Those who missed the powerful acceptance speech that Oprah Winfrey gave as she became the first ever black woman to win the Golden Globe Cecil B DeMille lifetime achievement award missed something. It was moving at multiple levels — and Oprah dealt with multiple issues delicately and with dignity like a trapeze artist. She spoke powerfully about the narrative of fight back against the twin scourge — sometimes independently and sometimes as a poisonous concoction together — abuse of gender and race. Her words to those who have so far caused such abuse was both a warning as well as a challenge, ‘’Your time is up’’ will reverberate for a while.
However, I was intrigued by something else. She mentioned a black woman Recy Taylor’ fight against a racial and gender abuse in 1944 — which was supported by ‘The” Rosa Parks as a volunteer who later became the trigger of the resistance against racial discrimination — who Oprah finds an inspiration in. I was intrigued by the nature of influence and change. It was not lost upon me that once a ripple is made on calm waters, there is no way to know where those ripples will end. This was a classic case of “no protest is too small or too insignificant” — every event counts till it acquires a critical mass. I examined my own tendency to overlook imperfection and injustice in the name of my being a lone voice and felt quite petty.
There is enough literature on change management these days, which perhaps fails on this touchstone. True change does not follow a model may be! There must be sufficient dissatisfaction on the streets (or cubicles) brewing for a sufficiently long period of time and each dissatisfaction with the status quo must be publically expressed and registered, and nature will provide the spark eventually. That is what the street movements have taught us across times, and more so in recent times. This is what is ‘revolution from below’ would mean. People, masses, us — we are creators of change, only if we add our small splinters of discontent till the whole thing turns into an inferno.
Then I remembered having read a book by the sociologist Dipankar Gupta a few years ago, which argued that all great revolutions have been led by a small elite at the top who have managed to forge changes in politics and societies even when those changes weakened the status quo to which they belonged and benefited from. All social reforms, freedom struggles across continents were led by this ‘minority elite’ — the masses only followed the direction. The book is obviously more detailed and nuanced and you must read it if this subject interests you. The limited point is that there was another body of work which was approaching the subject of revolutions and change not from the streets (as in the paragraph above) but from the enlightened drawing rooms.
The implicit argument is “if the masses knew any better, they would never have ended up with the problems of abuse and discrimination in the first place.” Masses are mindless herds that can be easily led astray as history has proved time and again.
Enlightenment, progress, and progressiveness are all acts of defiance and these usually come from the top and a few, because they have the power in the structure to really make a difference.
Confusing right? So where does the locus of change really sit? Let me throw in another one.
Change management is a heavily researched body of work in the world of management these days. Researchers have studied the organized change in organizations and proposed models for the future. The distilled wisdom from such change programs has been converted a ready-to-use, do-it-yourself, off-the-shelf models with an implicit promise that if certain steps are followed, then voila, change is ushered in! This is a third take on the subject of change, in which all change can be broken down into distinct steps, and each step can be mastered; and when those steps are done, the change you are seeking in a system can be brought about. There is a huge traction of this view given the popularity of these change models enjoy today.
The trouble with this view is that it reduces the subject of change to a passive entity, which is amenable to external influence. It assumes that the subject of change will not fight back or try to deflect, dodge or subvert the attempt. Living systems have an uncanny tendency of preserving the status quo. Change is a dynamic process to say the least – what compounds the issue that it is also an incredible political process. What chance does change have when it is viewed as a clinical process — oversimplified to a model or steps?
Change management is a very arrogant view of the process of change because it believes change can really be controlled.
The outcomes of change can possibly be managed but the inherent process of change has a mind of its own. It must be respected by the ‘change manager’. The revolution often has a different trajectory than what the revolutionaries had originally planned for. Change leaders must be humble about the process, unfortunately, which often they are not.
“There are more change managers than change these days in organizations” — the sarcastic jibe a colleague mentioned the other day to me says it so poignantly. The reason could be something as simple as this — talking about change management is not the same thing as the ability to bring about change. The ones who brought about real change never knew the phrase but did the job. Talent Management custodians – are you listening?