If you’re trying to change how your company works, you probably won’t

Impossible odds, and yet...  (AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

Impossible odds, and yet…
(AP Photo/Jeff Widener)

If you’re trying to make work better, you may be feeling, as Margaret Wheatley writes, “exhausted, overwhelmed, and sometimes despairing even as you paradoxically experience moments of joy, belonging, and greater resolve to do your work.”

You may believe in and like what you do, but you’re under-gunned, under-staffed, and under-appreciated. And the thing you’re trying to change – the corporate machine that has dehumanized work – seems impermeable to change anyway.

Now what?

The management revolution that isn’t 

A recent article in Forbes claims “a veritable revolution in management is under way.”

That’s simply untrue. We’re not even close to changing how companies work. A few select anecdotes and some books on new management approaches don’t add up to much. (It’s like claiming the Occupy Wall Street movement revolutionized financial services. That movement was interesting, maybe even inspiring, but it fell far short of producing meaningful change.)

The revolution in the Forbes article includes the same themes that Deming, Drucker and other management experts wrote about decades ago. If they were alive today – Deming would be 112 and Drucker 103 – they would still be waiting to see many of the changes they prescribed.

What’s happening instead

Of course, there should be a revolution. More and more people talk and write about the benefits and the possibilities and the need. But there’s precious little actual change inside most big companies.

What’s happening instead is the near-extinction of the people inside large companies who are trying to change things. Not the pundits but the people leading change from the inside who know the processes, systems, and the culture of their firms and how to do the long, hard work of changing them.

Instead of such people becoming more powerful and more numerous, they’re getting crushed by the machines they’re trying to change. Some change leaders work in an unstable environment and lose their jobs in re-organizations. Others find the environment so hostile, they leave to join consulting firms or technology vendors.

Last week, I was in a room full of senior people whose missions were changing how our respective firms work. They were true experts and some were fantastic brand ambassadors for their firms. Yet, as we described our goals, our running joke was that one objective was simply to keep our jobs.

So many reasons to give up…

Even those who are doing the best work and who have the most experience are keenly aware they’re not driving the kind of change they want as quickly as they want. They’re still daunted by the tremendous challenges they face – cultural, legal, technical, political, organizational.

It’s not because they’ve misread the potential for change or because the technology isn’t good enough or anything like that. It’s because it’s still early. Because, collectively, we still don’t know enough about how to change these complex organizations, their people, and their deep-rutted ways of working. Because the corporate antibodies come out in force to attack anything that threatens the status quo.

Because it will take a long time, if ever, to realize the possibilities we see.

…and yet to persevere

Margaret Wheatley’s “So Far From Home” describes the challenges facing people trying to change complex, emergent systems like corporations. There are some beautiful passages about persevering in the face of those challenges – not for the ultimate outcomes (e.g., management revolution) but for the goodness of the work itself, for the people involved, and for the chance, however slim, of ultimately creating a better future.

“We need to continue to persevere in our radical work, experimenting with how we can work and live together to evoke human creativity and caring. Only time will tell if our efforts contribute to a better future. We can’t know this, and we can’t base our work or find our motivation from expecting to change this world.”

“If we choose to be warriors, we will find ourselves struggling day to day to be wise and compassionate as we work inside the collapsing corridors of power. We have to expect a life of constant challenge, rejection, invisibility, and loneliness. So it’s important to contemplate how much faith you have in people, because this is what gives you courage and the ability to persevere.”

People, indeed, are the key to surviving the vicissitudes of working on something you know to be good and right but which might very well fail, at least for you and your firm.

To fortify your resolve, seek out the people in your firm whose work and life are better as a result of your efforts. To help you be more effective, reach out to those leading change at other firms – not just to commiserate but to collaborate on solving common problems that slow your progress. Give generously to other change leaders who are just getting started. Extend your networks so that others in trouble have a safety net.

If you’re trying to change your company, you probably won’t. But draw on your connections with other people to give you “the courage and the ability to persevere.” And never, never give up.




About John Stepper

Helping organizations create a more collaborative culture – and helping individuals access a better career and life – by spreading the practice of Working Out Loud.
This entry was posted in Management, Social Business and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to If you’re trying to change how your company works, you probably won’t

  1. Sheesh! Cue “Change Agents Worldwide.” This is why we exist. To give safe refuge and harbor for change agents everywhere. It’s impossible to do this alone. Surround yourself with a caring community focused on the same goals. Think “Patients Like Me” for the large enterprise. We keep each other off the ledge. Don’t jump John!

  2. Mary-Pat Nealon says:

    Thanks, John, for the timely reminder. Your message is along the lines of one of my favorite quotes, which was from Mother Theresa…she uses “God” as her spiritual reference, of course, so I insert my own : – )

    People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered.
    -Forgive them anyway.

    If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives.
    -Be kind anyway.

    If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies.
    -Succeed anyway.

    If you are honest and sincere people may deceive you.
    -Be honest and sincere anyway.

    What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight.
    -Create anyway.

    If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous.
    -Be happy anyway.

    The good you do today, will often be forgotten.
    -Do good anyway.

    Give the best you have, and it will never be enough.
    -Give your best anyway.

    In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.

    -Mother Teresa

  3. Reblogged this on Houldsworth's Random Ramblings and commented:
    “What’s happening instead is the near-extinction of the people inside large companies who are trying to change things. Not the pundits but the people leading change from the inside.”
    “In a room full of senior people whose missions were changing how our respective firms work…our running joke was that one objective was simply to keep our jobs.”

    As a self confessed agent of change…this rings all too true!

  4. Claudio says:

    Just keep on going

  5. Jon Bidwell says:

    {Writing from the basement of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium at Yale. Swim meets = free time}

    I’ll take a point of view a bit contrary to yours. Probably (highly likely actually) unlike most people in that room in Palo Alto, I originally trained in history, not computer science or finance. The notion of a revolution completing within the original instigators lifetime is actually a rare event. Think Marx, or more appropriately those that lit off the American Revolution. Adams, Franklin, Paine etal drew on work started in the English Revolution, documents like the Fundamental Orders of CT, Locke’s writings on “divine right” and the like. Even our debates today over certain Constitutional issues draw directly from the language of the Magna Carta! History is a long game.

    Last week I started re-reading Drucker’s Post Capitalist Society, and I don’t doubt for a minute his acute awareness that true revolutions play out in decades or more, not years.

    The problem we face is that the tools to effect real change in how business works…to fulfill Drucker’s approach to knowledge work are finally at hand, so really the revolution is just beginning. And one is naive to not realize the usual fate of first revolutionaries is generally more like to be that of the regicides of Charles I, than George Washington. But, no different than what drives the entrepreneurs that make the US economy so dynamic, but with great risk, we have to view ourselves no differently. With great risks come great rewards.

    I try to think more like Ho Chi Minh–find and convert the cadres–create the ultimate revolution from below and in the villages not the capitol. Find the people in the organization that want more effective ways to do their jobs and give them the tools. Many of us are in the latter stages of our careers, but the key to success is embedding the message (and the means) with those at the beginning. (though keep in mind that Drucker published half his books after age 65). Frankly it is more fun to watch the young, smart and ambitious use “working out loud”, knowing that once that genie is out of the bottle it can’t be put back in.

  6. Ouch.
    In defense of Steve and his Forbes piece, I believe he’s merely saying “it’s underway” as opposed to “we’re done”. We have a long, long way to go John … you know that.
    And I take some offense to your line, “A few select anecdotes and some books on new management approaches don’t add up to much.” … because a) we have to start somewhere b) there are ‘some’ good examples out there and c) some of us trying to make the change in an organization are willing to share our stories — putting ourselves and our reputations on the line — in an effort to help others.
    In fact, I’d say it does add up to ‘much’.

    • John Stepper says:

      Hello, Dan. In no way do I mean to trivialize the good work at TELUS or Whole Foods or Gore or the few companies that indeed do things differently. And of course I like books and plan to write another myself.

      Still, I think articles like those by Steve Denning do more harm than good. They make it seem like we’re further ahead that we are, say, across the Fortune 1000. And I contend that does the opposite of what he intends – dispiriting corporate change agents rather than inspiring them.

      The people I know who are leading change at their companies are having a very difficult time. Hype has increased their self-doubt unnecessarily. They need practical advice and support from people inside firms (like you and your book, for example) rather than talk of how things are already changing.

      Perhaps Jon Bidwell’s historical perspective is the most sanguine. We’re really just the first wave or ripple (thanks, Marie-Louise) and it may take 2,3, 10 waves or more to see broad-based change.

      So be it. Someone has to start. I hope my post lets a few of them know they are not alone.

  7. I appreciate a couple things about this post, John. First, the groundedness. There’s no candy-coating going on here. There are many, many times when I think how much easier it would be to follow a simpler path, one that just stayed within the boundaries of what is accepted as truth today. This speaks to many of us. Second, I think that the lack of tangible progress can be very demoralizing at times, and it does come down to finding fellowship and finding intrinsic value at the heart of our work – i.e. not joy for the results, but joy for the doing.

    Thanks for writing this up.

  8. Marie-Louise Collard says:

    As always, such a thought provoking piece that brings so many issues to question.

    As Jon Bidwell points out history tells us that revolution is a slow process – although the moment of change may appear sudden and significant, with consequences that often prove to have a short shelf life (particularly when it comes to political change). Change that is going to last needs to have deep roots to sustain the momentum. That takes time.
    In the corporate sector big companies are protecting what they see as their main raison d’etre – the ability to be a profitable business in to the future – and they perceive or fear that “change” will threaten that ability, and consequently their jobs.
    So who is fighting more “to keep” their jobs? Who is most afraid? In times of economic uncertainty who is likely to be the greater loser?

    Are big companies in some sectors implementing change more successfully than others? Do you think the industry sector itself is relevant in this argument?

    Perhaps we should think of “ripples” more than “revolutions” and “waves” rather than “warriors”.
    There are lots of ripples happening – some come to nothing, others go further and are making businesses change the way they work . Sometimes bigger waves make an impact and spread further.
    Courage, patience and perseverance – how right you are! Change is coming.

  9. plerudulier says:

    Reblogged this on Things I grab, motley collection and commented:
    if you’re trying to change your company, chances are you’re not alone. Find other like minded people just so to improve your chances.

  10. Thank you for this reality check on Management 2.0, John, much appreciated. There is no doubt, we need visions and guides to gain a better understanding for the future of work; the risk is they’ll be skewed by powerful groups inside and outside the organization (witness the E2.0 space) and the possible gains for employees are lost. We need substantial and sustainable change. Authors like Dan Pontefract and Dave Gray (and many others) see the road ahead. Let’s keep walking.

  11. Huge thanks for a great post and much-needed reality check.

    Marie-Louise is right: “Change that is going to last needs to have deep roots to sustain the momentum. That takes time.” For me those roots go back to the shift from traditional manufacturing to customer-focused ways of working based on a philosophy of whole workforce participation in collaborative innovation.

    And it was a slog. One of the insights from that time was the mess and confusion of transformational change. According to one commentator back then, most businesses failed their way to success. Many went to the wall. As then, so it is now.

    Having worked with people trying to change the ways things are done, both back then in factories and since in other sectors, I am only too aware of the emotional costs and personal consequences for the brave and determined people who instigate change.

    Which brings me to my heroine. My sister, a senior nurse, who set about changing the performance culture on the hospital ward she manages. For her, the cost of not acting was higher than the personal cost of the pain she (and others) went through. It can be done.

    You are dead right though to stress the “challenges facing people trying to change complex, emergent systems like corporations.” People in these situations learn more from each other, and gain huge emotional support, than from outside ‘experts’ (they are the experts) and pundits. I know. I have worked with senior people trying to challenge the status quo.

    But I also know that outside people can act as sounding boards, provocateurs, connectors to people, information and tools that might help, ideas, shoulders to cry on etc. At least that is where I hope I can contribute. We all have a big job on our hands.

  12. Philip Rooke, CEO of Spreadshirt, recently put it succinctly: EVOLUTION = SEX + MUTATION + DEATH.
    The problem of large companies are those who are protecting their acquired possession and are afraid of change. Bring people together, let them collaborate, mix them up and you will make a huge step forward. And – radically – eliminate those who don’t have that DNA of change. But, to be honest, defining these guidelines is part of the strategy of a company and a task of the Senior Management. If they don’t recognize that issue, the will literally mis-lead. Large companies are no grassroots democracies.
    And at least reflect yourself more often. I found that sign in Vancouver, which puts it in a nutshell:

  13. Brilliant post, full of true insight! Thanks!

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  15. Greg says:

    Sounds like you were having “one of those days” as am I – really needed these inspiring words to help me get going this week. Thanks!

  16. Ralph says:

    I agree with Dan too. Also, this type of transformation takes time and repetition, time and time again, once conversation at a time. It’s not a training managers get and that’s it! it’s a Journey, in which they are accompanied by change agents, not a sprint.

    Sometimes, we take a step or two or three back, to leap forward in small or big ways. I agree folks can get discouraged and are tempted to revert back to older ways of doing business. But in the end, going back to older ways might not feel so great after tasting a more open and connected (natural) work experience.

    Habit creation ( moving from command and control to a cultivate and coordinate model ) is a hard thing but most certainly achievable. No one is asking anybody to live in ways that we unseen before, just asking to ”let go” a little and start measuring things other than the easy stuff, like the rules and regulations. One should be on the lookout for the ”Mana” an Org needs and this Mana is Relationships and community formation.

    IMO, i think some folks who don’t want to ”change” might lack courage to be ”out in the open” becasue
    A- they cannot be social and connected ( EQ based issue which is definitely ”workable” )
    B- they simply don’t yet ”see” the return on Experience in being open and living on the edge of chaos. they might be stuck in a status Quo and not even realize it. Managers need inspiration from others who walked the talk, and re-assurance that failing and learning fast is the way to go about it.

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  18. I agree with you John, in that the pat on the back articles the mainstream financial press write usually do more harm than good. And this one is no exception. It will take decades to cause change in most large companies, but that comes from fragmented short-term ownership, unless their ownership start to look for policies that go beyond turning a profit in the next quarter, not much will push most large companies to change.

    But there is another reality, where exceptions exist, some are old large firms that have stable ownership, and they constantly reinvent themselves, other are new companies that have grown, due to new technologies, that have allowed them to take dominate positions in established industries. These exceptions operate according to Deming’s and Drucker’s ideas often, they operate more like Honda and Toyota than GM. Time will eventually either change the other large companies or eliminate them either way in the end change is happening and it won’t be stopped.

    Though it would be nice to see change happen in very large companies, that is far less important to our economy than what is happen in a lot of smaller companies. After all more people work in small enterprises than in all the large ones. It is the lack of change or the inability of large companies to change that often creates the opportunities these smaller companies need to succeed.

  19. Thoroughly enjoyed the article John. Change has never been easy but, I fear that the need is such that ‘transformation’ or a paradigm shift is what we urgently require! I did comment on Linkedin but was ‘inspired’ to expand upon the point…

    Measuring complexity, as the means to monitor, manage and maintain resilience…also to communicate these properties, through the business ecosystem, to other connected systems…can serve as a platform to cultivate systemic resilience http://wp.me/p16h8c-1CB


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  22. urbie says:

    Cool thoughts. I can’t wait for the lows where things get -really- interesting. Some thoughts..


  23. nsteinmetz says:

    You are not alone as you said and should join the Corporate Rebels United (http://corporaterebelsunited.com/)

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