Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 19: Carmen Medina and Don Burke

Change agents inside a corporation or government agency know how to build consensus and be a rebel at work.

They are attuned to finding colleagues who think like they do. And they can figure out how to get new ideas adopted within their organization’s culture and framework.

And oh by, the way my two guests did it while at the CIA.

How to be a rebel at work was the focus of interviews with the latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on SiriusXM Channel 111 (airing weekly Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern).  The show follows the journeys of founders who share what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries and more. The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explores the habits that make them successful, and the highs and lows that pushed them forward.

Carmen Medina

Joining me in SiriusXM’s studio in New York were:

  • Carmen Medina, former director of the Center for the Study of Intelligence at the Central Intelligence Agency and co-author of Rebels at Work
  • Don Burke, digital architect for the Central Intelligence Agency

Don Burke

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

Clips from their interviews are below.

Carmen Medina, co-author of the book Rebels at Work, spent 32 years at CIA. In her last assignment she was the Deputy Directory of Intelligence and part of the team that led the CIA’s Analysis Directorate. She began the CIA’s Lessons Learned program and led the Agency’s first effort to address the challenges posed by social networks, digital ubiquity, and the emerging culture of collaboration.

Carmen was the first CIA executive to envision many of the applications now used by CIA analysts, including online production, collaborative tools, and Intellipedia, the Intelligence Community-wide wiki developed by Don Burke and Sean Dennehy. Upon her retirement from CIA, she received the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. From 2011 to 2015, Carmen was a member of Deloitte Federal Consulting serving as senior advisor and mentor to Deloitte’s flagship innovation program, GovLab, sponsoring research on Bitcoin, Millennials, and the impact of the Internet of Things on government. 

Carmen’s two keys to successfully innovating inside a large organization:

If you’re going to be an effective change agent, you can’t do it alone. Even if you have one other person who can help you and be your guide and counsel during that journey, it’s really important to have it.  

Two, you can’t give up. If your idea is important enough to you, and you’ve socialized it with other people, so that you have other people supporting you, you owe it (to your company to stick with it.) … In my case I owed it to the CIA, and I owed it to what I thought was the national interest to argue hard and not give up on the idea.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Don Burke has worked 24+ years in the Federal government. In 2005, while at the CIA, Don helped found Intellipedia, the Intelligence Community-wide wiki, with his colleague Sean Dennehy. Intellipedia helped show the way for many other “Web 2.0” initiatives across the Federal Government; Don established many of the core principles for how the Intelligence Community uses Intellipedia. In 2009, Don and Sean won a Service to America Medal.

Don also brought the Wiki concept to the Department of Energy through a project called Powerpedia where he enabled collaboration across the DOE. He is currently working as a “Digital Architect” to transform the CIA’s records management tools, culture, and processes from paper-based to electronic as required by a recent Presidential Directive to all Federal Agencies to manage their records electronically by 2019.

Getting others in the agency to buy in to the Intellipedia idea was critical to the project’s success. Here’s how Don and Sean did it:

What was really powerful is we came together as a team that was cross- organizational…. That allowed us to come at things from very different perspectives. One of the things that I think was critical for us is we had … gravitas in the organization. Both of us were very highly respected, we were both managers, we both had really large networks of people that we knew. … 

Steve: You just weren’t some crazy people who just came in the agency running around saying, look what’s going on outside.

Don: Exactly, and we weren’t part of the IT organization. We were from “mission.” We were from part of the organizations that were … supposed to being doing stuff.

What we literally had to do was we … call every one of our contacts. We would … go down our contact tree, and we’d say, ‘Can we come talk to your organization about this thing called Intellipedia?’ We would go tell them about it, and we’d ask them questions about … their pain points… Invariably… (the people in) that room would say, ‘Well you know, that’s not really for us. The guys right next to us, it’d be really great for them.’ (And) that (would be) the room we just came from.

Steve:  It was circular firing style.

Don: Exactly. (Except) almost without exception, one person in that room would be looking at us with a little … twinkle in their eye. A little questioning of what, maybe (this would work)…

… We had to be extraordinarily attentive to body language, to the language that they were using, and we’d find those folks. Then the next day, we’d go talk with them …

Steve:  You mean you had to act like an intelligence agent.

Don: That and really (for) anyone who’s trying to help people transition their thinking, from one way of habit to another way of habit, you have to be very, very, attentive to their thinking.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Carmen discussed the pitfalls of “large organization disease” and how it manifested itself when she worked at the CIA:

I thought that, “Here I am an analyst, and I’m a smart person, and I have only the best intentions, and that the organization would want to hear my new ideas.” It came as a rude shock to me that the last thing anybody really wanted to hear from me were my ideas that were different from the prevailing orthodoxy of the organization.

Steve: In hindsight, what’s going on when smart, crazy, innovative people intersect with the, “No, this is always how we’ve done it” (establishment). What’s going on?

Carmen: Well, there’s several things … going on. In my case, one of the … was that I was advocating too early for an idea whose time had not yet come, as far as that organization is concerned.

An organization has spent so much time preserving and establishing that wisdom, and the protocols and the way of doing things, and along comes this new idea. One of the things I learned is that there is nothing so weak as an idea whose time has not yet come. In an organization, when you’re someone from below trying to present that idea, unless other people see the idea as you do, it’s very difficult to get any kind of traction.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Change agents must to understand an organization’s current culture and how to work within it, she said:

I would stand there and … broadcast my brilliant idea. I gave brilliant speeches and wrote beautiful essays.  

I did that before I did any homework. Before I actually understood how the organization worked. Before I understood the bureaucratic landscape.

What happens in a large organization like the CIA, or really any larger organization, one of their pathologies, one of the symptoms of large organization disease is passive-aggressive behavior. By shouting out my ideas before I did any homework, or any planning, or understood the organization, all I was doing was warning the passive-aggressives, who went out — because they understood the administrative rule book way better than I did — and laid all these traps, and I just stumbled right into them.

The first thing you have to do, there’s no precise order, but there is an order in your organization that’s going to work. You as a change agent need to be smart about that before you start broadcasting your ideas.

You have to understand the order of battle and the tempo. (Some) of the … characters that live in large organizations I call … bureaucratic black belts. A bureaucratic black belt is the person who (understands) the existing order of the organization. That’s, after all, what organizations are there to do: preserve the existing order. They know all the rules and they want to preserve that order. A change agent like me usually thinks like they’re the scum of the earth. They’re worthless. Our advice to change agents … is befriend a bureaucratic black belt… who can be your guide.

Find someone who’s neutral or to whom you can talk. Ask them questions… People love to be interviewed. … They love to be flattered. Ask them questions like, “You’ve been around for 20 years, Jack, and I bet you’ve seen some successful initiatives. What made them succeed?” Another question, “The ones that weren’t worth the effort, what about them told you not to support them?”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Also, Carmen cautioned, not all rebels at work are effective:

A bad rebel does it alone. Bad rebel is ego-driven, which is probably similar with doing it alone. … Bad rebels don’t have a sense of humor about what they’re doing. (They) are really eager and aggressive to go forward.

We say that good rebels are actually reluctant because a good rebel has actually understood what he or she is getting herself into and is not sure that they want to risk their job, their livelihood, their reputation on this.  

Steve:  You also said good rebels build consensus.

Carmen: Yes, of course.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Don shared how Intellipedia came to be:

(In 2005, Stephanie O’Sullivan, then the CIA’s director of science and technology) asked me to look at how do we do a better job capturing and tracking information, because the world was changing so fast under our feet …

…. If we think about that, even in the 2000s, (circa), 2005, the iPhone wasn’t out yet and we were still really emerging into the modern era. But a decade or so in, probably a little more, we were living in a world where the information was flowing so fast inside our organization, in shared drives and different kind of databases, and here and there, that it was much harder to actually know … what we knew.

Steve:  You were being swamped by information. 

Don: Absolutely, and … she wanted to know how could we do this a little better? My past experience had said, we try to do these big projects that solve these big, hard, intractable problems … and they can never get enough money, they can never get enough traction, because the organizations revolt.

Steve:  You mean like building a giant data warehouse. …There’d be a hundred million dollars, we’ll get Oracle software and we’ll do this, we’ll get three hundred programmers, etc. By the time you get it out, it’s no longer needed or your specs have changed.

Don: Exactly. Just about that time a colleague (Calvin Andrus) had written a paper called The Wiki and the Blog: Towards a Complex Adaptive Intelligence Community.

… He was briefing it around (she Intelligence Community) saying there’s this thing happening. … As a nerd I had a little bit about Wikipedia, which was four years old at the time … and these things called blogs. Can you imagine? Inside our hierarchical organization, the concept of that was just going nowhere, of course. It was just like, “Are you kidding? Anyone can just edit?”

He started talking to my colleague Sean, and through a whole series of efforts we partnered with a variety of people to set up a server in a part of the network that allowed all of the different intelligence agencies to access it. This was really novel stuff at the time.

… the idea that there would be a place where anyone in the intelligence community could post something without approval was really, really a transformative and disruptive idea.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here’s how Don engaged his colleagues in the effort:

I learned (that) inside of large organizations (one of) the most important things is to not have a big title and not have a lot of money.

… Because inside of large organization you have to change multiple teams. There is no way of having disruptive innovation by changing just one team. When you have a big title and you have a big program everyone sees you through the lenses of that title and that program.  

… You become your title and they wonder what really is your motivation? What are you really after, and the result is they think you’re on a power play. It is much harder for you to expend, to execute persuasion because of the biases of that title. Sean and I during Intellipedia time selected titles that didn’t mean anything. 

… I adopted Intellipedia doyen (as a title). … I got that because a friend of mine who we had persuaded Intellipedia was an interesting thing had used that term (doyen) to refer to me. Of course I had to look it up at that time.  

… It basically means like a senior statesman in country … without portfolio. They’re a person that has gravitas. I adopted that …

Steve: (So) they didn’t feel threatened?

Don: Well, they may. (But) The first they had to ask, Who are you? and Where do you report in the organization? and What’s your authority? By that very fact they were then having to engage in an intellectual conversation to understand me and what I was trying to do, rather than just say, “Oh you’re a program manager. I know what a program manager is.”

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

He also explained the difference between intrapreneurship and entrepreneurship:

The core lesson of innovators’ dilemma is if you’re in a big company and you want to create this new thing, you have to expel it. You have to push it out and let it survive on its own. Find its own customer base, build its own structures for reporting, and all startups, I think, do that. They become this small, little nucleus and they try to survive.

Inside of big bureaucracies, you don’t get that luxury. You have to create the change with the existing structures, or build new structures inside the interstitial space of that organization. You don’t get to change out the people. You have to persuade the people.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to my full interviews with Carmen and Don by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here. (And download any of the past shows here.)

And read the blog post on Why Corporate Entreprenuers Are Extraordinary.

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Nayeem Hussain, co-founder and CEO of Keen Home; and Will Zell, co-founder and CEO of Nikola Labs.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Want to be a guest on the show?  Entrepreneurship stretches from Main Street to Silicon Valley, from startups to big companies. Send an email to terri@kandsranch.com describing your entrepreneurial journey.

2 Responses

  1. “It came as a rude shock to me that the last thing anybody really wanted to hear from me were my ideas that were different from the prevailing orthodoxy of the organization.”

    Hah, this isn’t just true for governmental agencies, this is true pretty much everywhere. Companies and organizations will say they want big thinkers, they want innovators, but when you try to actually propose a new idea they’ll just shoot you down every time no matter how good the idea is.

    Not everywhere is like that, but it seems to be a common trend. And it’s sad, really.

    Like

  2. Interesting post.  Things have really changed at HQ.In the 80s I workd a CIA national priority program that ruined the careers of the Lockheed program manager, two directors, and several mid-level managers.  The reason:  an early milestone, with a major incentive at 3 months, stalled because two HQ persons who reported directly to the DCI in their former capacities, couldn't agree on the program hierarchy for each other.  The LMSC VP in charge went to LMSC board, and then temporarily shut down the program, fired the program manager, told the directors and some managers to find another job in Lockheed, and told the rest of us our oprtions were to stay with the program or quit.  Quitting wasn't an option in the 80's classified world.  In this instance, you couldn't tell what happened, and other companies wouldn't have known about the CIA' self induced problem. Then the  VP told the DCI that LM SC had fired and repositioned people when they didn't have to.  He told the DCI to get his house in order or LMSC would stop work completely.  The DCI did.  If he hadn't, the program was important enough that Congress and the President would have been involved.  LMSC had a very small entreprenuerial team that won a program no one expected them to win.  The program schedule was brutal but it finished on time.  You can imagine the morale.  All of us were extremely grateful when the program was over, but we knew also that there would be no further promotions befoe we retired.Roy Mizeroy@workplans.com    

    Like

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