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Creating Tribes

Change Doesn't Come with a Permission Slip

"The American Revolution was not financed with matching grants from the crown,"
 --David Bayles and Ted Orland,  Art and Fear.

"Great change doesn't come with official endorsement. . . Change occurs at the edges, without permission."
--Patti Digh, Life is Verb

One thing I've noticed about organizational life is that job uncertainty tends to breed a culture where we seek permission for everything we do.  The problem with this course of action, engaged in on a massive scale, is that we individually and collectively stop changing and adapting exactly at the time we need to do it the most.

In part we get stuck in permission mode because we tend to seek permission from those people in our organizations least likely to give it. We're talking to Finance and Legal and IT, departments made up of people who by both nature and training are more likely to say "no"--or who make getting to "yes" so painful that we give up halfway through.

This permission mentality also persists out of simple fear. When times are great and we screw up, it's more likely that all will be forgiven.  When things turn sour, going out on a limb can be a way to lose your livelihood.

But here's the thing. Great change--the kind we need in times of uncertainty and disruption--does not come with a permission slip. It happens because a few brave souls take it upon themselves to be revolutionaries. They may start with small skirmishes on the edges of things, but as they experience success on the margins, they begin to gain a following that becomes a movement that becomes the change that is needed.

Change doesn't have to begin with large, bold movements. It can happen as a result of small steps, taken daily and with purpose. But you cannot wait for permission to take that first step. If you do, the journey may never begin.


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This is one of the most refreshing things I've read in some time. Thanks Michele!

Hear! Hear! What great food for thought as we are considering some major changes at work. Perhaps just moving forward is the way to go rather than overthinking and debating... Mmm...

I couldn't wait for others to make change in our school. I started "working with" a few capable people who are now doing the same "Radical" things as me and we are gaining ground. You have nothing to lose by doing this. Our silent revolution is about to gain some ears.

Thanks for your comments Joel, Catherine and Louise. It's good to see others thinking about this too!

Although it sometimes comes with a pink slip! That's OK, if they won't tolerate what you passionately feel they need, you're in the wrong place anyway. Listening to a colleague today telling how he's been fired from probably 10 companies for pushing the boundaries too far. I've only one under my belt...

Many years ago when I was giving a talk to a professional group I belonged to--I was talking about being "out" as a lesbian at my work place. One middle-aged man raised his hand and asked, "How did you get permission to do that?" "Who gave you permission to do that?" I was a bit taken aback, but realized what he meant. "No one gave me permission," I said. "You have to go resist every permission to live an authentic life."

Thank you for your post, Michele. This is a reminder to me that change doesn't happen on it's own. I think the biggest challenge I face is making changes as an individual and giving myself permission. If I don't have the confidence or courage to give myself permission to make certain changes, it's difficult to conceive making changes in my organization. It's that time of year to make decisions about what we're going to change in 2009. I know what changes I need to make and I've already started making some. I agree that change begins with small steps. Let the journey begin!

Good column.

Lack of change comes with a pink slip.

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