The doctor at the fast food convention



Can you imagine being a doctor at a fast food convention, trying to change the way people eat? Even if the attendees know the food is bad for them, they’ll be surrounded by it and by other people who eagerly eat it, so they’ll eat it too.

To try to help them, you’ll race around frantically, telling them about the benefits of eating right and exercising. Some will nod their heads. “Yes, we really should.” Then they’ll go back to doing what they usually do.

That’s what it can feel like when you talk about making work better in large companies.

Most people know there are better ways of working. They know their daily practices aren’t good for them. They know they’re not engaged. But for most of them it just feels too difficult to change.

So what do you do? Give up on all those unfulfilled people?

The Work Revolution Summit

Yesterday, I was fortunate to be admitted to the Work Revolution Summit where I could  “join leading entrepreneurs, startup investors, futurists, organizational designers, and technology experts to fundamentally re-design the way we work.”


One of the organizers was Jessica Lawrence, who is both former CEO of the Girl Scouts and organizer of the NY Tech Meetup for entrepreneurs. One of the objectives of the summit was to help start-ups maintain “a ‘human’ company culture that helps both the employees and the company reach their full potential as the organization grows and scales.” And Jessica gave a fascinating talk about trying to change the culture while she was CEO.

There were several other great speakers, including Seth Godin. And I got to ask him a question about what to do when your are, in essence, a doctor at the fast food convention.

A question for Seth Godin

Seth GodinSeth Godin’s daily blog has done more to change how I approach work than anything else. And each time I hear him speak, I’m inspired to do more. This time, I had the chance the to ask him “What do you do when you’re preaching change and and it seems like only a small minority is interested in actually changing?”

He told me something that I know is right but I’ve had trouble putting into practice. Don’t preach to everybody. Don’t try to reach everybody. Many people are simply trying to hold onto their job and it’s too scary/hard/uncomfortable for them to do something different. Instead, find the people who are ready and eager for change. Connect them to build a tribe who wants to change. And equip and empower that tribe to extend the movement (giving them credit and control when they do).

A shift in tactics

The first NYC Marathon in 1970

The first NYC Marathon in 1970

I was 6 years old when the first NYC Marathon took place in 1970. Only 127 people ran that race. Only 55 finished. And about 100 people watched. No one I knew heard of it. No one I knew ran at all. At the time, running a marathon seemed ridiculous.

41 years later, almost 47,000 people finished and almost 2 million people lined up along the route. It’s become the largest marathon anywhere in the world. And even I completed one.

Running marathons didn’t spread because Fred Lebow, the original organizer, went around telling everyone about the benefits of running. Instead, all 6 sources of influence came into play. Over time, there was more help to get you started and more motivation at the personal, social, and structural levels. More running books, more equipment, more races, more clubs, more visible rewards.  Over the course of a generation, more and more people just did it.

Growth of a tribe

Growth of a tribe

So of course changing how people work isn’t simply about telling people. We’ll have to keep making it easier to work out loud. Keep writing about it and teaching it. Keep connecting advocates and equipping them to extend their own networks.

Just now, I joined the work revolution where I pledged “I will do whatever I can within my sphere of influence to promote workplaces that are profoundly human and deeply meaningful.”

It may take a generation, but we need to keep running.

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.
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8 Responses to The doctor at the fast food convention

  1. Tom Gilbert says:

    Nice post John. Counter question – what do you do with the fast food lobbyists who turn up at the healthy living convention? 🙂

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree with you about how hard change is in large corporations, and how hard it is to overcome organisation momentum and do the right thing.

    But sometimes you see people using this dynamic – pushing a change agenda, saying all the right things about driving change, and talking about how we have to change – but actually just using it to drive their own personal agendas. It can make it difficult to have a useful discussion about what the right thing is, and how to do it, because not agreeing is easily dismissed as not embracing change…. So dialogue is shut down and constructive feedback is seen as dissent. That can be frustrating for genuinely open minded people who do want to do the right thing but might have some experience or feedback on the matter at hand.

    It’s especially hard in an organisation which has, quite rightly, realised and publicised that it must, must change. So everybody who wants to do anything has to pitch their ideas and personal objectives in this light.

    This is a difficult balance in my opinion!

    • John Stepper says:

      Hi, Tom.

      I think the best thing you can do is to post your reasons publicly. One f the most popular discussions on our social platform at work, for example, is about the top 5 reason people *don’t* want to use the platform.

      Whether it’s about a tool or the latest re-org, the key is to make your comments positive and constructive. Better said, you can point out issues or disagree, but do so in a way that’s focused on a positive outcome.

      The occasional martini helps, too. 🙂

  2. Irene Johansen says:

    Oddly enough, I was just going to find a place to ask you, what do you do when the social tools are there, but no one is using them. I’m on the bottom rung, but with a fair amount of experience. I love the idea of using the tools, but I’m one of very few. We’re a small company, with clinical personnel spread out over a wide area, two clinic sites of our own, and a main administrative office. In your experience, do you find that culture plays a role in use of these tools?

  3. Irene Johansen says:

    Thanks also for the link to the Revolutionary Workplace. I’ve taken the plunge.

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