CIA's Medina: To lead your company, embrace heretics

Conventional wisdom in a company is dangerous, according to former CIA executive Carmen Medina. She outlines her defense of "heretics" at IBM's Think leadership summit.

NEW YORK CITY -- Deloitte consultant Carmen Medina took to the stage here at IBM's Think leadership summit on Wednesday to tell the audience gathered in Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall four simple things:

Your company has heretics.

They are not trying to hurt you.

They are, in fact, trying to help you.

And they will (probably) solve your problems.

Medina, the former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Center for the Study of Intelligence, knows a thing or two about strict rules. But "optimism is the greatest act of rebellion" in a company, she said -- so go forth and dream it, dreamer, and leave the detritus of a thousand corporate silos in your wake.

"All significant change is going to be against existing rules," she said.

Sometimes the only way to make an impact in an organization is to be really outrageous, Medina said. But first you must acknowledge that you're looking at -- and subsequently understanding -- the world through a limited lens.

"No matter how great your sense-making tools are, they will not help you make squat if you have the wrong theory," she said.

It's much like when ancient civilizations tried to read the stars in an attempt to understand the universe around them. Often, what may first appear outlandish may expose faulty (but widespread) assumptions in your organization.

"Heretics are your conventional wisdom detectors in your organizations," she said.

She added: "Our ability to understand the world around us is a direct function of the tools and technologies we have to see. This is huge, and it matters so much to your ability to make decisions as an organizational leader."

To be a good leader, determine your sense-making tools and ask not "Are they flawed?" but "How are they flawed?"

"Even now, our tools for making sense of the world are incomplete," she said.

The best way to understand the future is to observe the present very carefully. Analytics can help.

"You get a sense of where the world is going," she said. "Observing the new early on, as early as you can, is the key to the future prosperity of your organization."

Every great achievement of human knowledge involved breaking through a problem that couldn't be solved, Medina said.

"Change is hard," she said. "We moan and groan. But no -- trying to understand the origins of the universe? That's hard. Compared to that, change is easy."

"What unsolvable problem are you going to tackle next?"

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