit for (an act of trust in Mr. Rockwell) and that Mr. Rockwell chose a saying that illuminated an essential philosophy of the early nuclear power program, “Be not afraid to cut through.”

What a gem of a story to find.  I hope it encourages you to “be not afraid” as you cut at the weeds of tradition that continue to choke the untrodden paths.

Let’s hack at the weeds together this week.

Why not try?

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Thursday night video feed

Here’s a good, long string of videos I’ve been watching. I hope you’ll enjoy a few.

Two important lessons to learn.

The story of Admiral Rickover’s tenacity and courage against a bureaucracy to create something great and lasting, as told by a young girl for history day.

Listen for the part about conceptual blending.

And, here’s the Children’s Party story video if you haven’t seen it already.

Now, this video captures why I’ve so enjoyed learning more about Dave Snowden’s work: his interest in pulling patterns from stories. I love to do that in my own low-tech, low-theory way and then share with people what I think the story patterns are saying. I’m truly excited for what I can do if I pair my interest with Snowden’s true skill.

The video is long, but you’ll be hooked within the first few minutes. I had a conversation around the first 50 seconds of this conversation earlier today. Watch at least through the recipe followers versus chef example. If you can get through the first 15 minutes you’ll be stirred to much new thinking and be ready to post comments I’m sure.

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The failed model of executive-led change

I think about things that other people think are odd.  For example, I’ve wondered for years why it is that almost all business books and consulting pitches assume that the reader or receiver of services is an executive (the .01 to .1% of employees of an organization).  That led me to wonder why I, clearly not an executive, was reading all these books or reviewing all these consulting pitches.

Here’s what I’ve come up with: Executives get to okay large book orders or approve massive consulting contracts.  Therefore the books and the services go where the money is. And I, the non-executive, was reading all of this stuff because if you want to read about change management you don’t have any other sources to go to other than these executive-centric tomes.

While the monopoly of the executives continues in books and consulting, its strangle hold on the idea marketplace is relaxing.  Non-executives are connected via Twitter and LinkedIn and name-your-platform like never before.  I don’t need to ask my boss if I may learn from Seth Godin or Daniel Pink or name-your-guy-or-gal today.  I can just follow them digitally, let their ideas fill my mind, and (here’s the important part) act on what my new thinking tells me.

In most organizations, I’d wager a guess that most truly meaningful changes begin at a level far below the executives.  So, for the other 99.99% or even just the other 99.9% of us that toil away in organizations, there must be something that helps us understand how we can make a meaningful, sustained difference in our organization.

The best thing I’ve found to date (though I’m still diligently looking, and taking suggestions for where to look) is the concept of driving change.  Nowhere does driving change presuppose you possess any level of organizationally-offered power.  Instead it starts with the premise that you have power inside you to impact those around you, and if you’d only use it, you could make a difference.

That seems so simple.  So quick.  So it-can’t-possibly-be-enough.  Yet, I really think it is.

Richard Feynman didn’t have to be appointed a great teacher.  He just was one.

Martin Luther King Jr didn’t work his way up the hierarchy of civil rights leaders.  He acted, boldly and in his own way, and people followed.

Heck, one of my heroes, Admiral H. G. Rickover had to be saved by Congress several times from impending forced retirements because the people guarding the ladder in the Navy would rather not have his outcomes (safe, effective nuclear powered vessels) if it meant they didn’t have to be bothered with him.  He didn’t let their failure to  bestow organizational power stop him from achieving what he believed was right and essential for his country.  We remember him as a four-star admiral, but he started driving change long before he wore any stars.

Don’t let business books and consulting sales pitches lull you into thinking that until you’re an executive you can’t make a difference in your organization.  The power to lead, drive, and win change already exists inside you.  Are you bold enough, brave enough, strong enough to let it out?  When (not if) you try, I’m right here with you.

Let’s drive some change together.  I bet you’ll be glad you did.

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