Like so many of you, I often work in organizations that are in a state of change and have been for some time. This state of constant change can be exhausting or exhilarating, but it is often apparent change rather than real change. This morning two men walked past my desk talking among themselves about their own experience of our common environment, where organizational and staffing changes have been announced about every other week for some months now, and one said to the other as both smiled tightly, “Yes, it’s another day in the neighborhood.” I’ve said it myself in the past, but Mr. Rogers probably never expected to be quoted so out of context.
Books are arriving regularly now as I ramp up for this thesis. Recently, I had heard of Mary Parker Follett and received Pauline Graham’s Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management. Drucker and Kanter both do obeisance to her, this little heeded political scientist who wrote most actively in the 1920’s and 30’s and died in 1933 is a delight and a revelation. According to some of her modern-day fan club, what we know about modern management practices was already written about by Mary Parker Follett in the early 20th century—rapidly approaching 100 years ago now. I opened the book randomly at the section where she was writing on the individual’s role in the group and in society. I laughed with delight at what she was saying—someone, long dead, had already said what I feel we need to hear today.
I must confess to having a background in IT project management; I am trained and certified in both predictive and adaptive project management methods. I practice my craft in the context of projects because I believe that this is where individuals learn and grow the fastest, and I am interested in helping to provide a context for that growth. But, American organizations—for profit, non-profit, or governmental—are not conceived to be social service organizations founded essentially for the good of those who work in them. They are founded to serve missions that only sometimes have more than a lip service obligation in practice to do with the growth of the individuals in them.
The men walking past my desk this morning were, if I place them correctly in the organization, middle managers, and they were speaking to their human experience of organizational change and leadership in an organization that is really struggling in the current economy. They may or may not have a consistent consciousness of the effect of the current set of changes and uncertainties on the 7,000 souls employed in this organization, but they probably are keenly aware of the effect on themselves and their families.
Given that organizational change and uncertainty is a fact of our work lives that is not likely to change and that everyone deals with this in her own way, some more compassionately and with more awareness than others, the question we must grapple with is how will we deal with these pressures over the decades that we are working in organizations. In every organization, there are rules; those rules comprise the culture. And every subgroup in that organization has its own culture. Many people are eager to “play by the rules” and fit in. We feel safer when we fit in. But sometimes, in the context of constant change, we can lose ourselves in these rules, and not realize until it is too late. (See an interview of John Rigas by Charlie Rose) Some feel this happening; some don’t. David Whyte, as I discussed in my previous post, speaks to those who use the flint of the workplace to hone themselves, going so far, even, as to see the workplace or career as one of the three marriages. Follett speaks in a very common-sense manner about the individual in the context of the group. I think of those many employees exiting their workplace for the last time with little more than a small box of personal possessions and a mixture of confusion, pain, and a ripped identity. What stops us from travelling down that road to it’s unpleasant end?