The organisational rebel – after all, a good idea?
Do you know the feeling when you hear a term and think: “What nonsense!”? I have to admit that I think that with some terms that are often propagated in the context of organisations: Evangelist (“Are they the ones who copy from each other and do nothing themselves?”), influencer (“Great invention of the advertising industry, my greatest influencer was my mother!”), key note speaker (“It’s not a key note if you are the third person to speak in a conference programme!”), lateral thinker (“Can they just think logically straight ahead?”). And organisational rebels! “What nonsense!” I thought so until recently. Then I read a tweet from Daniel Räder about an exchange with Jule Jankowski, which had nothing to do with organisational rebels:
“If the bus comes at 01:53 pm, that’s perfectly OK. When a meeting starts at 01:53 pm, there is confusion and lack of understanding.”1
The tweet made me think. Maybe because I sometimes arrange phone calls at 11:07 am, because such a time is on the one hand surprising and on the other hand – if you call on time – it is proof of my reliability (but I would recommend not to exaggerate such gimmicks and I don’t want to over-interpret the effect). Maybe because I like changes on a small scale, far away from big transformation projects. Organisational rebel – who are you, what do you do and how should you be?
Organisational rebel – such nonsense!
There are numerous articles that explain why the concept of an organisational rebel is such nonsense. Dr. Andreas Zeuch calls it a “meaningless New Work Wording”.2 Daniel Dubbel explains that “an organisational rebel can only be a role that is not legitimised by the organisation”, whose “effectiveness is therefore very limited”.3 And Heiko Bartlog associates the term with an “attitude of opposition” and warns against hype.4 The hype has not materialised, at least I have not noticed it in organisations in the last two years, during which the term has been discussed in countless publications.
And what exactly is a rebel?
- Dr. Andreas Zeuch describes rebels as “insurgents who are either part of an uprising or even instigated it themselves” and explains: “So we are not talking about someone who simply expresses a little constructive criticism of meaningless organisational rules or who in all seriousness does not fill out a travel expense form correctly. No. The rebel … fights with all possible means to expel the current throne holders from the throne … Typically, there is a price to pay, blood is shed and the list of collateral damage is often quite long.”.
- Daniel Dubbel explains that “rebel is rather a neutral term. While Terrorist is a negative description of a rebel, Freedom Fighter is more positive. Ultimately, however, rebellion is always about replacing an existing condition with another one that the rebels are convinced is the right one.”.
Even if the two statements differ slightly in their assessment of the term, the meaning is not really cool in the context of organisations. If rebels are convinced that doing the right thing (apart from the fact that every employee hopefully thinks so too, presumably without wanting to be a rebel), what would be a possible consequence for organisations that want to transform themselves, put people at the centre of digitalisation, support encouraging leadership or strive for new leadership? Heiko Bartlog argues consistently: “Do democratic companies need rebels to fight for a strong despot? Do highly self-organised organisations need rebels who advocate more centralised guidelines and controls? Probably this is not what is meant …”.
So we can just stand firm: The term “organisational rebel” is indeed quite nonsense!
The positive organisational rebel
Stop. Before you now ask yourself what the term “positive organisational rebel” is supposed to mean, especially since I have just concluded that the term “organisational rebel” is nonsensical, it does not exist. It cannot exist. A rebel is neither legitimised (see Daniel Dubbel), nor can he or she be “controlled”, and whether he or she has a positive effect is not proven at all. But let us imagine a person who
- selectively questions things that have “always” been done in a fixed way,
- gets involved in order to drive developments or changes forward,
- does things differently to get colleagues out of their usual rut,
- supports or leads colleagues regardless of position and role,
- desires to talk to customers and users personally,
- is committed to projects, even if it is not easy and there are few advocates,
- is motivated to make an organisation “better”,
- is involved because she identifies with the work, the company and her colleagues,
- gives crazy ideas a chance,
- simply goes to the colleagues in another department to discuss and solve a problem face to face,
- is not satisfied with lip service,
- grievances in organisations openly discussed also with the company management,
- breaks out of rigid structures and procedures to find pragmatic solutions,
- is courageous and also takes “calculable” risks,
- does not concern himself with company policy, but acts, for example, in the interests of customers and/or employees,
- learns from mistakes and allows other employees to do the same,
- simply calls the CEO and skips 6 levels of hierarchy,
- actively uses valuable (and classic) methods of project management or product development – e.g. clarification of orders at the beginning of a project, dialogue with stakeholders during the development of products, a retrospective as an opportunity for lessons learned etc,
- is interested in people and their interests and skills,
- wears the heart in the right place.
Such a person could appear and act rebelliously through any of these points, depending on the organisational context. Wouldn’t that be great?
From my point of view the demand for organisational rebels or the positioning as an organisational rebel remains nonsensical. And there can be no positive organisational rebels either. Not in terms of content, because by definition a rebel does what she primarily considers right and not what might be right for the organisation. And not semantically, because it is not enough to put even the most beautiful adjective in front of a noun (e.g. as in Digital Leadership or Agile Coach), in the hope that from now on many things would change for the better.
But if we detach ourselves from the concept of organisational rebellion and look favourably on the effect, a different assessment will result. To want to make a difference and to actively participate as part of an organisation in the development of the organisation is something I find very positive. To discuss, act and experiment together with heart is desirable. Sometimes it is rebellious to look at aspects from a different perspective, because this calls existing views and processes into question. Sometimes it is rebellious to replace rules and guidelines with principles in order to achieve a better cooperation. And sometimes it is simply fun to do things differently. Even if it is “only” a telephone call at 11:07 am.
Notes (most of them in German):
In fact, I know some key note speakers and evangelists who I love to listen to and can warmly recommend. If necessary, I will gladly arrange contacts. 😉
 Tweet von Daniel Räder
[²] Dr. Andreas Zeuch: Organisationsrebellen. Sinnentleertes New Work Wording.
 Daniel Dubbel: Organisationsrebellen? Besser nicht!
 Heiko Bartlog: Organisationsrebellen? Narren!
Michael Schenkel has published additional posts in the t2informatik blog, including
Head of Marketing, t2informatik GmbH
Michael Schenkel holds a degree in business administration (BA) and is passionate about marketing. He likes to blog about project management, requirements engineering and marketing. And he is happy to meet you for a cup of coffee and a piece of cake.