Book of the Month: Rebels at work

Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within

By Lois Kelly, Carmen Medina, and Debra Cameron

 I wish I’d read Rebels at Work years ago. It’s aimed at all those who have great ideas and struggle against the complexity and inertia of a big company to get them implemented. It’s about leading change from within a company, getting your ideas heard, building support, and how your personal approach can help (or hinder) the process.

I recognised a lot of the concepts in Rebels at Work, but seeing them put into words and in context gave me many “aha” moments, starting with the matrix of past, present and future thinking. True rebels will be future thinkers while large organisations are likely to exhibit the characteristics of “present thinking” – focusing on organising, rules, structure, processes and reaching goals. This contradiction can lead to frustration for rebels, but the book goes on to give you ideas to address it.

One big lesson the book brings up several times; the timing of launching your big idea. Don’t do it in the first moment you think of it; do your research, and build support first. I’ve seen this go wrong for a number of people who have had great ideas but earnt themselves a reputation of not being serious enough to get things done. I don’t think that’s been a failing of mine – but I have definitely underestimated how much people like the status quo and don’t want to change.

There’s some interesting research throughout the book, the report that got me was the 10% tipping point; research shows that if 10% of a group believe in an idea the majority of the people will adopt that believe.

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One of the strengths of the book is the focus on interpersonal skills, there’s a whole chapter on handling disagreement and conflict. They provide strategies and even sample texts to help change the discussion instead of asking why ask “how might we reduce the risk?”, why forces the argument, how brings people onside.

There is a chapter focusing on “rebel self-care” which talks about the signs of burnout and reminds you that you can walk away, an truth that’s hard to remember when you’re in the middle of change and believe you’re making things better.

Even with this chapter I think the authors underplay how hard the rebel’s role can be and how damaging it can be, I suspect their answer might be “walk away before that happens”.

I got the recommendation for this book via twitter sometime last year, I started reading it then – almost crying with recognition! Then life happened and I was busy with other things, and only came back to finish reading it this month. It’s a great guide for those trying to change companies from the inside, so a big thank you to Luis Suarez.

Critical Mass


Wikipedia defines critical mass as the point when;

a sufficient number of adopters of an innovation in a social system so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth.

When people will adopt depends on where they sit in the adoption lifecycle, and if you’re managing the implementation of a innovation into a company it’s crucial to help each group in their own adoption process. Critical mass is usually said to fall between the early adopters and the early majority, although some research puts it further into the early majority phase.

The five categories can be defined as:

  • innovators – eager to try something new, need little training
  • early adopters – quick to try something new, seek out new experiences, see benefits of the innovation
  • early majority – open to new ideas, will try something if the purpose is clear, influence to colleagues
  • late majority – want proof it works, safety and systems around anything they use,
  • laggards – reluctant to change, sometimes only change because their existing tool is obsolete, or no longer available.

Not everyone is the same type for all innovations I’m an example of someone who can be an early adopter with one innovation and a laggard with another – I joined Linkedin in about 2005, but didn’t get a smart phone until last year.

Critical mass, where the growth in adoption becomes self sustaining, is reached when the early majority start to take up your innovation.

I’m trying to apply this to our implementation of an Enterprise Social Network, we have a total target audience of about 65,000 and so far 45,000 have signed up to use the tool. So that sounds like we’re already into the late majority – job done.

Except signing up is a low impact activity and doesn’t reflect a real use. It just means the person has agreed to the terms and conditions.

So I’ve been looking for some other measurable behaviours which we could consider as a threshold for use.

We see a monthly report on active users. To be considered an active user you need to have done something – anything – in the time frame measured. The activity could be five useful answers to five other users or it could be a comment or a like. So it’s a very broad measure, but by this measure we are into the early majority as of January – just.

We have implemented badges on our enterprise social network and this might give the best measure of where we are on the adoption lifecycle. The lowest level badge, the “starter” badge rewards a low level of activity; a post and a few comments and you’re there. By this measure we’re about to enter the “early adopters” stage. However badges were only introduced 6 months after launch so they under measure the adoption activity.

Looking at all these measures, the data per country, and reviewing how the Enterprise Social Network is used I believe we’re still with the early adopters across the company, but we’re into the early majority in the two countries with the largest numbers of employees. This is huge progress. Now the challenge is to embed this Enterprise Social Network in the company, my real measure of success is when it’s just how we work.

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Work found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DiffusionOfInnovation.png / CC BY-SA 3.0

Change is Challenging

We’re making a very simple change at work; merging our personnel directory site with our enterprise social network.

What does this mean for the user? They’ll be able to search for people using a wider variety of search terms, by putting them all in one search box. The underlying data source is the same so the search results should be the close to the same.

What does this mean for the project team? Solving a myriad of technical issues – from increasing the capacity of the social network platform, to making sure both phone and mobile numbers display. And we’ve encountered a couple of issues that will have to be solved some other way – as they involve tasks that are not related to a social network.

The change will go into effect at the end of this month, given that the directory was the most visited site we started communicating about it back in September. First with key stakeholders and then more widely. The reactions have been interesting – ranging from “yes it’s better” through to “I’ll get used to it” through to “it will be much worse I’ll never find everything”.

We’ve just taken on an extra person as a conversation manager temporarily to help with the increase in questions. When I talked to her about the role I mentioned that some of the people asking questions might be grumpy. She laughed “grumpy people are my specialty”. She may turn out to be our secret weapon in helping people adapt to this change.

It’s a good reminder that in any IT project the challenges are not just technical. Change affects people, and it’s a challenge to help them adapt.

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