COSMETIC REFORM: WHEN THE DISEASE BECOMES THE CURE

By Peter Block

Despite the popularity of the idea of stewardship, the continuing story of most organizations is a celebration of the importance of great leadership, in either its harsher or kindlier forms. Our institutional models are basically patriarchal.  Everyone wants to know where to find partnership on a large scale.

As we turn our attention to finding the process through which to live out our intention to institutionalize stewardship principles and practices, we are faced with a paradox: how does patriarchy go about the task of changing or healing itself?

Even after we decide that top-down, parenting management strategies will not win, many efforts to change will inevitably reenact the same beliefs that created the need for change in the first place. Change management, as it is called will too often use a mixture of leadership, consistency, control, and predictability to try to implement the ideas of empowerment, partnership, and self-management. Patriarchy will reinvent itself in living out the promise of its own demise.

This reality is a major source of the cynicism about whether cultural change is ever lasting or even possible. If the experience of moving from leadership to stewardship does not in itself incorporate choice and local autonomy, then it has no credibility and will forever be a program requiring constant infusions.

The symptom of our doubt is the question that keeps coming up: “What’s next?” It is based on the experience that nothing ever really sticks or makes a fundamental difference. Conventional cultural change programs may give our organizations a new look, but the mind-set and the way we operate stay the same. These efforts then are simply cosmetic. And we switch quickly from one to the next, like restlessly changing channels, never questioning that it is the act of watching television that is the source of our discontent.

The answer to the question of what is next is: “Nothing is next. There is nothing that will be any more helpful than what we already have.” Any organization-improvement idea, committed to over time, will give us what we need. It is our willingness to commit, engage people again and again, make constant course corrections and sustain our faith that works.

We need to deconstruct the idea that in order to have control and consistency in our product or service quality, we must have consistency and control in the way we govern the people creating the product or service. . The governance or human system need the opposite of consistency and control, it needs local choice, experimenting with a variety of paths, bring people together to make social innovations. This how to succeed in shifting, customer-driven environment. Improvement efforts that produce no redistribution of power, purpose, or privilege will produce no real improvement.

Choosing to create our own experiment in putting the future into the hands of each member of an organization is walking into an unlit room. For this reason and more, the choice for stewardship begins with an act of faith.

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Adapted from Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2013).