Rules For Radical CIOs: Part 2

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