Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Upon these stones: Barricades, insurgents and processes

Scene of the barricade on the Les Miserables musical
The struggle between good and evil depicted in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables has inspired millions around the world. Jean Valjean's good deeds are the defining passages of this wonderful story but there is so much more in the detailed accounts of crucial moments of French history.

One of the most memorable passages describes the Parisian insurrection of 1832. In the narrative, students and workmen band together to barricade the streets of Paris in the hopes of holding their own against the government forces. The story is soul-clenching in that most of the people manning the barricades did not expect to survive the conflict; but only to inspire the rest of Paris, and France, to embrace their cause and muster the courage or reason to turn against the government.

Fast-forward to today and our longer life-expectancies and comfortable lifestyles have put a damper on those inspired bouts. People no longer make decisions about life and death so hastily. A longer life expectancy means more responsibilities with one's family, from children who will need continued financial support to get higher-level education over a 20-year span to a spouse who may live well into his/her 80's.

Sometimes I wonder whether office culture has evolved in the same way. Procedures and processes are the laws that govern the workplace and may eventually lock groups in antagonistic positions. With the emphasis on 'oneness' and collective goals in all corporate communications, we may forget that larger objectives may be achieved in the presence of localized conflicts. As a hypothetical example, shipping a product a month earlier may cause additional work on a support team a month later. Even though the larger objective may have been achieved, the support organization may see the development organization as privileged in detriment of their own working hours.

While negotiation and a well executed political process may reduce tensions and avoid violent conflict, history shows us that major grievances have either been solved through violent struggle or morphed into mediocre, albeit symbiotic, relationships.

Within the comfort of our modern lives, I am not sure we would ever feel predisposed to walk into a barricade with the expectation of success or death. Well, not death, maybe a career turned a downward spiral of fire.

In this convoluted posting, I wanted to make peace with the conundrum of noble principles vs. weaseled convenience. I think I found it with a lateral-thinking sponsored sidestep in that they are not opposing choices. As I mentioned early on an entry called "The Battle of Borodino, and when you don't get to pick your battles", being brave and being stupid are not the same. Just like the Parisian insurgents of 1832 have learned, should such situation arise, you may find out that a correct reading of the population's pulse is far more important than being brave.

When faced with an uncomfortable situation and dramatic change is needed, letting others take the lead is probably bad policy. You will have to climb upon the stones in the barricade, but at a time of your own choosing. The right time starts when you have educated the general population on why your cause deserves their support and after you got sufficient indication that they will fall behind you when the clashes begin. Just take a development process as an example, even though you may be absolutely certain that a new unit testing procedure would improve the overall customer satisfaction and reduce development costs, a development team may not be so keen on spending additional time adopting it. On the other hand, you may convince the verification and support teams to back the proposal ahead of time.

With any luck, you will have read their signals a bit better than the insurgents of 1832. Sorry for the let down, but in Victor Hugo's novel the bulk of the population never came to the insurgents' aid, who died to the last man (I did not consider Jean Valjean a true insurgent).

As a straggling thought, eventually the French government rebuilt the streets of Paris to be straighter and wider than before as to prevent the formation of barricades, suppressing that form of leverage of the common man against the government.

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