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How to change an organization
Around the year 2004, I decided I was going to devote myself to an immense project: veganizing the University of Chicago. I had seen one too many slaughterhouse videos and was suffering from night terrors with images of animals being torn to pieces alive. And the U of C (which is what Chicago grads call the school) was a quirky place where people believed and did weird things.
I was further convinced by the conventional wisdom at the time: that around 1-2% of people who took a leaflet about veganism would be converted.
It seemed like a numbers game. And so I got to work, baking vegan chocolate chip cookies and handing out vegan leaflets… until the impossible happened.
Sadly, the impossible was not a vegan U of C.
The impossible was me getting sick of chocolate chip cookies, after baking thousands and eating hundreds myself.
The people I gave the cookies to rarely if ever gave me any indication that they were going vegan.
I wish I had known then what I know now about organizational change. But part of the reason I’ve learned the things I’ve learned is because of research by people like Prof. Mary McDonnell at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Management. McDonnell has done something interesting with her career: she went to business school (and now teaches at one) to understand how activists, including employee activists, can change the largest corporations in the world.
That might seem strange. But McDonnell makes a good point: to truly understand how to change an organization, you need to have some understanding of how it works from the inside. And what’s she found, in her research of organizational change in corporations, is that you can’t change things if you go it alone. Forming committees, teams, or other sub-groupings of the corporation is crucial to show that this is a collective effort, and not just the fringe view of one radical individual.
So what I really needed back in 2004 was not more vegan cookies. I needed to use those cookies to try to win me some friends!
There are a ton of other fascinating insights from this conversation, many of which have parallels in the research on political science, e.g., understanding the “turncoat” phenomenon and how it can super charge organizational change. But I can’t really do the conversation justice in a short blog. Give it a listen, and let me know what you learned.