Earlier this year, I watched as people involved in the software world called on major organizations to change. These organizations included the MIT Media Lab, MIT itself, and the Free Software Foundation. While details and content of these demands varied, we’ve heard this refrain before. Sometimes we hear a broader call; one example of this is when people demand an industry or a country change to meet new needs and expectations. Sometimes – in an experience you may find personally familiar – we hear this demand closer to home, when employees ask their companies to change.

But here is something we often forget: organizations can’t change.

Why is this?

Because organizations aren’t people.

People are people. And people are the ones who propel change.

When an organization appears to change, one of two possibilities has occurred:

  1. A person with power has changed
  2. Power changes hands

When a person with power has changed

There are a few reasons a powerful person might change:

  1. Adopted new values
  2. Changed the importance of a value to be more or less important than before
  3. Learned new information about a key issue and its impact on the company and their values

Change happens when someone with enough power pushes for change. Individuals with power push for change because they recognize a need to adapt to new values, because they are no longer content with the direction the company is headed. And when an individual wields power in their organization, they are able to shift the course of the entire entity’s trajectory.

What can you do if you are not directly involved in an organization or do not hold power within an organization you would like to change? The first, and most critical step, is to identify the powerful person or people within the organization. Appeal to these influential people, because these are the people who have the power to change an organization. The second challenging step to this process is to persuade powerful people shift their values.

Here’s a great example of how to implement both steps for change. To create change in the Free Software Foundation (FSF), Sarah Mei listed the individuals who compose the board of the Free Software Foundation, and encouraged those who sought change in the FSF to change the individuals listed.

Changing someone else’s values isn’t an easy task. A shift in values can be very personally threatening, and challenge a person’s self-identity. So if you’re not that person with power, and you can’t change those with power, you may need to use a different tactic: change who holds power in the organization you want to change.

When power changes hands

Another reason an organization might appear to change is because the people in power are no longer the same as before. Every individual has values that they apply in their regular course of work. One way to change an organization is to swap the people with power (who do not share your values) with people who share your values.

Changing who holds power happens when someone who previously wasn’t exercising their power does so. There are two ways this can happen:

  1. An individual outside of company leadership demonstrates their power and influence
  2. A collective of individuals (inside or outside of the organization) discover their power

Here’s an example of an individual using their power for change: In 2015, Indiana’s state legislature created a law that would allow businesses to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce, announced that, because of the impact this new law would have on his employees and customers, his company would no longer hold events requiring customers or employees to travel to the state of Indiana. He also offered relocation packages to his employees in Indiana who no longer wished to stay in the state due to the law.

Marc Benioff controlled an asset greatly valued by the state of Indiana (the bulk of their tech economy, revenue from corporate events, etc.). Indiana valued that asset more than they valued upholding bigoted laws. Benioff used his singular influence to change the actions of the organization (the state of Indiana), and the state of Indiana revised the law to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

While none of us likely have the same level of clout as Marc Benioff, that doesn’t mean we can’t use the same tools and methods he used to affect change. Consider for a moment: what asset do you control that an organization relies on?

In 2019, in protest to the company Chef’s contract with ICE, a software engineer deleted his two Chef-related open source projects. Deleting this project caused an unexpected outage for some of Chef’s customers. The software engineer took this disruptive action to raise awareness of Chef’s involvement with ICE. He informed Chef customers facing outages that he’d deleted his open source code as a personal objection to Chef’s collaboration with ICE, and directed the affected customers to address their complaints to Chef.

This individual action shifted the balance of power within the company to favor those internally who were already advocating for ending ICE collaborations. Involving customers became a catalyst to promote company change. Ultimately, this software engineer’s actions resulted in Chef changing course; Chef did not renew their contract with ICE.

Still feel like you don’t hold enough power or influence to promote change within an organization? Remember this: you control a critical asset within a company. That asset is your labor! The work of company employees and the impact of this work (or withholding of that work) can be enough to force companies to change. If you feel your slice of this asset isn’t great enough to create change on your own, you can still create change collectively with other employees.

Here is a great example of recent collective action: in 2018, nearly 8,000 workers at the Marriott hotel chain went on strike to demand protections from sexual harassment, adequate healthcare, and a living wage. Their protest took two months to affect the changes they demanded, but the workers succeeded. As a result, the workers’ demands were met and their labor union has grown substantially since their success.

In the months following the Marriott worker protests, the United States saw several teacher union strikes across the country, including teacher unions striking in the entire state of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. These strikes succeeded in advocating for better school conditions for students, along with teacher healthcare and pay.

Make change

You have more power than you think you do.

When you need change from an organization, don’t aim at changing the organization itself.

Change the people in power, or change who holds the power.