Why We Need More Rebels Than We Think

Joost Minnaar
Written by Joost Minnaar April 17, 2019

In a previous post we featured an old CIA manual on how to sabotage the workplace. It showed how to reduce organizational productivity.

Some of these ideas are now clearly out-dated; but many are still familiar. The post spread like wildfire on our social media channels. It taught how to sabotage the workplace, how to resist change, and how to use traditions and politics to maintain the status quo.

Fortunately, NASA, another American agency, shows us the opposite. In the 1980s they transformed the organization by fostering rebel thinking and fighting the status quo.

In the 1980s a group of rebels transformed NASA by fostering rebel thinking and fighting the status quo.
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The birth of the NASA rebels

This month, University of Warwick researchers Heracleous, Wawarta, Gonzales and Paroutis published their case-study research (2013-2018) on NASA’s Johnson Space center. The main finding? We need rebels in the workplace more than we think. All hail to that!

They write: “During our research, we became familiar with a highly effective renegade group that would later become known as the ‘Pirates’. This innovative and agile group formed in 1986 and created an award-winning mission control system for the space shuttle program in record time, on a shoestring budget, and in the face of political resistance.

The group’s values and methods challenged the established hierarchical culture. They were pioneers in agile practices, even before agility entered the organizational vocabulary, or the agile manifesto was created in the software industry.”

The NASA rebels

In 1983, a young engineer, John Muratore, joins NASA. He soon realizes that any change in mission-control could take months to complete. He also knows this approach could never be future-proof. He decides to do something about it.

John connects with a small group of like-minded rebels – all newly recruited engineers who share his frustrations. They want to build a future-proof mission control, and use modern ways of working.

Their ideas, at first, fall on deaf ears. NASA’s mantra then was: ‘We’ve always done it that way, so, it must be the best way.’ But the rebels are determined. They find a high-level sponsor and challenge the status quo by creating a set of values called the “Pirate Paradigm”.

We need rebels in the workplace more than we think. All hail to that!
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NASA's Pirate Paradigm

Nasa Pirate Paradigm

The values of the “Pirate Paradigm” are inspirational, spot-on and still relevant. Let’s list them:

Don't wait to be told to do something

The NASA rebels embraced this first value as they experimented with anything they could get their hands on. They figured things out for themselves.

They even built their very first new mission control system from scratch—although it took them a year’s worth of off-hours to create. They build the system using only on-the-shelf hardware. And if they couldn’t find it on the shelves, they tried to borrow it. And they wrote their own code to create tailor-made software.

Challenge everything

The NASA rebels preach to challenge everything, and then to steel yourself for the inevitable cynicism, opposition, innuendo and slander. The Pirate’s motto speaks for itself: “Build a little, test a little, fix a little.”

They introduced the practice of challenging convention. This was not easy in a large, rule-bound, hierarchical organization. But they realized organizations sometimes need new systems, technologies and processes—instead of “safely” refining current ones.

Break the rules, not the law

Following rules can foster efficiency and optimization. We all know this from the industrial revolution. But we also all know that following rules doesn’t foster creativity. Nor does it challenge the status quo.

So, the NASA rebels made sure to break rules, but never the law. They encouraged high levels of personal accountability and responsibility.

Take risks as a rule, not as the exception

Viewing risk from your current position includes the limitations of your current beliefs, assumptions and prejudices. These cloud your imagination of what’s possible.

The NASA rebels tell us to forget risk as a rule, but rather to view it as an exception. After all, if Columbus had looked at the horizon and accepted that the world really ended out there, where would we be today?

Cut out bureaucracy

The NASA rebels cut unhelpful bureaucracy by eliminating useless timelines, schedules, processes and reviews. We obviously agree. It is right up our alley.

Just get started

This group of rebels was very result orientated. They fixed problems as they appeared. They worked with short-cycle experiments and milestones. They encouraged continuous improvement and experimentation—something the ‘agile’ movement later borrowed.

Build a product, not an organization

The NASA rebels realized that they needed to build new products, not a new organization. So, they stuck to what they did best, and outsourced the rest.

We need more rebels

We realize it is not always easy to be a rebel – to be the troublemaker continuously challenging the organizational status quo. But organizations too often resist change, preferring to follow established approaches that lead to inertia and frustration.

It is not always easy to be a rebel – to be the troublemaker continuously challenging the organizational status quo. But the success of the NASA rebels shows that rebels are exactly what organizations need. And why we need...
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The NASA rebels transformed their organization by challenging that frustration, by coming up with new solutions, and by showing results and improvements. These effects are still visible. Their methods spread. Several former rebels are now leaders in the agency and the space industry. Their success shows that rebels are exactly what organizations need.

And why we need more.

Written by Joost Minnaar
Joost Minnaar
Co-founder Corporate Rebels. My daily focus is on research, writing, and anything else related to making work more fun.
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