After 10 years exploring the world, growing through unusual jobs, connecting deeply with strangers, I experienced a cultural shock when I joined a large, old, scientific company. First, I tried to cope. Then, I tried to change a few things.
It’s 7:00 pm, in a room with greenish concrete walls and a harsh neon light, and no windows. The room overlooks the house’s living room, also a motorcycle parking at night, which opens by a sliding grill onto a busy street of Ho Chi Minh City. The air is suffocating and sticky. I’m alone, lying under a mosquito net, watching the ceiling. I’m 23 years old and I’m overwhelmed with joy. Absolute, pure, intense joy. It’s my first day in Vietnam.
Until then, my life has been on track. I grew up in France, had loving parents, a good education, a first job. Things have happened to me in a foreseeable way. But who am I really? What am I capable of in a more challenging environment? What am I made of?
So here I am, 6,000 miles away from home, in a country that is still recovering from war, after 18 years. Ngo Hai Tiêc, a communist patriarch, his wife and their 11 children and grand-children have agreed to host me in their house for a while.
There are no friends around, no cell phones or email yet... I don’t have a job. I don’t know this country. I don’t speak the language.
This is... thrilling. Overall, this first decade of my professional life is marked by freedom, discoveries, challenges and growth. I start to understand that we make assumptions all the time, and that we can overcome them. This frail grandfather is actually a giant of Vietnamese literature. That lady who’s fasting – I believe she tries to lose weight, when she’s actually following a Buddhist rite. Humility is a critical skill.
I receive an incredible gift from my friends Quynh, Hàng, Hoang Anh: their trust, their heart. They are so different from me – and yet: when we cry together at a funeral, when we talk about love, or when we burst out laughing over another beer, all our differences give way to the essence of human connection.
Life is all about relationships and how we connect with others at a deep level.
The Big Company
Fast forward a few years. This is the second decade. I join a large pharmaceutical company in France. The beginning is awesome. Then, other aspects of corporate life occur to me and progressively become familiar – I also realize they’re commonplace across organizations and trigger abundant management literature.
Yes, there’s PowerPoint, cubicles, bad managers, etc. And:
Parent / child relationship – like in a family, except it’s at work, and your manager is often way more controlling than your parents. You gotta ask for permission. You gotta be nice – especially in the performance evaluation season. To my surprise, many adults are okay with this.
Male dominance, glass ceiling at senior level – Oh Gosh, that’s another one. I thought the previous generations had fought enough for women’s rights and the job was done. How wrong! I realize women have to work twice as hard and display way more talent just to stay in the race, with almost zero chance of reaching the highest ranks.
Division and distrust. Each function believes they’re contributing more than the others. Competition for power is very real. Ranks and grades are stark siloes too. Those who decide and those who implement hardly get together and generally don’t understand each other.
Nothing specific to my organization. It’s actually much better than many other places. But I experience first-hand the destructive nature of work. I see people of talent being crushed, moving from enthusiasm and hope to despair and cynicism. Depression, sometimes. Divorce, burn out. Others are just sleeping with their eyes open. I see a huge waste of talent and ideas and energy. For several years, I go with the flow. Hoping that things will change when a better manager crosses my path.
But increasingly, I realize this frustration is not just a personal experience, or even a shared experience. It is the natural consequence of a systemic flaw. It is the way organizations work today.
Those in the driver’s seat don’t see they burn people out. They have great analytical skills, they focus on productivity and efficiency. Diversity is an impediment that slows the system down. It doesn’t matter that there’s no Asian in the executive team in charge of Asia (true story), and no woman in the top leadership.
Maybe this is where we can evolve the system? If decision-making levels reflected the diversity of the organization and its ecosystem – we could make things better, for employees and for the business?
Co-Creating a More Diverse Workplace
One day, I hear the new CEO is seeking input on the company strategy. Here! – my opportunity. I write him a letter. He doesn’t answer – yet. But it is the beginning of a movement in our workplace.
From this letter, in a few months, 2,500 women and men connect, live and on our social network, to push the diversity agenda. It’s like magic. Sandrine, an admin, and Bernadette, a Vice-President, now work together as fellow activists. Our common purpose is stronger than all kinds of internal barriers. We bring free speech and co-creation to this organization. It’s huge! It’s not chaos, or rebellion – we’re helping the company get better. We’re addressing its blind spot. We trigger more progress in a few months than what the organization did over several years. We receive Awards from all over the place.
Yet, when you look closely, you realize that the progress made is not that big. After a while, the organization goes back to its usual routine. Priorities disappear behind newer priorities, corporate speak and inertia. Actions are handed over to functional departments which couldn’t care less. A few years later, there’s no more diversity in the executive committee than when the movement started.
Change: 1. Status quo: 2.
... But seeds have been planted. We have not failed, we have learnt. We have more power than we think when we free ourselves from our own barriers. When things don’t work, we have to question authority.
Growing up, I got from my parents, both art teachers, how grateful we can be for artists to continuously challenge esthetics, social and political norms. Artists do change the world by challenging the status quo and offering different perspectives. In organizations too – we can, respectfully, take some risks for the greater good. We can grow corporate artistry.
Another way of working is possible. We can leverage common purpose, social media and co-creation to make things better. But I need to show its business value, for the company to change.
I set up a business case, and lobby relentlessly until my management is convinced to create a new role. I will support a business priority: the launch of a new vaccine. For the 1st time in history, we’re about to protect people against a deadly disease called dengue, through vaccination. 40% of the world population is at risk.
Corporations as Activists: From Push to Pull
We have an opportunity to think different. We focus on the cause, fight the disease – the why – rather than just on our product – the what. We join forces with different partners who share the same purpose. From listening to activists, we create the conditions for a global conversation. We move from push to pull, as John Hagel explains it so well. Certainly, more solutions against the disease will emerge from these new connections and support our company goals and society as a whole together.
Of course, the whole concept comes under heavy fire from the corporate gatekeepers. Using public social media is risky. Free, uncensored speech is risky. Bypassing usual intermediaries is risky. Yes! But the biggest risk is to keep doing the things we know and stick to 20th Century tools and mindset. They’re not adapted to our complex, globalized and interconnected world. They’re obsolete!
As an organization, for a cause that means a lot to us, and for our business interests, we need to take a step aside. We need to change our interaction with the world, bring it in, co-create.
And it works! Far beyond our expectations!
The community catches on like wildfire. 10,000 people in just a few days. 250,000 in 9 months. Recognition from key stakeholders that an important new voice has emerged – the voice of the people, on the field. We receive Awards from all over the place.
My fellow activists and I feel proud. It’s a real breakthrough for the cause.
Yet, when you look closely, you realize that...again... the progress made is not that big. After a while, the organization goes back to its usual routine. Functional silos are so strong that the deep, continuous collaboration required by this holistic approach fails. Each silo slowly leans back to usual intermediaries and filters and “experts”, to push rather than pull, to information rather than co-creation.
Has status quo won again?
...Maybe not. More seeds have been planted. We can create value in another way. But to make it mainstream, we need to change the corporate agenda and impact the organization at its core.
Quality: from an imposed constraint to a shared passion
At this point, our new Chief Quality Officer suggests we team up to improve the quality of our manufacturing operations. Because of quality issues, we’re unable to provide all the vaccines our customers need. Vaccines! Vaccines save lives. We can’t let this go.
It is tempting to blame equipment, processes or people. But how well can you really operate in a culture that is top-down, adverse to change, siloed and bottlenecked? Where front-line staff is less valued than experts? Where control is considered safer than trust?
So, here we go again on the path of change. My mission is to transform quality from an imposed constraint to a shared passion. People at all levels should embody quality to reliably provide high quality vaccines to the world.
We start by co-creating our purpose. Not another corporate vision statement. What is it we want to fight for, now, together? Changing the way we work, to make our vaccines available to all who want them.
From there, a movement grows. Luis, a shopfloor worker... Jen, a training director... Lyne, a manufacturing manager... volunteers of all ranks and sites go 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 18 months, over 4,000 people say “yes, that’s what we want”.
Complacency makes way to agency, collaboration, and care for each other. There is no new structure, no procedure, but a North Star: our shared purpose. This, and the trust we put in people, gets the best of out of them. Individuals and teams get together, up to the shopfloor, unprompted, and make change happen. 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 !
No Never... Or Not Yet?
Vietnamese has 2 words to say no: “Không” means ‘no, never’; “Chu’a” means ‘no, not yet’. If your organization seems to say no to change, don’t take it for a “no never”. It’s probably a “not yet”. Keep trying.
Organizations are living systems, not machines. They’re ecosystems of relationships. Life, work... it’s all connected. And sometimes very messy. In the age of disruption, our complex systems are no longer served by planning, rationality, lean management or hierarchical structures alone.
What do we need? Inclusion. Meaning. Generosity. Action. Humanity. People at all levels are longing for purpose and dignity. Let’s redefine what expertise is. Let’s tap into a broader knowledge and energy, into the will to be involved and contribute to something better. Let’s make work more human, to create shared value and a better future for us all. It is not so hard. It’s about caring and connecting deeply.
The new world – of connection, of collective intelligence, of networks – is right there at our fingertips, and it is up to us to build it together. No one else will do it but us.