While many people see large corporations as monolithic, hierarchical, dictatorial and brutal, many of us who have worked in organizations have experienced another side.
Anthropologist Margaret Mead once said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
In my experience, Mead’s assessment is just as true of organizations as it is of other kinds of communities or societies.
Years ago, I did a bit of blogging about the democratic side of corporate life. I admit that some of the logic was a stretch, countering the comment that “people don’t have a vote” with a reply “that the vote takes place every morning when you choose to walk in the door.”
But looking at corporate life from Mead’s perspective, it is easier to demonstrate that people at all levels can have significant influence on their organizations, particularly when they work together.
Here are some of the changes that “small groups of committed citizens” can achieve in the corporate world, without explicit permission or top-down changes in policy:
Introducing new behaviors—as Leandro Herrero points out in his Viral Change series, sustainable change is largely the result of demonstrating behaviors which can be imitated. Such behaviors need to be role-modeled, and their success is as dependent on the ones who are doing the role modelling as on the transferability of the behavior.
Establishing precedents: corporate life is often vague, even purposely so. When a group of people start to reduce that ambiguity by doing something a certain way once, then establishing it as a standard (officially or unofficially), they establish precedents—new boundaries for decision-making.
Introducing and refining definitions: While actions are important, words are important as well in that they can shape actions, particularly if they clearly spell out the shared meaning of commonly used terms, and frame the degree of freedom with which one can act on and fulfill those terms.
Championing and challenging: a group of people who are committed to certain goals and values can monitor and mobilize activity to support the achievement of those goals, or to challenge behavior that is incompatible with those values.
As Mead declines to specify whether those groups which change the world are either formal or informal, it is worth noting that change can be driven successfully by formal teams, such as a team aiming to set some new precedents and standards for the way a company runs its change programs, as well as by informal coalitions of like-minded people seeking to make an organization more humane or pragmatic.
What is implicit, and equally clear, is that there is plenty of scope for a group to drive positive change in nearly every organization. The challenge has less to do with getting permission, and more to do with getting a group together.