Culture and the Real Impact of Change Agents

At the Berlin Change Days 2018

From Boston to Berlin

When Holger Nauheimer invited me to keynote the Berlin Change Days 2018 about “Courage and Corporate Activism, it seemed like a matter of evidence. By late 2017, when our initial discussion happened, I worked for a big corporate, happy to make an impact through repeated acts of change and innovative people engagement. It felt good to be a change agent and I was looking forward to sharing some cool stories. My keynote would address the need for more courage and more corporate change, if possible through active mobilization — or corporate activism.

Does “Change” Work?

What a weird question, you may ask.

Really?

But, does it really work? Friend and former colleague Mohammed, a true change maker, says: “Unless we address the root of the system, unless we really influence shareholders and how organizations make their decisions — but decisions are taken along short-term financial objectives because of the capitalist system we live in — unless we change that, neither courage nor corporate activism will make any difference. They just can’t”.

Fake Change

What I have seen is that the old system perpetuates itself through many, many ways, including through the hire of new blood. You would think that the young generations will help change that… but they’re as susceptible to power and rewards, just like the old ones. Change is not a matter of age.

“They” are “us”

I even found — even more disturbing — that sometimes *we* are the ones that enable the system to maintain itself; we are ourselves barriers to change. We don’t always realize. A young colleague once shared with me his frustration at our mother company, which was preventing change because they were “so controlling”. I couldn’t believe my ears. He himself was of the most controlling type of persons! How come he couldn’t see that in himself?

The limits of agency

Negative, controlling, oppressive behaviors are often merely symptoms of bad systems. They do not necessarily reflect the nature nor the intent of people. Employees of all levels operate as the systems asks them to. Similarly, citizens’ behaviors are shaped by macro decisions, as reminded by Umair Haque in this staggering read about the effects of austerity.

Heroic change?

Is it always a good thing to challenge the status quo anyway? Another weird question, you may say. I’ve spent several good years already fighting the status quo and have found there lots to like and learn from. All of us change agents want to change the way things work. We find it positive and valuable to see ourselves as change agents. There’s a certain melodramatic appeal in framing reality as “Us vs The Bad Guys” (the Change Makers vs Resistance to Change). But I argue we can’t afford to picture ourselves as heroic change makers. This romanticism is an illusion in the world of business. It makes us lose our efficiency.

Change: what comes with ‘success’ or ‘failure’

What happens then if our efforts are not successful? When fighting the status quo doesn’t work, change agents can get really frustrated and withdraw, not wanting to put the effort deeply anymore. Lee Bryant said recently “I feel disappointing to see so many change agents lack the ambition to change the system and instead retreat into self-help”. Some precious competence and experience get diverted and lost to the cause of change.

What really happened?

How do we know?

What did we learn?

Change agents create acts of possibility

Change agents create more freedom

Impact also arises from “confronting people with their freedom” (Peter Block again). As a change agent, that’s what you do. Both those who respond Yes to your invitation, and those who decide otherwise, are exposed by you to their freedom. In a workplace setting where it is more common to respond to imperatives and to go with the flow, the opportunity to make really free choices is rare and precious. Do you create such opportunities for yourself and your co-workers? If no space exists for people to operate as free agents within the corporate system, why don’t you build one?

From head to heart to soul

One more thing about love: in the past, I would have found weird to use the “L” word in the context of work, but not anymore. Unlike any professional assignment, fighting for change alongside co-workers made me connect with them deeply and personally. Words are not enough to describe the intensity of our shared experience. Just as I was drafting these lines, former co-worker and companion-in-change Mrunal commented on the 1st part of this post:

How do we make the system alive?

How organizations die

Organizations die from removing humanity from what they do, from how they work, from treating us people as interchangeable cogs in a machine. Among loads of examples, see this wonderful story shared by Hilton Barbour about car manufacturer GM: “GM’s decline truly began with its quest to turn people into machines”. Anything that pretends “improving efficiency” through the usual mechanistic cookbook (“streamlined processes + layoffs + communication campaign”) should be suspect. In the best case its impact is just a costly epiphenomenon that the organization manages to digest; it the worst case, it literally kills.

Bringing life to organizations

I wrote briefly in a previous post (One Human at a Time) about organizations as living systems, to which I was introduced by Myron Rogers. Living systems can not be designed, they can only be disturbed. They react to external stimulation based on what they already know, i.e. what they already are. A living system will only change to remain the same: bring in activism, the organization transforms it into push communication; bring in community of practice, the system transforms it into an additional silo. Change agents need to practice their work of change at the deep level of identity, relationship and information. Only then will the system be able to accept a different kind of input and react in a different way than it has done until now.

The process of doing is the impact

After my talk at the Berlin Change Days, I was pleased with a heartwarming feedback from the participants. But some (maybe committed to the idea of heroic change agents, corporate rebels knocking out old cultures in one blow) felt I’d told a grim tale. Was I downplaying the impact change agents have? Was I defeated and pessimistic?

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Celine Schillinger

Celine Schillinger

Author of Dare to Unlead (May 2022). A passion for modern leadership, corporate activism, engagement, social collaboration. Still learning.