How the Organisation Subverts its Subversives

John Atkinson is a founder of  The Phillips Kay Partnership Ltd

There’s quite a buzz at the moment around rebels and radicals who ‘hack’ the organisation. They are said to be growing social movements that alter the fabric of our great global corporations and institutions. Passionate about ‘what’ they want to achieve, they can be rather more naive as to ‘how’ that might actually come to pass. This has been brutally exposed time after time in the political sphere where early populist success has sadly ended in yet more repression.

Initially there is an upsurge of enthusiasm. The radicals’ message, when properly attuned, really does tap into the undercurrent of a desire for change. In fact it usually grows from it and is at its strongest when it does. People join the bandwagon, repeat the messages and thus spread the story. Eventually even the sleepiest C-suite notices something is afoot. And then the fun starts.

What happens next are two things that act to turn the subversive message back into the corporate drone.

1. The actions are copied without understanding as to what makes them work. If the change process spreads through informal meetings, called at will to address a particular issue then the organisational response is to make these mandatory. Now they are no longer spontaneous to address a tricky production issue or surprising response to our marketing efforts. Instead we feel obligated to hold them. People feel they get credit for being seen to do so. The topics of the meetings lose their urgency, people’s enthusiasm is diminished and before long we are back where we were.


2. The language is copied but without its essential tone. Risk and edginess is often at the heart of a nascent movement for change. The corporation recognises this and decides to make ‘risk-taking’ a corporate value and a part of each manager’s appraisal. Paradoxically once you are in effect being mandated to take a risk then there is no risk to your actions. Except there is. It is only ‘acceptable’, ‘calculated’ risk that is tolerated. Taking real risk that disturbs the status quo is still putting you on the edge and at risk of sanction.

This is invariably not deliberate. Sure there are people who will manipulate any opportunity for personal gain, but by and large these actions are unconscious. In acting to further the endeavour in a way that is deemed appropriate and acceptable, the organisation inevitably stifles the embryonic opportunity in its midst.

The issue arises from mimicry without meaning. The movement that grew up developed a unique identity to its work. This sense of identity and purpose gives meaning and intent to all its actions. The wider organisation senses the value in this but acts from the what it already knows how to do. It deploys the organisational bureaucracy in support of the new direction, thus turning it back into something that looks much the same as before.

The rebels and radicals cry foul! The C-suite scratches its head. Perplexed as to why the movement didn’t work, their belief in traditional linear change is simply reinforced.

The key is to see change as not simply about moving from A to B. The key is to see it as a much more fluid and organic process. You never really know where it might end up. As the organisational identity acts to re-assert itself, the rebels and radicals need to morph their efforts into something else. The approaches and energy that provoke the response are not the same as the approaches and energy that overcome that response. The leadership that manages the status quo is not the leadership the moves into a radically new space.

Just as a virus is constantly adapting as the immune system tries to defeat it, the change movement must learn to evolve. Being wedded to the form that lead to early success is a sure route to failure. Unless the change effort mutates to fight the organisational anti-bodies its legacy will be nothing more than a sense of what might have been. You may not be able to plan in advance just when or how you will need to change the way you change, but you need to be very aware that at some point you will have to. What you end up with may not be what you first envisaged, but it will be real and lasting.

Learning how to grow change is more important than forever chasing your objective, long after the circumstances that created it are gone.

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