When we talk about change in the organisation, when we discuss agile, we are often automatically talking about a method. We are referencing an agreed process for bringing change about and for how to work. Perhaps this logical progression from method to outcome is not the reality of many companies. I want to talk instead of change activism, to champion the idea that activists for change are needed and that this activism, the campaign for change, is good for the enterprise. Activists can bring about a different form of agility, one that is infused with a strong sense of humanity with very significant social values attached.
I can best explain this with reference to my own experience. I don’t claim my experience is unique and I have learned from many other people. But my experience is a good place to start.
The cult of the white male elite
I was going to headline this section the “culture of elites” but really I am talking about something more specific. Many organisations are cults. They are led by people who grow up within the cult and are promoted because they have the credentials of the cult.
Now, don’t read cult as a wholly negative label. Apple is a cult. It has succeeded wildly as a cult. But look at Apple and find me any significant diversity in its leadership team. It is essentially white, male, and of a certain age. Its members also share other characteristics, having hung around together on the US West Coast for a long time and having achieved significant income and prestige.
These cults are bound to be successful some of the time. After all, most companies in Europe and the USA are made up of similar groups.
The company I work for, Sanofi, has its own cult of success. There are many characteristics of Sanofi’s cult that are very admirable, just like Apple’s.
Sanofi is a pharmaceutical company. In the vaccines division, where I work, we do incredibly useful work. We are very much tied into the ethos of public health. We have exceptionally gifted scientists. And where we need people who know big data, we have the best.
Yet the flip side of this is that our leadership is made up from a limited social background. Mostly men, mostly white, they have attended particular French or North American universities and share the same background of qualifications and experience. They rise in the organisation by being a part of the science community.
It is an open question whether or not a leadership, culture and hierarchy shaped by this background can identify with the people it serves.
It is a bigger, and yet still an open question, if this division between our leadership and our customers matters.
Many of our vaccines are injected into babies who are exposed to disease risk. They are situated in any part of the world, in very varying social and economic circumstances.
It turns out that the divide does matter. If the question were asked and answered in an open way, we would find it matters very much. It matters in ways that would be of enormous benefit to Sanofi and its customers.
However, a hierarchy is not likely to change itself in response to this question. Therefore change activism becomes one of the few routes to agility, the agility I mentioned earlier where a full range of human values are channeled through the workplace.
The origins of diversity in Sanofi
This is where I think my own story will help you grasp the value of a more diverse and hence agile management culture.
Around 2010, after nearly a decade in Sanofi, it became apparent that my own career was headed sideways rather than up. Yet my peers, mostly male, were enjoying the successes they would expect at their age, at my age, and their career stage.
I should add that before Sanofi I had worked in different parts of the world and had some specialisation in cross-cultural working. I wasn’t just an aggrieved feminist but someone whose career had been shaped by witnessing the value of diversity.
Feeling a little troubled by my company’s monoculture I wrote an email to the CEO explaining how I thought diversity could help. He didn’t respond.
In search of reassurance I sent the email to three friends, just to seek support from people close to me. They in turn sent it to their friends. And after a short while we realised we had an informal group of people who shared a view about the company.
What could we do with our frustration? We decided to be a solution-making group for the company on this issue. But of course we had no budget and no boss. The company had an internal social network that was not much used so we began to communicate there, and the group grew, very quickly. We also invited people from outside the company to nourish the thinking with other viewpoints.
Because we got together in this unprompted and unplanned way, we were from the start experimental. We had no road map. We had freedom. And in a way it was very disturbing.
However, we began to get recognition for putting forward new arguments about the diverse workforce. Not much changed within Sanofi but we won awards for raising the challenge of diversity. That meant though that the issue was still our issue, an issue for activists, and not a part of the company policy.
Change activism at work for Sanofi
Our vision of diversity is, as I wrote earlier, a broad one. It extends to thinking of Sanofi as part of its community as much as it does to the roles and opportunities that arise in a diverse culture.
As a new vaccine came up for launch, a vaccine against Dengue Fever, a disease that can potentially affect 40% of the world, we got an opportunity to demonstrate the benefit of this way of thinking. I say “got” but I mean seized. We argued that the marketing approach for this launch should follow the principles of diversity too.
What might this mean in practice?
Routine pharmaceutical marketing rolls out in a very planned and coordinated way. The objectives are to announce the license, talk about the breakthrough and benefits, communicate with doctors, provide the nursing support to surgeries where vaccines will be administered and so on.
It admits to one course of action – to push the vaccine through the health system to the intended recipient.
We argued for a parallel PULL approach. The disease we are seeking to prevent is much discussed online. We found people tweeting about it and there were forums and micro-communities in places like Facebook and Pinterest.
Our approach involved connecting these informal communities around a common purpose, with Sanofi being a co-activist.
The vaccine was not available for sale yet so we weren’t even a solution provider at that time. We were just empowering activists for this cause by providing them with a platform to connect. We were very successful. Within a year the Facebook group created by an alliance of partners had 250,000 in, a feat never before accomplished in pharmaceuticals. It became a case study for the World Health Organisation and, once again won awards.
A traditional organisation like ours though had difficulty recognising this success.
The reason is simple. To achieve these ends you have got to break the rules, for example to communicate outside the formal PR channels. It also means going outside the traditional plan and execution guide rails.
To the traditionalist, this social approach looks undisciplined. And there is truth in that. There is not the same playbook for social as there is for traditional marketing. We have to improvise more. It is the nature of activism but also the nature of human communications that you react to the flow. Once you stop seeing people as a target market you have to admit they are unpredictable and then deal with this.
Success in this clash of cultures creates enemies as well as support. Things change, and then change back… I feel that very strong, sometimes contradictory dynamics are at work in the company now.
Putting change activism on a stronger footing
The momentum for change at Sanofi, the change I am talking about where the diversity of experience is used to everybody’s advantage, has ebbed and flowed. But as in many organisations there are key moments where the benefits are seen by at least one person who recognises the value of embracing new methods.
Before telling this brief ending to a story that is still in progress, a valuable insight from the experience of change activism is this. Organisations are fields of social interaction. Older organisations shape these fields according to norms they inherit from the wider field of society – the universities, the traditions of science, the recognition they have earned from the record of breakthrough and invention.
We must, though, see that these norms emerge from social interactions too. What we, in the diversity field, are pointing out is really quite simple. There are other fields of social interaction that now surround the company and, unofficially, infuse it with a new kind of life. What we are saying is that there are new social interactions that also have value for Sanofi. To stay blind to this is unscientific and asocial.
The bridge between these two forms of interaction began to be built in a more permanent way, we hope, when a new executive was appointed to take charge of Quality.
Like most pharma companies, Sanofi Pasteur had been on a cyclical trend for manufacturing quality and hence the new appointment. However, this new executive perceived that the current ways of working were probably the root of the problem. People actually work extremely hard and are dedicated to their task. But over the last few years regulations, as in finance, have become more burdensome and, increasingly, quality has been (mis)understood as a question of following rules and documenting compliance.
If this slips then the answer can be to find ways to reinforce regulations. But it should be apparent that there is a paradox here. More enforcement adds to the problem rather than solving it.
Our new executive asked if we could pull people into a more engaged passion for quality rather than pushing them to do more compliance.
So we set out to engage people. Just as with the Dengue vaccine, the starting point not a rule book or play book. We started where people were at.
This is beginning to work, though I will save the details of the how for another day. The essence is that in order to engage people in a passion for quality we posed the question: Vaccines save lives; how can we make sure we have standards that let us deliver vaccines to whoever needs them anywhere? How can we NOT do that?
From there, a movement has grown. Luis, a shopfloor worker… Jen, a training director… Lyne, a manufacturing manager… volunteers of all ranks and sites went to their colleagues, saying “What will I do differently today, to save more people tomorrow?” they become activists of change and engage their peers. In 2 years, close to 5,000 people said “yes, that’s what we want”.
Complacency is giving way to agency, collaboration, and care for each other. There is no new structure, no procedure, but there is a shared purpose. This, and the trust we put in people, gets the best of out of them. Leaders support volunteers, instead of setting directions.
People feel empowered and proud. The quality indicators are turning positive for the first time in 10 years. This means more vaccines for more people. Status quo, au revoir!
Our world is a constellation of fields where people interact. The old privileged fields, the elites and cults that the economy revolved around are just one of these fields. Of course in an economy dominated by this elite it might appear that the elite is the root of all success, that it has earned its position because of its results.
But now all fields or groups have the tools of interaction. We can all speak to each other; we can empower each other. And as most organisations rely on us for their success we have the power to shape the environment that we work in.
In my opinion change activism is a way to prevent serious problems in society. If our elites continue to exclude, then there will be more problems.
If we can campaign for inclusion at work, we can disseminate more of the good things we can co-create, whether that is vaccines, finance, devices or fashion. It doesn’t matter. We create these things together and we need to speak to each other about how to do it better.