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Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work

 
10/10/2001
So-called tempered radicals find themselves in the tricky situation of trying to be a part of the dominant culture while at the same time trying to change the system. These are the heroes of Debra Meyerson's Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work. Our excerpt looks at the power of small wins to create substantial change.

Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work

Leveraging Small Wins

From the time he was hired in the mid-1960s, Peter Grant felt that Western should hire more people from ethnic and racial minority groups. He believed not only that more diversity would make it easier for existing employees from minority groups to excel, but also that the broader perspectives that diversity would bring to an organization would strengthen the company. Further, he knew that some of the embedded practices, particularly related to recruiting, were making it hard to find and attract the candidates he believed they should recruit. It wasn't that other people were opposed to his ideas, it's just that they didn't see the need as clearly as he did and certainly didn't see the impediments.

Peter could have made a big public issue about his concerns, but he believed generally that if he made any outright attempts to change recruiting policy or challenge some underlying assumptions, he might be threatening to his colleagues and might arouse a great deal of resistance. So he chose to start quietly.

As he went about his normal recruiting activities, Peter worked hard to identify solid minority candidates. When he did, and then successfully recruited them, he asked them to make a commitment—that they too would hire other minority candidates: "I'd say, 'one of your jobs is to hire other people from minority groups. If you can't do that, if you're not committed to that, then you shouldn't take this job." He also asked them to actively maintain relationships with their new hires at Western. Peter believes strongly that the only way change will occur is "if we bring others along." With each hire, he communicated this.

For many years, Peter kept to this process. As all this minority hiring was taking place in the context of a substantially larger and broader recruiting activity, it didn't draw attention. Over time, however, these scattered initiatives added up. In his first two years with the company, Peter estimates that he directly or indirectly helped recruit forty minority candidates. Over ten years, he guesses that the number grew to 1,500. After 20 years, Peter had made his way into the executive ranks and was actively involved in many aspects of Western's management activities. After 30 years with Western, he was addressing issues of diversity much more actively and openly. But by this time, he estimated that the process he had started with tiny steps decades ago had been responsible for the hiring of more than 3,500 minority employees and the creation of a support network that makes it more possible for them to succeed.

Peter's quiet recruitment policy is an example of what Karl Weick calls a "small win." A small win is a "limited doable project that results in something concrete and visible." 1 Peter knew what he wanted to achieve—dramatically increase the representation of minorities at Western and create a context in which they could succeed. He started where he could, with initiatives that were doable. In starting small, he made immediate tangible progress and over time created a cascading process that not only made a meaningful difference by itself but helped set a context for change later on.

Compared to strategies outlined in previous chapters, the small wins approach presumes an agenda for change and a proactive approach to seeking opportunities to put this agenda into motion. It is a conscious strategy for living in line with values and effecting change without directly confronting the system in a open and aggressive manner.

Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work

Let's look at how Joanie Mason used small wins to pursue her agenda at Shop.co. Initially she reported directly to Alice, the founder and CEO of the company. Joanie needed the cooperation of the product development group to launch her products, but their cooperation—like that of other groups in the company—was sometimes less than forthcoming. Though many of the individuals in the group wanted to support the fair-trade projects in principle, they usually included the products in the product line only as socially responsible "add-ons."

When the company was reorganizing many of its divisions, Joanie saw an opportunity to make some changes. She thought she might get less resistance from the product development group if she herself became part of the group. So she requested that her group be moved into the product development division and that she report directly to the director of that division. No one resisted this request; in fact many people saw it as a voluntary demotion since Joanie would no longer report to the CEO. 2

Her project gained momentum. As an "insider" in the group, she had more success getting colleagues in product development to appreciate the merits of her fair-trade products and how these products could enhance the overall product line. Soon her colleagues asked her to attend product development brainstorming sessions to generate ideas for the next season's wares. Her group became part of this process, and quickly her colleagues in the "regular" product groups began to think of the fair-trade products as integral to some of their lines. She also looked for opportunities to talk about her new reporting structure and how it was more appropriate for her to be integrated into the product development process rather than in a separate program disconnected from the core activities. When possible, she used her move as an occasion to create conversation about the role of fair trade within the company.

Quotation
In starting small, he made immediate tangible progress and over time created a cascading process that not only made a meaningful difference by itself but helped set a context for change later on.
Quotation
—Debra Meyerson

Like Peter, Joanie had an agenda for change. She had previously tried more direct routes to pursue it. She had worked for months trying to change directly what was valued in the organization, trying to get people to support in practice the kind of programs that were consistent with Shop.co's articulated values. Some of these efforts had made clear progress in some groups, but they had required a great deal of time and energy. Joanie's move into product development was less threatening and more doable. Her requested change in reporting structure created little resistance. Yet with this one small act, and her framing it as a deliberate effort to integrate her programs into the product development process, Joanie completely shifted how a critical department thought about valued and treated the fair-trade products. Not bad for one small act!

* Three of his colleagues corroborated these figures with their own independent estimates, which were slightly higher than Peter's "conservative" estimate.

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Excerpted with the permission of Harvard Business School Press from Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work by Debra E. Meyerson. Copyright 2001 Debra E. Meyerson. All Rights Reserved.

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Examples of Small Wins

These examples were provided by a tempered radical who sought to promote social responsibility and environmental consciousness in her company.

  • Place a green bin under everyone's desk so they don't even have to get up and walk to the nearest recycling receptacle. The cleaning staff is paid to collect all the recyclable waste.
  • Put a bottle bank in the parking lot so people don't have to make an extra trip to recycle glass.
  • Configure computers to shut down automatically so people don't have to remember to turn monitors off.
  • Purchase low-energy light bulbs in bulk so employees can buy them cheaply and use them at home.
  • Set up a carpool for lunchtime supermarket shopping.
  • Switch tea and coffee sourcing to fair-trade suppliers.

Reprinted with the permission of Harvard Business School Press from Tempered Radicals: How People Use Difference to Inspire Change at Work by Debra E. Meyerson. Copyright 2001 Debra E. Meyerson. All Rights Reserved.

NOTES

1. Quote from Karl Weick's class notes. The definition is very close to the one offered in Karl Weick, "Wisdom in the 90's: Adaptations Through Small Wins" (Hale Lecture #4, University of Michigan, 30 December 1991).

2. The head of product, while not the CEO, was still a main board director.