When you hear people disparage the Frozen Middle, they are doing it from the outside. No one on the inside can afford to talk about it.
I’m no longer on the inside.
I don’t talk about it much now except to my innermost circle who saw me through it. It puts me in a bad headspace that I don’t like. The mind can’t distinguish between past, present, and future, so when I do talk about it, I go right back to living in that four-year period where life was hell, punctuated by bright spots with the people who worked for me, customers and missions I supported, and innovators who regularly called me for advice from across the globe. Yes, the only period in my 31-year career where being innovative was considered a bad thing, and those 31 years included the days of three-inch-high shoulder pads, the Chicken Song, and Cabbage Patch Kids. Not everywhere was anti-innovation…but it was where I was.
Where other innovators are now.
It comes down to this: if you are too innovative, the pressure from the Frozen Middle is immense and intense to get you to change your ways…or get out. Innovators don’t talk about it openly, especially if they are still on the job. If they don’t have top cover to both encourage and protect them, life can become…difficult….if they don’t want to give in to “business as usual.”
Two years ago this week, I listened to the wrong person, someone who intentionally cultivated my trust and friendship, and I gave up my career-long goal of pursuing an SES assignment. I’d had that goal since I came to Federal service as a GS-5 Contracting intern making $14,822 a year, and I’d delayed it for a decade because of custody issues and claims against a roofing contractor—both of which didn’t allow me to be mobile. Then suddenly I was free to pursue that dream and had a good idea of what innovation I might bring to an organization at that level, yet I gave up that goal after being counseled by a supervisor I really liked at the time to leave Government service altogether. I didn’t like him so much after I found out he divulged private discussions to the Frozen Middle who used those confidences to hurt me, but it was naïve of me to believe that supervisor-employee conversations are truly private, even if both parties agree they are.
He knew I’d endured enormous head-butting with the Frozen Middle and offered to be my champion in those fights, and I was in dire need of a champion after my previous top cover had PCS’d. He was aware that my struggle to remain an innovator had taken a turn from the professional realm to personal: two years prior, Privacy Act information from my personnel file had been given to the rumor mill by a member of the Frozen Middle, and the Frozen Middle repeatedly churned up the worst heartbreak of my life for public consumption. He knew all that made it hard to walk into work every day in an organization that also preached resilience and wingmanship. Most days, it made it hard just to breathe. I’m a very open person, but like most people, I have painful events in my life that make me feel heartsick and vulnerable, and I don’t want them to be public fodder unless for whatever reason I choose for them to be.
If you were sitting in front of me, listening to me tell this story, you would see how tight my jaw is, just thinking of my personal trauma being someone else’s entertainment for several years, and you’d hear the bitterness in my voice. In the soundtrack of my life, Kesha’s “Praying” would be playing, and she’d be singing that part right before the really high note where she says, “Some things only God can forgive.” No, don’t tell me to “Get over it”: that’s something the Frozen Middle said to me when I confronted them about dragging my private life into it.
Two years ago this week, I sat in my supervisor’s office and he counseled me gently on my long-term goals as part of my last essay I had to turn in for Air War College. A month later, I would be notified that I graduated AWC in the top 1%, but on that day, I was told I didn’t belong in Government service and I should leave as soon as possible.
As I’ve mentioned here before, I have an eidetic memory, so I recall much of that conversation word for word. He told me how much he cared about me as his supervisee and friend. He told me he thought I had good intentions and was probably the most innovative and creative person he’d ever known, but he didn’t think I belonged in Contracting.
Because I was too innovative.
Then he told me he thought maybe I didn’t belong in Acquistion either.
Because I was too innovative.
“I’m not even sure you belong in the Government,” he told me.
Because I was too innovative.
Yes, he saidbecause I was too innovative.
The hardest thing to hear was what he told me next. I was well-known for mentoring less experienced Acquisition personnel—in Contracting, Program Management, across my base, across Services, across the US, across the planet. I regularly mentored about 30 people and had an open door to anyone who needed mentoring, and that extended into my weekends and evenings. I made time for everyone—my personal time—because I felt it was important to guide those who asked.
He told me that my mentoring people was a bad thing.
He said I was doing a disservice to my mentees. He said I was putting them at risk.
He said I could afford to keep pushing my innovative mindset because, if I had to (or if I got fired for itwas the unspoken assumption), I could leave and go write my novels full-time or retire soon, but they couldn’t and letting them believe they could be as innovative as I was would only hurt them and get them in trouble. They needed to focus on business as usual, not on being innovative.
So I was putting them at risk.
That was the phrase for the work I was doing with my fractals, with teaching my toolkit to the next generation. By doing so, he said, I was hurting them. Hurting their careers. Hurting their future.
He was so wrong. For as innovative as he himself could be when he wanted, he’d chosen to counsel me on behalf of the Frozen Middle and speak on their behalf to urge me to leave Acquisition because I didn’t “belong.”
What he meant was I didn’t belong to the version of the Government, Acquisition, and Contracting that the Frozen Middle believes should be.
But at the time, I was really questioning myself and I believed him. I’d been living with having my toolkit questioned since my previous Director and top cover (who called himself being his innovators’ “blast shield”) had left. It took an SES I’d worked with saying, “Lorna, why are you doubting what you’ve done for the last 28 years that everyone applauded? You didn’t suddenly turn stupid in the two weeks’ time between one Colonel leaving and another coming in. It’s called ‘gaslighting.’”
That was an unusual term a couple of years ago. Now you hear it a-plenty, but at the time, I had to go rent the 1944 movie, “Gaslight,” to fully understand. It starts with one or two people trying to rewrite your history, then they expand their circle until others believe it based on supposed testimony from more and more people who’ve heard about it or heard someone in power gossip firsthand. Finally, you start to question it yourself and you begin to wonder if your innovations are really just Bad Contracting and your decades of success and bosses calling you their “secret weapon for getting things done” were just repeated flukes. You lose yourself. Because all you hear is a story that’s different from the one you’ve known and it feels like you’ve been dropped into an alternate reality where you were always a know-nothing slug.
I hear all the time at innovation-related conferences, “Why aren’t more people being innovative?” For the last six months, I’ve been hearing familiar stories of the Frozen Middle freezing out innovators. For me, it was both personal and professional, but so far, most of what I hear is professional pain, though it always questions the integrity of the innovator, the competence of the innovator, or both.
If you ask the Frozen Middle why they are frozen, they will look at you funny. They don’t see themselves as frozen. They see themselves as the Guardians of the Process, the Warriors of “Contract Excellence.” Many of them mean well. Others don’t mean well at all and are inexcusable in how they treat innovators. Kill the seed before it can grow,and all that.
If you find this post uncomfortably familiar, I can offer some advice. Or at least, some empathy.
Advice for those Frozen Out by the Frozen Middle
When you “turn stupid
If you’ve always been praised for excellent work and great ideas and suddenly you find that you’ve “turned stupid” over night, that your judgment is considered questionable when it wasn’t before, and that you start to lose confidence in yourself, you need a reality check. Seriously, go rent “Gaslight” (the 1944 version, not the 1940 version) so you can better understand the origins of the term.
Then check in with people who knew you before you “turned stupid.” Former supervisors, well-regarded teammates who’ve moved on to other assignments, and especially colleagues who aren’t part of your daily life and don’t know what’s going on between you and the Frozen Middle. Do a sanity check with them by telling them whatever innovation you’re working on and asking their honest opinion
It did me a world of good—and I remembered who I was again—when a former leader in Contracting, well-respected by the Frozen Middle as well as by me, heard about an initiative I was working and suggested I take it a step farther…and wondered what was holding me back. He remembered the real me, not the cover story painted over me by a scant handful of people who felt threatened by my push for change in the Acquisition world.
When you’re being investigated
Unfortunately, this seems to be the favorite of the Frozen Middle for targeting innovators. I’ve heard this one a number of times now, and it happened to me as well. Out of the blue, my workload was tripled even though I was already working extensive unpaid overtime, and I was targeted for a “random” inspection that was so random, it included only one person’s work, and that person had been removed from my office over six months before. I was given one work day’s notice while all other units inspected were given four weeks. The auditors’ response? “Why are we looking at this?” Yes, there were file problems, but similar to problems in other units that were not subsequently punished. I’d spent six years in Policy—I knew what was in people’s files, and that those things could be used to damn or to teach. But for me, that was the beginning of a series of audits, inspections, investigations, and restrictions designed to remove any innovative thinking in our unit and to shut me down
Occasionally, I hear about an innovator being challenged publicly, in front of a PEO or a room full of Program Office personnel or questioning the legality of using a particularly statute, like Other Transaction Authority or Procurement for Experimental Purposes, but the more formal deep-dives initiated by the Frozen Middle are the mainstay of this tactic. These audits, inspections, investigations, and (okay, I’ll say it) witch huntsthat innovators report to me are all designed to question the competence and often the integrity of the innovator. If successful, they can remove the innovator’s warrant, span of control, and/or authority. If unsuccessful, they can still scare the bejeezusout of an innovator who realizes just how dangerous it can be career-wise to push an agenda of innovation. Perhaps the Frozen Middle truly believes that being innovative is synonymous with illegal or unethical, and that’s why innovators are being reported for a lack of integrity or for law-breaking. Even when cleared, it’s still a scary and depleting thing to have to defend yourself and to realize that people you work with every day would take such measures to silence you.
What to do? Maintain those close ties with legal counsel on your program. Cultivate those relationships with more conservative colleagues who won’t necessarily go innovate for themselves but don’t have an agenda and are willing to back you up on your perfectly legal and ethical innovations, even if that conservative colleague wouldn’t do them himself. Align with others who can give you credibility and help defend you—if they’re willing to face the Frozen Middle with you.
Keep that CYA log, whether it’s a calendar or a CC to a private folder or an audio note you drop into your Evernote account to remind you of what someone told you to do. Yes, they’re time-consuming, but if you’re been targeted to be frozen out, it can be a godsend. Until you leave or the Frozen Middle melts, keep everything. You never know when you’ll have to pull an all-nighter to collate your notes to keep your job.
Both of these practices saved my bacon when the Frozen Middle decided to launch an IG investigation against me…that never happened because I’d kept good (discreet) connections and because I had an 8-page CYA memo to die for. In one afternoon, a contract specialist I hadn’t seen in months, a contracts chief from another building, and someone unexpected in Policy dropped by my office to warn me that they’d overheard the Frozen Middle planning to have the IG investigate my use of a certain practice in order to remove me. I had a miserable night, but I was ready the next day. I had concrete proof I hadn’t used that technique since the Frozen Middle had taken it away from me 18 months before, and I had proof I was doing exactly what my previous Director had instructed, along with the powerpoint charts where he and I had briefed the General on the matter and been approved.
When you’re called a liar or untrustworthy
This may be another form of gaslighting. Being called a liar wasn’t an issue for me because I’m sorta famous for my, er, candor, and I don’t lie for anyone, but I’ve heard it with other innovators. Often news of the innovator’s lack of honesty or ulterior motives precedes their briefings to audiences they’ve never met. It’s a measure to sow discord and prevent the innovator from developing trusted relationships with other innovators or with those who might be swayed to be innovative, including those in power. Another version of this is telling people the innovator can’t “get along” with anyone…even if the cause of conflict comes directly from the Frozen Middle.
People will believe what they want to believe, what suits their interests. Sometimes that’s high drama and sensationalism because that’s what they need in their lives and it has nothing to do with anything you’ve done. Or they just need to demonize the person whose purpose is opposite their own so they can protect their interests, even unintentionally. There’s not much you can do about that. All you can do is stay true to yourself. At least some people will eventually see your honesty and begin to work with you. Some never will because it’s not in their best interests (they think) to agree with you or even like you. Others will see in you something that isn’t there…but is a direct reflection of themselves. Pay attention to people who accuse you of things that aren’t you because it gives you an idea of who theyare.
When you’re isolated
It’s typical of bullies, abusers, and—yes—the Frozen Middle to try to isolate you. If you think you’re alone and unsupported, or if you are not seeing others innovate, or if there’s no validation of your efforts, then it’s easier for you to believe that you’re wrong and it’s better just to give in to business as usual than to look for a better way. For me, this came in the form of colleagues being warned to stay away from me because my innovative ideas were “dangerous,” being overworked to the point that I had no life outside of work, being told not to communicate with my previous boss/top cover, and being told to stay off any form of social media. These were lonely times, and I was actually written up in my personnel file for keeping a social media profile to talk to friends and family who had long since moved away.
If you are told to get off social media, consider using a pseudonym. If I had an account on LinkedIn where I could have openly talked about innovation, I would have known that there’s a whole tribe of us out there. I would have had some backup. I would’ve felt so much less lonely. I would’ve known I had options to go to other locations that would have welcomed me.
When you’re plucked of your power to create change
To keep you from having the authority to be innovative, the Frozen Middle may move you to “somewhere you’ll do the least amount of damage.” By damage, they mean somewhere you’ll create the least amount of change. You may find yourself demoted in power or span of authority if not in pay or title, then on an org chart. You may be moved to a different unit where you can’t be as innovative, locked away in a vault where no one knows what you’re doing, or placed in an assignment that has little opportunity for you to use your innovative skill set—at least not the level that you might have otherwise.
What can you do? You could ask to be reassigned. I did and was refused after many threats to move me.
You could leave. I did. There are plenty of other places out there where your skillset, your creativity, and your innovation would be welcomed with open arms.
When you just can’t do it anymore
Nobody wants to say they give up or that they’ve had enough. Ego gets involved and it becomes a battle to stand up to the Frozen Middle. It’s not worth your health or your family. When you can’t take it anymore, leave. Go where you’re wanted.
If you’re in a location where you can’t easily change jobs because you’re not mobile, that’s changing, too. GSA has snagged a fair share of innovators in the last couple of years because their full-time telework practices allowed people to leave their previous assignments, stay in their chosen career fields, and not uproot their families. Check out LinkedIn, Slack, and other forums to see what opportunities are out there and how many organizations appreciate innovation.
If you look around and realize you can’t be effective anymore where you are and that your skillset is not being used at a time when it’s desperately needed, look elsewhere for where you’ll be appreciated.
In summary—and I know this has been a long post, but hopefully it’s helped someone—innovators get frozen out by the Frozen Middle for what seems like a good reason. See, most people don’t like change, especially if they like where they are, and that means that you as an innovator are change personified. You are a threat to their comfort zones.
If you are reading this and haven’t been frozen out…let’s say you still have great top cover…reach out to other innovators who are going through a hard time. Let them know they’re not alone. We need to support each other and lift each other up.
What can we do about the Frozen Middle? It would be disingenuous for me chatter away about peace, love, and understanding, but if you can do it, by all means do.
What’s needed is a culture change. You will never walk into an auditorium and say, “Hey, all you Frozen Middlers, raise your hand,” and get a response. With or without them, though, it’s the culture that needs to change and will have to be changed from the inside to be truly successful. You know how often I speak of mindset, the tools.
If you cannot change the culture, it doesn’t matter how many innovative tools and techniques we have. The best we’ll ever be is a network of innovation lighthouses shining for each other and not the spaces inbetween.
Next week: It’s the end of the Fiscal Year. Do you know where your contracts are?
c 2018 Lorna Tedder
- Rapid Acquisition Consultant
- Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
- Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
- Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
- Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
- Expert in developing junior and mid-level personnel to become innovators in Government acquisition
- 3 decades of first-hand experience and success with Other Transactions, Oral Proposals, 10 USC 2373, Broad Agency Announcements, unique pricing arrangements, Price Based Acquisition, Award Without Discussion, streamlined source selections, multiple award IDIQs, UCAs, waivers, omnibus tool creation, Quick Reaction Capability teams, and strategic sourcing
- Do you need help? Would you like me to spend a couple of days teaching your Government team how to use innovative contracting methods? Message me on LinkedIn or my contact page.