Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Systemic Change...or Insider Amnesia?

Reacting to The 6 Rules Women Must Break in Order to Succeed, my favorite blogger, Paul Smith, stated:
"...their definitions of power were built upon structures of power already in seemed the very structure they claim is holding them back, is the same one they want to embrace...instead of creating truly new rules, they were suggesting to follow rules already in place...I was hoping it would resemble this quote from Alison Maitland..."We shouldn't be fixing the women but the system"...To me, if you wish to truly create new rules: take charge of yourself, create your own definitions of success and power, and be the captain of your own ship."
For once, I had to disagree with Paul. I agree that systemic change is needed. But I do not believe that it can be driven by those who do not control those systems. I used to believe that, but, after years of trying to impact change from the outside, I don't anymore. At least, I don't believe it can be done at a pace that will create a change I will see in my career. For significant, swift, meaningful, and lasting change, it needs to be driven by insiders, by those who control the systems. So, we need a critical mass of insiders motivated to change the systems under their control. But insiders have no incentive to change the systems that got them to where they are and help them maintain their position and power. And, simply by being an insider, they have not felt the inequity, bias, or discrimination that the current systems sustain.

One possible way to achieve that critical mass is for those who are currently outsiders to masterfully navigate the existing system to attain the leadership roles in larger numbers. I think that's what the 6 Rules are meant to do:
"We want to see women make up at least 30 percent of the leaders at the top levels of corporate America within the next 10 years. We believe that 30 percent will be a tipping point. If (when) that happens, the goals and direction of corporate America will change. The old rules will be shattered, America’s corporations will be better lead, and everyone will benefit."
The trouble is, once people become insiders, my experience is that they forget what it was like to be outsiders (or maybe they were never really outsiders, weren't change champions to start, or don't have enough insider support to change the system).

Can critical mass even be achieved in the next 10 years? And, even if it is achieved (which is a pretty big "if," given the roadblocks inherent in the system -- it's not as if we haven't tried to break the glass ceiling before), will the new insiders suddenly have insider amnesia and lose their passion to change the system?

I think "insider amnesia" – my term for forgetting what you wanted to change in the system when you were an outsider – is human nature. Reminds me of the anecdote in a December 2006 HBR article, "The Curse of Knowledge," by Chip and Dan Heath (also brought to mind by one of Paul's relatively recent posts). They describe a psychology experiment in which a group of people were divided into those who would tap out the rhythm of a well-known song on a table and those who would listen and try to identify the song. Tappers were asked to predict the probability that the listeners would guess correctly, and they guessed 50%. The actual success ratio was 2.5%. The tappers were shocked at the listeners' inability to identify the songs. The disparity was summed up:
"When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.

The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind."
Maybe once we begin tapping from the inside, the system seems less broken to us, even though it hasn't changed. Or maybe we just are more invested in protecting the system that is currently rewarding us. It's probably some of both.

I'd still like to see 30% women at top leadership levels in corporate America within a decade, just to see if that is a tipping point. Couldn’t hurt to try that experiment, could it?

What do you think?
  • Is it possible for women to achieve a critical mass of corporate leadership roles within 10 years within the existing business infrastructure?
  • What are critical success factors?
  • What do you think will happen if the goal is achieved?
  • How do you feel about all of this?
  • What will you do?