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The Public Manager Magazine Article

Change Agents: Are You a Good Rebel or Bad Rebel?

Are you into this change agent mode because you just want to prove that your solutions are right or are you really into creating a culture in your organization where change is an acceptable activity?


Mon Dec 24 2012


Are you into this change agent mode because you just want to prove that your solutions are right or are you really into creating a culture in your organization where change is an acceptable activity?

Change Agents: Are You a Good Rebel or Bad Rebel?-1a1376f24b02805cc9873540a75ad21fa31781cdf9d097879dfcc4419d5eb1f0

Carmen Medina was part of an informal rebel alliance of employees at the CIA. She helped two rebels at the agency create the Intellipedia, a groundbreaking approach to intelligence that was awarded a Service to America national medal.


Medina joined Deloitte Consulting in January 2011 as a specialist leader after retiring from an almost 32-year career at the CIA. Since joining Deloitte, she has continued to support the intelligence community on issues such as social networking and future trends. She also works closely with Deloitte's Center for Federal Innovation.

I recently spoke with Medina about the ins and outs of becoming a change agent in public service.

Q: Carmen, you spent years as an employee at the CIA. During your keynote address at the NextGen Summit in Washington, D.C., you said that within the first 10 years, you were convinced of the need for real change. What made you so sure that change was needed, and what were the first steps you took to initiate real change within the agency?

A: It's a very interesting question particularly the phrase, "what made you so sure," because I think that that's an issue that certainly conflicted me when I was at the CIA and, I think, probably a lot of change agents can identify with it. I was never completely sure because I understood the legacy practices and they worked, but I could kind of see—at least I thought I could see—where trends were going, and I could see in the future where our legacy practices were not going to be as effective.

So, to this question of being "sure," I think it's probably good for rebels not to be so sure, because I think that will keep them a little humble and open to new ideas. There's no monopoly on good ideas, but one of the things that I think makes for a bad rebel is when you're too sure of yourself.


The first step I took, I'm an analyst, is I began to write. Luckily, in our organization we have in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence. I began to write for Studies in Intelligence and to lay out my vision or my concerns about the future of intelligence given the trends that I saw.

Q: What advice would you give public-sector employees on how to successfully become a change agent in the government environment and how to gain followers?

A: I don't think anyone should aspire to be a change agent because I think some kind of personal motivation might slip in there. I think that you should aspire to give the government the very best of your talents and what you have to offer. And if you are the kind of person to see things differently, you will want to, hopefully, offer the government those ideas.

I worry sometimes that people who are attracted to government work are attracted to security; you hear that all the time. And if you're attracted to security, maybe you're not inclined to point out things that need to change. But I think that's what you need to aspire to be. You need to be sure that you don't leave anything on the table in terms of improving the government mission. I think if you go there, then you will be a natural change agent.

One of the things that public-sector employees need to be is much smarter about what's going on outside of their government agency. You get so caught up in executing the particular agency's mission that you have blinders on about how the rest of the world is changing. One of the things that all government employees need to do is monitor the outside world more carefully to understand things. Like the mobility revolution—arguably, that's a trend that could've been spotted many years earlier than it was spotted in government. That's important if you aspire to be a change agent, as is gaining followers. You need to be smart about change \[and\] about how change happens... You really need to share your ideas.


Q: How do you know if you're being a good rebel or a bad rebel? What are the characteristics?

A: I started talking about this issue when I retired from CIA two-and-a-half years ago. I was at a forum where a CEO or executive asked me that question exactly, "How do you know if it's a good rebel or a bad rebel?" I was like, "Oh my God, what a good question." So, I've been working on this idea for some time, and there's even a chart on rebelsatwork.com that tries to lay out these characteristics.

Good rebels are reluctant, and bad rebels are obsessed. A good rebel actually knows that there are a lot of potential career issues associated with being seen as a change agent or being seen as someone who's pointing out how things could be different. And they're ambitious just like the next person, so they are reluctant to get engaged. But eventually, the power of their ideas or their love for the mission will get them to take that personal risk. Whereas "bad rebels" are just obsessed—they think they are right, and so they don't have that reluctance.

Another thing … good rebels have followers. If you're a manager and you want to know who are the people with interesting ideas, check for those key influencers in your organization that people naturally flock to even if though they don't have a leadership position. Usually people in the workforce know who the bad apples are or the people who are famously in it just for themselves. Bad rebels won't have as many followers.

And one last one … I never wanted to break rules at the agency. In fact, breaking rules at the agency is a really bad idea. But I wanted to change the rules. People with a lot of positive energy actually have a vision for a different set of rules. But people with negative energy think the rules don't apply to them. So, I think those are some of the ways that I think you can distinguish the two.

Q: When is it challenging the status quo and when is it being a bad rebel? How far do you take something?

A: I think the easiest way to tell that you're being a bad rebel is when it becomes about you. You need to really monitor your emotional temperature when you're becoming a change agent. If you get into yelling matches with people, then it's not really about the ideas anymore, it's about proving that you're right.

Are you into this change agent mode because you just want to prove that your solutions are right or are you really into creating a culture in your organization where change is an acceptable activity, it's a norm all the time? We've got to get to a place where it's not about challenging the status quo. It's just about evolving as a natural process.

Q: What advice would you give someone trying to implement significant change in the workplace?

A: One thing I would say is that you need to take care of yourself personally because you're in a danger zone. So, no matter what you're trying to do to avoid your ego becoming the focus of it, nevertheless, your ego is a part of this, and you're going to react emotionally as a result. So, you need to follow whatever relaxation practices work for you—meditation, going to the mountains for the weekend, or taking long hikes.

You need to—and this is a mistake that many change agents make—learn how the bureaucracy works. Befriend the bureaucratic black belts or understand the bureaucratic landscape, because you can have a great idea but you're not going to get that idea implemented unless you know how things get done in your organization. This is a common error; I know I made it. You're all excited about your vision and the future state, but you have no idea of how to get or how to take the first step, and I think that's really important.

Don't think about it as significant change, because that's too ambitious. Think about how you can iterate and take the first step.

Q: What advice would you give managers who want to support change agents or rebels in their workplace?

A: I have three things to say here. First, choose the people you support carefully. That's why that good rebel-bad rebel question was so powerful. There are people in the organization who are motivated for the wrong reason and are really about their own career progression and not about the mission, so choose carefully.

The second thing is give them practical experiences. Every organization should have a leadership development program, and you should select individuals for certain kinds of positions that will develop their skills as a leader, as a manager. But I haven't heard of too many organizations who have innovation development programs, but they should. We should think about what that might be. One of the things that people that have ideas need is some ground truth experience in how to implement them.

If you identify someone in your workforce, who I'd like to say is an "idea bunny"—a lot of ideas, always coming out—give them a job that forces them to do a lot of bureaucratic things like be a chief of staff or be your agency's executive officer. You need to put suspected and known innovators in those positions because I am positive that after a year or two in a position like that, they are going to be so effective and so much more useful to your organization.

The third piece of advice is support them in real ways. One of the things I did at the agency was support the developments of this Intellipedia project, where we used MediaWiki software to manage knowledge in the intelligence community. One of the things they wanted me to do is to come and talk to the classes where people learn to use the MediaWiki software. I just made it a priority to speak for an hour at each of those classes.

Your calendar reflects your priorities. Who you make time for sends a huge signal to the organization, so make time for the people who are change agents.

Q: There's a huge amount of risk involved with being a change agent. So, what should change agents expect from their peers, their bosses, their organizations, and how much resistance should they really expect?

A: Wow. They should expect a lot of resistance in most organizations. The key is how you maneuver as an innovator in an organization to minimize this resistance. You have to learn how bureaucracies work, and I think that that's something that doesn't come naturally to change agents.

Organizations will reach these points where they'll go, "Oh my goodness, we really need to have a new strategic plan," or "we need to understand how we need to operate differently in the future." They'll create a working group, and that will often be the first time that the change agents get sort of a semi-official position where they become part of the working group. Often, the change agent will think, "Oh, now is the time that I can really swing for the fences and really present my boldest ideas." I'm inclined to say no. It's great that the organization and the leadership is actually inviting that dialogue, but that moment when the dialogue begins is perhaps the most dangerous or strategically critical moment for the change agent.

It's important for you to be seen as practical in your suggestions. You can expect so much resistance that even when the organization seems ready for change, they're not going to be as ready as you think they are.

Q: What was the best advice you got during your journey as a change agent at the CIA?

A: This woman in private industry came up to me at a function I had spoken at and she said, "I can tell that you are a heretic in your organization and I just want to tell you that you have to realize that being a heretic, you're going to be very uncomfortable."

I was immediately taken aback. She adds, "You're going to have to learn to live with that discomfort or you're not going to survive. It's not enough for you to learn to live with your discomfort. You're going to have to learn to like it. You're being true to your convictions, and that should give you courage. You need to learn to love having that feeling of discomfort." This was almost 20 years ago. Everything she said was absolutely true.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

A: The government really needs change energy. I think it increasingly recognizes that. Even if you don't necessarily think you're a change agent. I think all of us have a capability to improve the surroundings that we're in as long as we're prepared to volunteer those ideas. If you're a leader, you've got to create the environment where volunteering those ideas is a wonderful thing to do.

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