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

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.