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All You Need to Know Is Two Things
The first thing you need to know is that individuals have far more power than ever before in history. One person can change an industry. One person can declare war. One person can reinvent science or politics or technology.
The second thing you need to know is that the only thing holding you back from becoming the kind of person who changes things is this: lack of faith. Faith that you can do it. Faith that it’s worth doing. Faith that failure won’t destroy you.
Our culture works hard to prevent change. We have long had systems and organizations and standards designed to dissuade people from challenging the status quo. We enforce our systems and call whoever is crazy enough to challenge them a heretic. And society enforces the standards by burning its heretics at the stake, either literally or figuratively.
But the world has changed a lot. There are heretics everywhere you look. It’s so asymmetrical that burning heretics isn’t particularly effective any longer. As a result, more and more people—good people, people on a mission, people with ideas that matter—are stepping forward and making a difference.
Just about every system, whether it’s political, financial, or even religious, has become asymmetrical. The process has turned upside down: scale isn’t the same as power; in fact, scale can hurt. We’ve seen this in the war in Iraq as much as we’ve seen it in the war in the soda aisle or in the growth of new religions. In each case, an individual or a small group has the power to turn an existing system on its head.
Now, most of the time, we call heretics leaders.
The heretics are winning. You can (and must) join them.
The Balloon Factory and the Unicorn
I’m not sure you’ve ever visited a balloon factory. Probably not.
The people who work in the balloon factory are timid. Afraid, even. They’re very concerned about pins, needles, and porcupines. They don’t like sudden changes in temperature. Sharp objects are a problem as well.
The balloon factory isn’t really a bad place to work if you rationalize a bit. It’s steady work, with a bit of a rush around New Year’s. The rest of the time it’s quiet and peaceful and not so scary.
Except when the unicorns show up.
At first, the balloon factory folks shush the unicorn and warn him away. That often works. But sometimes, the unicorn ignores them and wanders into the factory anyway.
That’s when everyone runs for cover.
It’s amazingly easy for a unicorn to completely disrupt a balloon factory. That’s because the factory is organized around a single idea, the idea of soft, quiet stability. The unicorn changes all that.
The balloon factory is all about the status quo. And leaders change the status quo.
Leaders Are Generous
In today’s supercharged political (and TV) environment, it’s easy to believe that in order to lead, you need to be an egomaniac, a driven superstar intent on self-glorification and aggrandizement.
In fact, the opposite is nearly always the case.
Leaders who set out to give are more productive than leaders who seek to get. Even more surprising is the fact that the intent of the leader matters. The tribes can sniff out why someone is asking for their attention. Looking out for number one is an attitude, and it’s one that doesn’t pay.
So we have CEOs who sit in cubicles, just like everyone else. We find successful religious leaders who don’t fly by private jet or have a limo waiting for them outside. We watch eighty-four-year-old former president Jimmy Carter building houses for the poor. The benefits to these leaders aren’t monetary or based on status…instead, they get their compensation from watching the tribe thrive.
As the ability to lead a tribe becomes open to more people, it’s interesting to note that those who take that opportunity (and those who succeed most often) are doing it because of what they can do for the tribe, not because of what the tribe can do for them.
Don’t Forget the Big Mac and the Microwave Oven
In 1967, just outside of Pittsburgh, a third-tier McDonald’s franchisee named Jim Delligatti broke the rules and invented a new sandwich. Within a year, the Big Mac was on the menu of McDonald’s restaurants around the world. (They even serve a meatless version in India.) Jim wasn’t focused on managing his franchise at the expense of everything else. Instead, he became a leader. Not blessed with a title or official sanction, Jim led the entire corporation in a new direction.
In 1946, Percy Spencer, a low-ranking engineer at the Raytheon Corporation, was trying to improve radar technology when he accidentally melted a chocolate candy bar. Being pretty smart, Percy realized that he had invented the microwave oven. (Next step: microwave popcorn.) Within decades, the microwave oven was a must-have appliance in almost every American home.
The remarkable thing about these two stories is how rare they are. We keep hearing about the invention of Post-it notes and other apocryphal tales, precisely because there aren’t that many to choose from. For a long time, if you wanted to get something done, you started at the top or you got really lucky. Leverage came from cash and organizational commitment. If Bill Gates or Jack Welch or Lyndon Johnson thought something was a good idea, it was much more likely to get done.
Welcome to the age of leverage. Bottom-up is a really bad way to think about it because there is no bottom. In an era of grassroots change, the top of the pyramid is too far away from where the action is to make much of a difference. It takes too long and it lacks impact. The top isn’t the top anymore because the streets are where the action is.
The new leverage available to everyone means that the status quo is more threatened than ever, and each employee now has the responsibility to change the rules before someone else does.
This isn’t about working your way up to the top by following the rules and then starting down the path of changing your world. Instead, these innovations are examples of leadership, about one heretic, someone with a vision who understood the leverage available, who went ahead and changed things.
A few industries do fine by embracing the status quo. The list is getting shorter every day, though. If you ship oil around the world or sell credit cards or want to get elected village supervisor, you can probably coast for a while longer, embracing the old rules. But not that much longer. It seems that every factory is under pressure: every balloon maker not only fears the unicorn but desperately needs one.
Kellogg’s owns hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cereal factories. They have a well-trained sales force, miles of shelf space, and tons of advertising. So why was Bear Naked able to build a significant business right under their nose? Without expensive factories or a huge sales force, Bear Naked took a very simple, very traditional product and changed the way many people buy their breakfast.
Bear Naked didn’t try to manage a portfolio of assets. They didn’t try to protect the factory (they didn’t have one to protect). Instead, they led the way down a different path, one based on fashion and change and leverage.
Odds are that growth and success are now inextricably linked to breaking the old rules and setting your organization’s new rules loose in an industry too afraid to change.
Chris Sharma is a heretic who climbs rocks.
Chris changed the rules of an entire sport and, along the way, influenced the way tens of thousands of people think about personal achievement.
For hundreds of years, rock climbers followed a simple principle: one foot and one hand on the wall at all times. If you’re anchored with two out of your four limbs, you can do a pretty good Spiderman imitation without risking your life. Right left right left, up you go, little risk, plenty of progress.
Instead of staying glued to the wall, Chris jumps.
It’s called a dyno. Chris didn’t invent the dyno, but he certainly pushed it further than anyone ever expected it could go. Chris can climb routes that were previously deemed impossible. When he gets to a dead end, he looks up and jumps. No legs, no arms. Just air. Straight up, two or three or four feet, grabbing a small clump of rock with two fingers, and continuing his climb.
For a while, this was controversial. It wasn’t right. It was risky. And then, bit by bit, the guys in the factory came around. They discovered that it was a reasonable (but surprising) solution to a large number of rock-climbing problems. Suddenly, impossible routes weren’t impossible any longer.
The guess is, because Chris fits the stereotype of the typical heretic, you’re not convinced. He’s a loner; he’s risking his life and doing absolutely absurd things forty feet over the Mediterranean (and landing on his back in the water on a regular basis). It’s easy to look at Chris and say, “I could never do that.” And you’d be right. You and I will never dyno a 5.14a rock arch.
The lesson isn’t that you need to risk your fingers (not to mention your life) on a rock. The lesson is that one person with a persistent vision can make change happen, whether climbing rocks or delivering services.
Here’s a simple way to think about it: Obe Carrion, former U.S. rock-climbing champion, won a tournament in an unusual way. Obe was one of four finalists, and each had to climb a very difficult route up a steep wall. The first three finalists did the same thing. They entered the roped-off area, inspected the route, and then slowly began climbing, one hold at a time, working their way up to the top. Two made it (with a slip or two); one fell.
Obe was scheduled to go last. He came out of the isolation area, inspected the route, took twenty steps back and he ran up the wall. He didn’t hesitate or interpolate or hedge his bets. He just committed.
It turns out that this was the easiest way up the wall. Leaning into the problem made the problem go away.
Settling is no fun. It’s a malignant habit, a slippery slope that takes you to mediocrity. Managers settle all the time. They don’t really have a choice because there are too many competing priorities.
Heretics don’t settle. They’re not good at that. Managers who are stuck, who compromise to keep things quiet, who battle the bureaucracy every day—they’re the ones who settle. What else can they do?
The art of leadership is understanding what you can’t compromise on.
Fear, Faith, and Religion
People who challenge and then change the status quo do something that’s quite difficult. They overcome the resistance of people they trust, people they work for, people in their community. Every step along the way, it’s far easier to stop and accept the thanks of the balloon factory workers for finally giving up than it is to persist and risk the humiliation of failure.
So why do it?
Faith is the unstated component in the work of a leader and I think faith is underrated.
Paradoxically, religion is vastly overrated.
Faith goes back a long way. Faith leads to hope, and it overcomes fear. Faith gave our ancestors the resilience they needed to deal with the mysteries of the (pre-science) world. Faith is the dividing line between humans and most other species. We have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow, faith that Newton’s laws will continue to govern the way a ball travels, and faith that our time in med school will pay off twenty years from now because society is still going to need doctors.
Chris Sharma is able to do a dyno on a rock face one hundred feet above ground because he has faith that it’ll work out okay. If you watch kids learning how to dyno, you’ll see that the secret to developing the skill isn’t about building their muscles or learning some exotic technique. It is merely about developing the faith that it’ll work. “Merely,” of course, is a huge step. It’s nothing but a few neurons’ worth of faith, just the knowledge that you can do it. But without faith, the leap never works.
Faith is critical to all innovation. Without faith, it’s suicidal to be a leader, to act like a heretic.
Religion, on the other hand, represents a strict set of rules that our fellow humans have overlaid on top of our faith. Religion supports the status quo and encourages us to fit in, not to stand out.
There are countless religions in our lives, not just the capital-R religions like Zoroastrianism or Judaism. There’s the IBM religion of the 1960s, for example, which included workplace protocols, dress codes, and even a precise method for presenting ideas (on an overhead projector). There’s the religion of Broadway, which determines what a musical is supposed to look and feel like. There’s the religion of the MBA, right down to the standard curriculum and perceptions of what is successful (a job at Bain & Company) and what’s sort of flaky (going to work for a brewery).
Religion Works Great When It Amplifies Faith
That’s why human beings invented religion. It’s why we have spiritual religions and cultural religions and corporate religions. Religion gives our faith a little support when it needs it, and it makes it easy for your peers to encourage you to embrace your faith.
Religion at its best is a sort of mantra, a subtle but consistent reminder that belief is okay, and that faith is the way to get where you’re going.
The reason we need to talk about this, though, is that often religion does just the opposite. Religion at its worst reinforces the status quo, often at the expense of our faith. They had a religion at Woolworth’s department store, and sticking, without variation, to the principles that made the store great prevented them from turning it into a new, better kind of experience. The store is long gone, of course.
They have a religion at the country club down the street as well. A set of convictions and rules that is just too hard to change. As a result, an entire generation of professional women won’t join that club, and it’s going to fade and blow away soon.
Challenge Religion and People Wonder if You’re Challenging Their Faith
The reason it’s so difficult to have a considered conversation about religion is that people feel threatened. Not by the implied criticism of the rituals or irrationality of a particular religious practice, but because it feels like criticism of their faith.
Faith, as we’ve seen, is the cornerstone that keeps our organizations together. Faith is the cornerstone of humanity; we can’t live without it. But religion is very different from faith. Religion is just a set of invented protocols, rules to live by (for now). Heretics challenge a given religion, but do it from a very strong foundation of faith. In order to lead, you must challenge the status quo of the religion you’re living under.
Of course, religion and faith go together. You can remind yourself of your faith by wearing the company uniform or uttering the mantra of your current religion. You can embrace the support of the community by showing up at church or at the company picnic and following the rituals of whichever religion is being practiced. Without religion, it’s easier for faith to flag. It’s no wonder that religion has been around forever. It reinforces faith, and we can’t succeed without it.
So successful heretics create their own religions. Fast Company magazine was a new testament for a new religion. It brought together a new group of friends, new supporters, new rituals. The same thing happens at companies that embrace heretical behavior (like IDEO) and at blogs or even at Buck’s restaurant in Silicon Valley or the TED conference or other places where leaders like to hang out. These religions exist for one reason—to reinforce our faith.
You can do this on purpose. You can recognize the need for faith in your idea, you can find the tribe you need to support you, and yes, you can create a new religion around your faith. Steve Jobs did it on purpose at Apple and Phil Knight is famous for doing it at Nike.
Switching Religions Without Giving Up Faith
A recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that about a third of all Americans have left the religion they grew up with. The study mistakenly uses the word faith, but in fact, few of these people have lost faith. What they’ve done instead is change the system they use for reinforcing that faith.
When you fall in love with the system, you lose the ability to grow.
Faith Is What You Do
If religion comprises rules you follow, faith is demonstrated by the actions you take.
When you lead without compensation, when you sacrifice without guarantees, when you take risks because you believe, then you are demonstrating your faith in the tribe and its mission.
Of course it’s difficult. But leaders will tell you that it’s worth it.
A Word for It
Religion and faith are often confused. Someone who opposes faith is called an atheist and widely reviled. But we don’t have a common word for someone who opposes a particular religion.
Heretic will have to do.
If faith is the foundation of a belief system, then religion is the façade and the landscaping. It’s easy to get caught up in the foibles of a corporate culture and the systems that have been built over time, but they have nothing at all to do with the faith that built the system in the first place.
Change is made by people, by leaders who are proud to be called heretics because their faith is never in question.
In the year 1515, the Council of Trent wrote this about heretics: “Finally, all the faithful are commanded not to presume to read or possess any books contrary to the prescriptions of these rules or the prohibition of this list. And if anyone should read or possess books by heretics or writings by any author condemned and prohibited by reason of heresy or suspicion of false teaching, he incurs immediately the sentence of excommunication.” Boy, are you in trouble. Better get rid of this book.
Over-the-Top Underdog Bravery
For about a decade, I’ve carried a coin in my gear bag. It is one of seventy coins I gave to the team I led at Yoyodyne, a company I started. Attached to the coin is a little tag that celebrates our group and our “Over-the-Top Underdog Bravery.” Leadership almost always involves thinking and acting like the underdog. That’s because leaders work to change things, and the people who are winning rarely do.
What we did was (and what you do is) courageous. It requires bravery. Managing doesn’t, and following the rules to make a living doesn’t. It might be hard work, but it feels safe. Changing things—pushing the envelope and creating a future that doesn’t exist yet (at the same time you’re criticized by everyone else)—requires bravery.
And over the top? That’s easy. Ordinary thinking and ordinary effort are almost never enough to generate leadership. That’s because our inclination is to do barely enough. It takes something extraordinary, a call to action that is irresistible, and a cause worth fighting for to make people actually join in.
If you’re not over the top, you’re not going to have any chance at all of making things happen.
The Easiest Thing
The easiest thing is to react.
The second easiest thing is to respond.
But the hardest thing is to initiate.
Reacting, as Zig Ziglar has said, is what your body does when you take the wrong kind of medicine. Reacting is what politicians do all the time. Reacting is intuitive and instinctive and usually dangerous. Managers react.
Responding is a much better alternative. You respond to external stimuli with thoughtful action. Organizations respond to competitive threats. Individuals respond to colleagues or to opportunities. Response is always better than reaction.
But both pale in comparison to initiative. Initiating is really and truly difficult, and that’s what leaders do. They see something others are ignoring and they jump on it. They cause the events that others have to react to. They make change.
Take the Follow
The merits of leadership are so ingrained that it’s natural to say, “I’ll take the lead.”
Sometimes, though, it may make more sense to take the follow. Leading when you don’t know where to go, when you don’t have the commitment or the passion, or worst of all, when you can’t overcome your fear—that sort of leading is worse than none at all.
It takes guts to acknowledge that perhaps this time, right now, you can’t lead. So get out of the way and take the follow instead.
The Difference Between Things That Happen to You and Things You Do
In the old model, things happened to you at work. Factories opened, people were hired. Bosses gave instructions. You got transferred. There were layoffs. You got promoted. Factories closed.
Leaders, on the other hand, don’t have things happen to them. They do things.
In the middle of the mortgage crisis, I spent some time with a few thousand Realtors at their annual convention. What I discovered might surprise you. The group was completely split.
Some of the Realtors saw what the media, Bear Stearns, the banks, and the public were doing to them and to their hard-won careers. They were angry (even bitter) about the end of a long run of increasing housing prices, and they were scared about their futures. These Realtors didn’t know how they were going to cope with what had happened. They wanted to manage their careers, but change was making it impossible.
The other Realtors were palpably excited. They were eager to get to work. They saw the change in the outside world as an opportunity, a chance for them to dramatically increase their business. They knew that the current problems wouldn’t last forever, and they understood that the problems would wipe out the opportunity seekers, leaving the professionals standing. Some 10 or 20 percent of the Realtors were going to quit, and the leaders, the ones who were going to stay, realized that this change was a very good thing. The same way soldiers realize that it’s war that makes generals, these brokers were ready and motivated to use change as a chance to really wreak some havoc on the status quo.
Perhaps you work for Boeing or Monsanto or some other corporate behemoth. It’s more likely, though, that you work for a small organization, perhaps as small as just a few people.
Either way, it’s worth taking a minute to remind yourself of how it used to be.
It used to be that executives had secretaries who had secretaries. That you sent a memo to your boss (and only your boss) and then waited a week or a month for a response. That you didn’t share a new idea with a coworker—the direction of information was preferably down, or sometimes up, then down, but never sideways.
Art Kleiner’s deeply researched classic, The Age of Heretics, tells stories, one after another, of corporate heretics who ended up demoted, fired, disgraced, and unhappy. Corporations might as well have been run by Joseph Stalin—they had unalterable five-year plans, sharply controlled channels of communication, and a royal court surrounding the monarch. Organizations used to be managed, with no place for leaders, no use for heretics.
Growing up, I used to visit my dad’s office. I still remember the sign next to the corporate office men’s room: “No plant workers.” Not only weren’t the skilled and smart lathe operators allowed to use the men’s room in the adjoining office, but they weren’t often invited to share what they knew with their bosses either.
The system was rigid. Kodak, for example, literally kept its workers in the dark, toiling in a pitch-black factory as they made film. While the process required darkness, it didn’t require rigid management or the hoarding of information and power. That just came with the territory.
The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t respond well to a changing world. And it certainly doesn’t do well when information comes in from many directions, from many sources. When everyone you worked with read the Harvard Business Review and the same study from McKinsey, it was easy.
Top management now wants leaders. It wants heretics who will create change before change happens to them. Top management understands that they need followers, that they have to engage the tribe with change and remarkable initiative.
But the rank and file hesitates.
We hesitate because we’ve seen what’s happened before. We’re afraid of failure, of criticism, of making a mistake, and of getting caught. We worry that we’ll lose our jobs if we stop managing and start leading.
The age of leverage changes this, but the fear remains. The old stories of what happened to Joe or Bob or Sue thirty years ago are told over and over. We use them to stoke our fear, to rationalize our desire to hide.
News flash: The heretics not only live to tell about it now; they actually thrive. Jerry Shereshewsky was a heretic at Young & Rubicam, where his brash nature didn’t sit well with the buttoned-down culture of a 1970s advertising agency. No worries. Jerry went on to make a name for himself at BMG and then with me at Yoyodyne, then at Yahoo, and now at a Web start-up called grandparents.com. Quite a career. If he had kept his mouth shut, he’d still be marketing coffeemakers.
Leaders Go First
“Everyone will think it’s stupid!”
“Everyone says it’s impossible.”
Guess what? Everyone works in the balloon factory and everyone is wrong.
The status quo is persistent and resistant. It exists because everyone wants it to. Everyone believes that what they’ve got is probably better than the risk and fear that come with change.
Everyone in the developing world believes that things are going to be the way they were. So when entrepreneurship and technology show up in a village in Kenya, everyone resists.
Everyone at a fading record company believes that the only way to make a living is to own the income stream from selling CDs or digital downloads. So when new business models present themselves, everyone ignores them, or worse, sues.
Everyone at Microsoft believed that the company was invincible and that the piddling search engines and Internet companies in the Valley couldn’t possibly represent a threat. Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, said, “Google’s not a real company. It’s a house of cards.” He also said, “There can’t be any more deep technology in Facebook than what dozens of people could write in a couple of years. That’s for sure.” Over and over, everyone is wrong—unless you believe that innovation can change things, that heretics can break the rules, and that remarkable products and services spread.
If you believe that, then you’re not everyone. Then you’re right.
Watching the Music Business Die
It’s not as if they didn’t see it coming. It took almost a decade for this thriving, hyperprofitable industry to cave in on itself. The reasons are truly simple:
Music industry executives didn’t have the heretic they needed. No one stood up and made change happen.
They forgot to embrace their tribe.
Taking a look at the music business is a useful education for any heretic. It demonstrates how exceedingly intelligent people in a fairly new industry willfully ignored the world around them and hid. Those lessons apply to just about every industry you can imagine.
The first rule the music business failed to understand is that, at least at first, the new thing is rarely as good as the old thing was. If you need the alternative to be better than the status quo from the very start, you’ll never begin.
Soon enough, the new thing will be better than the old thing. But if you wait until then, it’s going to be too late. Feel free to wax nostalgic about the old thing, but don’t fool yourself into believing that it’s going to be here forever. It won’t.
The second rule they missed is that past performance is no guarantee of future success.
Every single industry changes and, eventually, fades. While you may have made money doing something a certain way yesterday, there’s no reason to believe you’ll succeed at it tomorrow.
The music business had a spectacular run alongside the baby boomers. Starting with the Beatles and Dylan, music industry executives kept minting money. The expanded purchasing power of teens, combined with the birth of rock, the invention of the transistor, and changing social mores meant a long, long growth curve.
As a result, the music business built huge systems. They created top-heavy organizations, dedicated superstores, a loss-leader touring industry, extraordinarily high profit margins, MTV, and more. It was a well-greased system, but the key question is: Why did it deserve to last forever?
It didn’t. Yours doesn’t either.
The music business was built around five pillars:
Free radio promotion
A limited number of competing music labels
The high cost of production, requiring musicians to get financing from labels
The Top 40 hits–based focus of the baby boomer generation
A high-margin, nonreproducible medium (the LP)
Notice that none of these five pillars has anything to do with tribes or leadership.
One by one, each of these five pillars has crumbled over the past five years. The result is that while there is still plenty of music, the music business is in trouble.
The innovation: use digital distribution and the Internet like radio, but do it better. Be in the services/souvenir business, instead of suing customers and yearning for the old days. Find thousands of tribes for thousands of musicians and lead them where they want to go.
The best time to change your business model is while you still have momentum.
It’s not so easy for an unknown artist to start from scratch and build a career self-publishing. Not so easy for her to find fans, one at a time, and build an audience. Very, very easy for a record label or a top artist to do so. So the time to jump was yesterday. Too late. Okay, how about today?
The sooner you do it, the more assets and momentum you have to put to work.
Don’t Panic When the New Business Model Isn’t as “Clean” as the Old One
It’s not easy to give up the idea of manufacturing CDs with a 90 percent gross margin and switch to a blended model of concerts and souvenirs, of communities and greeting cards and special events and what feels like gimmicks.
Get over it. It’s the only option if you want to stay in this business. You’re not going to sell a lot of CDs in five years, are you?
If there’s a business here, the first few in will find it; the rest will lose everything.
The industry willfully failed to read the writing on the wall.
Industries don’t die by surprise. It’s not as if you didn’t know it was coming. It’s not as if you didn’t know whom to call (or hire).
What was missing was leadership—an individual (a heretic) ready to describe the future and build the coalitions necessary to get there.
This isn’t about having a great idea (it almost never is). The great ideas are out there, for free, on your neighborhood blog. Nope, this is about taking initiative and making things happen.
The last person to leave the current record business won’t be the smartest, and he won’t be the most successful either. Getting out first and staking out the new territory almost always pays off.
I know it’s hard to believe, but the good old days are yet to happen, even for the music business. The thing is, the guys who ran it in the old days won’t be around when it regroups, because they won’t be welcome.
I define sheepwalking as the outcome of hiring people who have been raised to be obedient and giving them brain-dead jobs and enough fear to keep them in line.
You’ve probably encountered someone who is sheepwalking.
The TSA screener who forces a mom to drink from a bottle of breast milk because any other action is not in the manual. A customer service representative who will happily read aloud a company policy six or seven times but never stop to consider what the policy means. A marketing executive who buys millions of dollars’ worth of TV time even though she knows it’s not working—she does it because her boss told her to.
It’s ironic but not surprising that in our age of increased reliance on new ideas, rapid change, and innovation, sheepwalking is actually on the rise. That’s because we can no longer rely on machines to do the brain-dead stuff.
We’ve mechanized what we could mechanize. What’s left is to cost-reduce the manual labor that must be done by a human. So we write manuals and race to the bottom in our search for the cheapest possible labor. And it’s not surprising that when we go to hire that labor, we search for people who have already been trained to be sheeplike.
Training a student to be a sheep is a lot easier than the alternative. Teaching to the test, ensuring compliant behavior, and using fear as a motivator are the easiest and fastest ways to get a kid through school. So why does it surprise us that we graduate so many sheep?
And graduate school? Because the stakes are higher (opportunity, cost, tuition, and the job market), students fall back on what they’ve been taught: to be sheep. Well-educated sheep, of course, but compliant nonetheless.
And many organizations go out of their way to hire people who color inside the lines, who demonstrate consistency and compliance. And then these organizations give these people jobs where they are managed via fear. Which leads to sheepwalking (“I might get fired!”).
The fault doesn’t lie with the employee, at least not at first. And of course, the pain is often borne by both the employee and the customer.
Is it less efficient to pursue the alternative? What happens when you build an organization that’s flat and open and treats employees with respect? What happens when you expect a lot and trust the people you work with? At first, it seems crazy. There’s too much overhead, too little predictability, and way too much noise. This isn’t the top-down model of the factory, or the king and his court. It’s chaos. It’s easy to reject out of hand.
Then, over and over, we see something happen. When you hire amazing people and give them freedom, they do amazing stuff. And the sheepwalkers and their bosses watch and shake their heads, certain that this is an exception and that it is way too risky for their industry or their customer base.
I was at a Google conference last month, and I spent some time in a room filled with (pretty newly minted) Google sales reps. I talked to a few of them for a while about the state of the industry. And it broke my heart to discover that they were sheepwalking.
Consider the receptionist at a publishing company I visited a week later. There she was, doing nothing. Sitting at a desk, minding her own business, bored out of her skull. She acknowledged that the front office is very slow and that she just sits there, reading romance novels and waiting. And she’s been doing it for two years.
Or consider the MBA student I met yesterday who is taking a job at a major packaged-goods company because they offered her a great salary and promised her a well-known brand. She’s going to stay “for just ten years, then have a baby and leave and start my own gig.” She’ll get really good at running coupons in the Sunday paper, but not particularly good at solving new problems.
What a waste.
Step one is to give the problem a name. Sheepwalking. Done.
Step two is for those of you who see yourself in this mirror to realize that you can always stop. You can always claim the career you deserve merely by refusing to walk down the same path as everyone else just because everyone else is already doing it.
The biggest step, though, comes from anyone who teaches or hires. And that’s to embrace nonsheep behavior, to reward it and cherish it. As we’ve seen, just about everywhere there’s been growth lately is where the good stuff happens.
(I just reread these paragraphs, and I’m betting some people will think I’m being way too harsh. That depends. It depends on whether you believe that people have a considerable amount of innate potential, that work is too time consuming to be dull, and that organizations need passion (from employees and from customers) if they want to grow into tribes and movements. It depends on whether you believe that the relationship between marketers and the people they touch is important enough to invest in. I think if you believe all that, if you believe in yourself and your coworkers, then this isn’t nearly harsh enough. We need to hurry. We need to wake up.)
How Was Your Day?
It’s four a.m. and I can’t sleep. So I’m sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Jamaica, checking my e-mail.
A couple walks by, obviously on their way to bed, having pushed the idea of vacation a little too hard. The woman looks over to me and, in a harsh whisper a little quieter than a yell, says to her friend, “Isn’t that sad? That guy comes here on vacation and he’s stuck checking his e-mail. He can’t even enjoy his two weeks off.” I think the real question—the one they probably wouldn’t want to answer—was, “Isn’t it sad that we have a job where we spend two weeks avoiding the stuff we have to do fifty weeks a year?” It took me a long time to figure out why I was so happy to be checking my e-mail in the middle of the night. It had to do with passion. Other than sleeping, there was nothing I’d rather have been doing in that moment—because I’m lucky enough to have a job where I get to make change happen. Even though I don’t have many people working for me, I’m in the business of leading people, taking them somewhere we want to go.
On the other hand, most people have jobs (for now) where they fight change, where they work overtime to defend the status quo. It’s exhausting. Maintaining a system in the face of change will grind you down.
Think for a second about the people you know who are engaged, satisfied, eager to get to work. Most of them, I’ll bet, make change. They challenge the status quo and push something forward—something they believe in. They lead.
“Life’s too short” is repeated often enough to be a cliché, but this time it’s true. You don’t have enough time to be both unhappy and mediocre. It’s not just pointless, it’s painful. Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you ought to set up a life you don’t need to escape from.
The amazing thing is that not only is this sort of life easier to set up than ever before, but it’s also more likely to make you successful. And happy. So how was your day?
The Thermometer and the Thermostat
A thermostat is far more valuable than a thermometer.
The thermometer reveals that something is broken. The thermometer is an indicator, our canary in the coal mine. Thermometers tell us when we’re spending too much or gaining market share or not answering the phone quickly enough. Organizations are filled with human thermometers. They can criticize or point out or just whine.
The thermostat, on the other hand, manages to change the environment in sync with the outside world. Every organization needs at least one thermostat. These are leaders who can create change in response to the outside world, and do it consistently over time.
This is the heart of the matter: every leader cares for and supports a movement. A movement like the free speech movement at Berkeley or the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square or the civil rights movement in Mississippi. Or maybe a movement like the obsession with hand-roasted coffee in Brooklyn or the worldwide collection of people obsessed with tattoos.
Today, you can have a narrow movement, a tiny movement, a movement in a silo. Your movement can be known by ten or twenty or a thousand people, people in your community or people around the world. And most often, it can be the people you work with or for, or those who work for you.
The Web connects people. That’s what it does. And movements take connected people and make change.
What marketers and organizers and people who care are discovering is that they can ignite a micromovement and then be propelled by the people who choose to follow it.
The key elements in creating a micromovement consist of five things to do and six principles:
- Publish a manifesto.
Give it away and make it easy for the manifesto to spread far and wide. It doesn’t have to be printed or even written. But it’s a mantra and a motto and a way of looking at the world. It unites your tribe members and gives them a structure.
- Make it easy for your followers to connect with you.
It could be as simple as visiting you or e-mailing you or watching you on television. Or it could be as rich and complex as interacting with you on Facebook or joining your social network on Ning.
- Make it easy for your followers to connect with one another.
There’s that little nod that one restaurant regular gives to another recognized regular. Or the shared drink in an airport lounge. Even better is the camaraderie developed by volunteers on a political campaign or insiders involved in a new product launch. Great leaders figure out how to make these interactions happen.
- Realize that money is not the point of a movement.
Money exists merely to enable it. The moment you try to cash out is the moment you stunt the growth of your movement.
- Track your progress.
Do it publicly and create pathways for your followers to contribute to that progress.
- Transparency really is your only option.
Every failed televangelist has learned this the hard way. The people who follow you aren’t stupid. You might go down in scandal or, more likely, from ennui. People can smell subterfuge from a mile away.
- Your movement needs to be bigger than you.
An author and his book, for example, don’t constitute a movement. Changing the way people apply to college does.
- Movements that grow, thrive.
Every day they get better and more powerful. You’ll get there soon enough. Don’t mortgage today just because you’re in a hurry
- Movements are made most clear when compared to the status quo or to movements that work to push the other direction.
Movements do less well when compared to other movements with similar goals. Instead of beating them, join them.
- Exclude outsiders.
Exclusion is an extremely powerful force for loyalty and attention. Who isn’t part of your movement matters almost as much as who is.
Tearing others down is never as helpful to a movement as building your followers up.
That Building Down the Street
I think it is a boat club, but perhaps it’s a political party or even a corporate headquarters. It might even be a franchise business or a local nonprofit. All I know is that there’s a tribe working overtime to maintain the status quo.
The congregation shows up every week and does the same ritual it did last week, goes through the same motions and nothing changes. In fact, nothing changes precisely because of the ritual. The tribe exists, apparently, to stamp out change.
The customer service staff shows up and follows the handbook and treats every customer exactly the same and can’t figure out why they’re being disrespected in return.
The volunteers go through the motions of supporting the nonprofit, but they’re the same motions they’ve always gone through and they’re getting the same results they’ve always gotten.
Some tribes are engaged in change. Many are not. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s a church or a corporation, the symptoms are the same. The religion gets in the way of the faith. Static gets in the way of motion. Rules get in the way of principle.
People show up because they have to, not because they want to. Desire is defeated by fear, and the status quo calcifies, leading to the long slow death of the stalled organization.
It’s so sad to watch and it’s so common.
Leadership is the antidote, and it works in every building if you let it.
Every Tribe Is a Media Channel
TIME magazine is a media channel. So are CNN and Yahoo. The advantage of traditional media channels is that they’re available for rent. Send in some money and buy some time. The time gets you eyeballs or possibly even attention. And that attention might lead to sales.
Google realized that every search (more than a billion a day) is a media channel as well. And they’ve profited by selling those channels one click at a time.
Tribes are different.
Tribes are the most effective media channels ever, but they’re not for sale or for rent. Tribes don’t do what you want; they do what they want. Which is why joining and leading a tribe is such a powerful marketing investment.
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