The role of underground movements in modern organisations
Forget about empowerment. Forget leadership training. Forget coaching skills. The way to make a difference to your company is through rebellious underground movements.
But underground movements are a Bad Thing. They work against the hierarchy and against the good of the organisation that they inhabit. Rebellion undermines the leadership and weakens the shared direction of an organisation.
Then again, underground movements are a Good Thing. Radical change is rarely in the immediate interest of those at the top of the hierarchy. Even when they realise its necessity they are often powerless to make it happen because of the low level involvement needed by every individual. The significant shifts in political and business development that have occurred through history have often happened because of underground movements and rebellion.
But underground movements are a Dangerous Thing. They destabilise existing structures and foment dissent. They are rarely controllable and often result in unexpected and unpredictable developments.
Yes, underground movements are a mess of risk and opportunity. They offer huge potential for change linked to an enormous risk of instability. Given all of this, why suggest that you should start creating them in your organisation?
First, some principles. In political struggle there may be a case for violent opposition, it depends on whether it is “we” who are the freedom fighters or “they” who are the terrorists. In business there is never a case for violence. So, my first principle is that underground movements in business are, and must be, non-violent. And this non-violence extends to all acts of aggression.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. ” Recognise this? Well it generates three more principles for me. The first is equality, the second is freedom and the third is fun.
Equality in a business context does not mean that everyone has a hand in all of the decisions or in the running of the business. It means that everyone has a hand in the decisions and the running of their part of the business, however large or small that may be.
Freedom means that the direction given to an individual concerns outputs and not inputs. That, as long as they achieve or exceed a required set of results, their method of production is their business. Now obviously in many businesses the inputs are so closely linked to the outputs that elements of this freedom are non-existent. For instance, a shift worker required to staff a time sensitive process cannot arbitrarily decide their own working hours.
Fun, or “the pursuit of happiness” is a less obvious principle. I strongly believe that everyone can and should have the opportunity to enjoy the work that they do. The more that the principles of equality and freedom are respected, the more likely this is.
The final principle that I think needs stating is that underground movements will act for the greater good of the organisation. This is a tough one to recognise in practise because those at the top of an organisation usually believe that their instructions are aimed at the greater good of the organisation and so anything that works against them is necessarily bad. Those at the top of an organisation are often wrong.
There must have been underground movements for as long as there has been control. As soon as someone sets themselves on a pedestal you can bet that there is someone else chipping away at the base of it to destabilise it. Certainly, the earliest recorded histories all have examples of opposition and rebellion. Passive resistance is rarely recorded. Whilst there are exceptions, such as, “We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song”, it is more often violence that makes the headlines. You can bet, though, that for every violent rebellion there were thousands of minor acts of passive resistance.
“Power tends to corrupt. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. ” There is a corollary to this. Power tends to be opposed. Absolute power tends to be opposed absolutely. The source of all rebellion is the concentration of power. Those rebelling have a person, a group of people or a symbol of power that they are opposing. In modern organisations that power is identified as being with the executives running the place. The more powerful a management team becomes the greater is the need for opposition. This is where the positive side of rebellion comes to the fore. If executives have no form of opposition then there is no check or balance. They can and will make silly mistakes that will damage the company. There has to be a questioning force. If it doesn’t exist in an organisation then it should be created.
An underground movement needs to be rebelling against something. If it is working on behalf of the organisation and the bosses are working on behalf of the organisation, where is the need for rebellion? The answer to this question lies in the history and development of the organisation. The very things that have made it successful in the past will be the millstones that will drag it down in the future if they do not change. Those with most invested in the successes of the past and therefore least likely to change are those at the top of the hierarchy. What they believe is best for the organisation is often a repeat of past successes with maybe a few minor changes at the margins. What is needed for future success is radical and never ending change right into the heart of the company.
Ongoing radical change cannot be managed no matter how effective a bureaucracy you have. This sort of change is characterised by a lack of organisation. Everyone does what they believe is best for the organisation on a day to day, even minute to minute basis. The centre of the organisation is about pulling together the results and learning from successes and failures. Even here the learning is only partly useful because what applied yesterday may not apply tomorrow.
The Trade union movement has traditionally put the needs of their members above the needs of the company. In an adversarial, us and them, boss versus worker environment this is right and proper. The sort of organisation that I am describing is one that does not have this adversarial approach. Without this a trade union has less of a role. The notion that people need a shop steward to represent them is as difficult to accept as the notion that they should leave their thinking to management. Yet for some reason, all too often we check our brains in at the door when we come to work and allow others to tell us what to think. This isn’t possible in an environment with a strong underground movement because everyone is required to weigh up every decision to see whether it makes sense to them or not.
The area engulfed by a forest fire is less to do with where it is started than which way the wind is blowing. Starting an underground movement is like starting a forest fire and carries the same dangers. Which way is the wind blowing in your organisation? Where will the fire be carried?
So, if you were to start an underground movement, what would it be like? What form would it take? It might be an underground newspaper. It might be a discussion group. You might put your head above the parapet and opt for open critiquing of company direction. Whatever you choose you must accept that you are starting, not directing this. If you breathe life into it you must accept that it will get up and walk on its own.
And a final thought. If you are successful in creating a source of questioning and critiquing of the established power in your business and if this grows into a power source of its own, at what point do you allow it to be questioned by another underground movement?
© Paul Birch, December 2005
Paul Birch is a writer, speaker, consultant and facilitator who specialises in change and creativity.