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Rules For Radical CIOs: Part 2

How do Saul Alinsky's rules for activists apply to tech executives? Let us keep counting the ways.

In part one of this two-part series, I laid out the first five of activist Saul Allinky's "Rules for Radicals," changing them slightly to apply to competitors and the business of technology. In this installment I cover rules six through 13.

Rule 6: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy.

This notion is deceptively simple, so I'll focus on a corollary: You need to deepen your relationship with your people. Because you can't know what your people enjoy unless you know your people, unless you get past the tidbits of self-serving associations you make with your two-, three- and four-downs (Bob -- infrastructure, two kids; Priya -- content management, skier; Steve -- governance, alcoholic).

Plenty of management books talk about the importance of listening. But how many broach the topic of caring?

That's the difference between you and that nun at the soup kitchen: You both listen; she cares. And because of that she's a better organizer, probably a better leader and definitely less of a waste of space.

You already know this paragraph but read it anyway. Get to know your people. Have "skip-level" conversations regularly. Flatten your org. The higher up you are in the command, the more valuable your frontline connections will be. Truth gets lost as it travels up the communications chain.

And for God's sake, don't let your handlers treat you like some time-constrained celebrity. How meaningless and demotivating are those forced early-morning breakfast sessions we've all experienced where a dozen "up-and-comers" get to spend an hour eating eggs with the C-level? I can hear your handlers as they whisk you away to your next meeting. "That went really well." "Our employee satisfaction surveys tell us we should have more of these."

What did you ask in those surveys: "Who likes eating eggs?"

Let's keep this simple. If you're not spending a quarter of your time building and strengthening relationships in one-on-ones with people other than your directs, quit your job and join a convent.

Rule 7: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag.

An avalanche takes anywhere from a few seconds to a minute and a half. As the snow travels downhill, the larger pieces of slab disintegrate into increasingly smaller fragments. If the fragments become small enough, the snow takes on the characteristics of a fluid.

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If you're the Yeti who started the avalanche -- or you aspire to be -- you understand implicitly that that fluid state is the aspiration of any social movement, any growing business and (slightly less ambitiously) any IT project.

It is this avalanche principle -- start small and simple and then incrementally grow size and complexity -- that IT project managers should learn from community organizing. It's the psychological underpinning of two of today's most popular methodologies: Eric Reis's lean approach (build-measure-learn) and Steven Blank's focus on minimum viable product.

Projects that start small and divide their deliverables into pieces that don't "drag on too long" better position teams for success. They build confidence through an avalanche of small, visible wins. And that confidence lets the project leader increase the complexity of the deliverables incrementally.

Cleaning graffiti, for instance, kicks off exactly this kind of empowerment cycle. It starts with the powerless, folks who would never imagine challenging "the man." And it gives them a way to achieve small visible victories (i.e., a cleaner, more beautiful, pride-inspiring neighborhood). Organizers then leverage that small burst of confidence into bigger, more complex wins, facilitating an avalanche of community- and confidence-building that ends with an empowered team that successfully challenges City Hall. After that, it's just rinse and repeat to create habits of empowerment.

Before you write off this approach as leftist garbage, think about how powerless most employees feel in large corporate bureaucracies; how perfectly Martin Seligman's description of learned helplessness describes the cubicled masses. It'll hopefully inspire you to follow:

Rule 8: Keep the pressure on.

I'm not a big fan of the Tea Party, a political movement with all the charm and warmth of John Wayne Gacy's clown photo. But they do have one redeeming quality: They are unrelenting.

And even though the Tea Party's leaders equate Alinsky with Lucifer, they use the same book of rules: They keep the pressure on by changing tactics regularly and inserting themselves into every news cycle. How does this translate to technology and leadership? Two words: burning platform. Three more words: You need one.

Pick a fire large and substantive enough that you can weave it thematically through your entire transformation narrative. And then tell that story every chance you get.

Rule 9: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

This rule only works once you've established credibility. The best example is Alinsky's O'Hare Airport stunt. He leaked word that mobs of activists were going to tie up the washrooms at O'Hare Airport, and Chicago quickly agreed to his terms.

In technology, this rule is demonstrated at the industry level by the artful leak. Take, for example, rumors about who AppGooBook is thinking about buying. Those leaks are mostly intentional, so ask yourself: Why are they leaking it? The media savvy understand that the messaging around these investments is meant to 1) put Goliath's large competitors on notice and, sadly 2) issue the subtlest of cease-and-desist letters to similar startups/targets. Regardless of their tenacity, the Davids will be forced into existential heartburn -- "If that Goliath is getting into our space then our days are numbered."

If you're skeptical about that last point, ask yourself this question: If most acquisitions are really talent plays, why wouldn't Mr. Moneybags buy up multiple startups in the same space? There's certainly plenty of talent. And Mr. Moneybags has plenty of money.

The artful leak at the industry level creates a reaction among competitors similar to Chicago's reaction to Alinksy's airport stunt. The threat of the entrant is enough to get everyone spinning, wasting dollars and effort on countermeasures to an illusory menace.

There's also an alternate, more populist application of this rule if you're not in a C-level seat. If you're a change agent in IT and can get past the agitating and actually deliver, repeatedly, you can leverage that credibility to force the internal obstructionists onto your next bandwagon. Why? Because corporate white blood cells are usually career climbers, and nothing is more terrifying to them than not being on a journey that's guaranteed to get to its destination.

So when there's credibility behind the message "we're doing this with or without you," the pathogen wins.

Rule 10: Develop operations that will maintain a constant pressure on your competitors.

Some folks have a hard time differentiating between Rules 8 and 10. Rule 8 is about having several models of cars and switching between them frequently. Rule 10 is about investing in an assembly line.

Picking up where we left off in Rule 1, if you're the legacy application owner who's fixing your broken windows, you simply can't stop after one proof of concept (POC). Your management and/or business stakeholders will write that one act off as a fluke. You must deliver POCs regularly.

Two questions always pop up: Where will I find the time and who will pay for it? Both are great examples of you sabotaging you.

Let me put on my Tony Robbins mask for a sec. (Don't be afraid of the horse teeth.) You can always spin another plate! Building an assembly line of and for POCs advances your agenda, so it should trump at least a dozen deliverables now on your plate.

As for who pays for it, who pays for your daily hour of checking emails? The daily hour of browsing? The hour of nothing between two meetings? The half day when a fire erupts in production?

We all have the Google 20% time, but most of us just flush it down the business-as-usual toilet.

Oh, and a quick note on the Google 20%. It's spin. It didn't start out as some premeditated commitment to innovation. It's a recognition by management that everyone needs a break from his or her day job. And if you're not encouraged to spend that time on something constructive and to the benefit of your employer, you'll spend it browsing.

Rule 11: If you push a negative hard and deep enough, it will break through into its counterside.

The best example of this rule is the global warming "debate." It's in quotes because 97% of active climate scientists agree that the earth is heating up. And yet, because a well-funded group of special interests has pushed the fringe 3% hard and deep, there are nearly no media mentions on the topic without a reference to the skeptics, a testament to Alinsky's chilling effect.

Pun aside, I haven't seen this rule really play out in the tech industry.

Rule 12: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative.

If there's a saving grace to the corporate world, it's that the squeaky wheel with a PowerPoint presentation actually gets the grease -- a chance to present to the 40 beeps who just joined the weekly conference call.

Caffeinate your presentation because I don't know of anyone who doesn't multitask during those calls, and by multitask, I mean completely tune out. Pepper your script with the names of people on the call. That wakes them up.

Ditch the usual slide that predicts more rain. And never propose any work. That's tantamount to asking for silence. Simply let the audience know how you're already building the ark.

Nine times out of 10, you'll get a canned pat on the back. Be prepared for that 10th case, though -- someone who gets it and asks you offline what they can do to help or, better yet, what you'd do if you were queen for a day.

If you're in a leadership position -- and who the hell isn't -- listen for the signs above and reach out to the presenter. Be the 10th case. Listen and care.

Rule 13: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it.

Want to know a secret about all of these columns I write? They start out as emails I write at 2:00 in the morning. I've been writing and deleting them for 20 years.

They're caustic and preachy, grammatical and emotional minefields. And they all have the same target: me.

So there's your Keyser Soze moment. I'm the leader who sometimes lacks the spine, the one who should join a convent, the one who occasionally lacks faith in my team, the one who struggles to get past the lip service about investing in them.

That's my process, the point of getting all my bile out, the point of being as truthful as possible. I want to hold myself accountable, to personalize everything intractable about life and leadership in IT, to form an opinion about the world and how to change it.

Statistician George E. P. Box wrote that "all models are wrong, but some are useful." I'd say the same of opinions.

Hopefully, by presenting my opinions to myself -- and now you -- and by applying what I learned from Alinsky, I'll get a little closer to the answer, or a little more courage to challenge Darth Vader.

In Retrospect

No doubt the 20-year-old me would have condemned the 40-year-old me. But that's OK. Banks aren't the problem. Scale is. Our tendency to demonize banks or oil companies or the government comes from a knee-jerk reaction to scale. Because no one likes to feel powerless.

We also tend to bundle the individual bad actors -- the slick greedsters, the alpha male baboons -- with the millions of good-hearted people who run those companies but live paycheck to paycheck, just trying to pay their mortgages and put their kids through school.

That's why, unlike most of Main Street, I was saddened when Bear Stearns, Lehman and Merrill went down. I had friends on that Death Star. Good people.

As an older Darth Vader, I struggle with whether I'd throw the Emperor off the platform. He and his minions are just as broken as Luke and his. And, oddly, in the same way.

That's why it's possible to apply Alinsky's rules to both sides.

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