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Rebecca M Allen – Reflection

by on November 2, 2007

The Starfish Story
There is an excerpt from a story by scientist and writer Loren Eiseley that has been rewritten and retold hundreds of times since its original publishing in 1978.[1] The various permutations of The Star Thrower have been used in multiple disciplines, from business to psychology. The characters change, but the moral remains the same. The version I encountered when I worked in social work went something like this:

One night there was a terrible storm on a beach. The winds blew sand thick in the air and the waves grew as high as mountains. The next morning, the beach was littered with sea debris. An old man walked along the beach, picking his way carefully around the many live starfish that had been strewn all over the sand, “as if the night sky had showered [them] down.” Ahead of him, he made out a tiny figure of a little girl. As he came closer to her, he saw that she was picking the starfish up, one by one, and flinging them back into the sea.

“Why do you care to throw these starfish back into the water?” He asked, gesturing around them. “There are so many, you will never make a difference.”

The little girl gazed at the starfish in her hand, considering his words. She threw the starfish into the crashing surf and replied, “It made a difference to that one.”

This story carries a typical message for people who work in social services. I have the utmost respect for the individuals that carry on in such an overwhelming and underappreciated field. When you encounter the same problems over and again, when you are underpaid and overworked, as many social workers are, it’s easy to start thinking that your work is for naught. You see the impossibility of your situation and wonder: “Why do I even bother?” Enter the starfish story. Unfortunately, by the time I left my job I was so burnt-out I would have happily flung the little girl herself into the sea (it sounds terrible, but those feelings aren’t uncommon in a field rife with turnover). Enter the MSIM program.

I find it interesting that a Change Management class in my new career path has reminded me of this story again. Change is change, and while that’s not the most profound statement, it is true. Whether we’re talking social change or the implementation of a new information system, the small wins carry a big impact across the board and the agents involved can either make or break you. In The Heart of Change, Kotter and Cohen make painstaking efforts to differentiate their 8-step plan as a model for large-scale change, negating any connections a reader might make with incremental change efforts.[2] Despite this, they devote a chapter to creating short-term wins. Isn’t that the same as achieving incremental change? Without the successes of short-term wins, the authors write, “large-scale change rarely happens” (p. 127). You can’t reach large-scale change without incremental changes along the way, and this fact is recognized by the authors of Facilitating Organization Change, who discuss the incredible impacts that small changes can make on the ultimate outcome of a large-scale change.[3] Nothing typifies the power of incremental change more than modern efforts used to remove discrimination from the workplace.

The Glass Ceiling
First coined in the early 1980s, the glass ceiling metaphor refers to the unseen barriers that prevent women and other minorities from advancement to leadership positions in their places of employment due to veiled bias. In A Modest Manifesto for Shattering the Glass Ceiling, Debra Meyerson and Joyce Fletcher wrap up eight years of research from eleven different organizations and introduce a new approach to changing the cultural patterns that dictate the discriminatory practices against women that exist in organizational systems.[4] This sort of change is tantamount to affecting widespread cultural change; not an easy feat, but possible nonetheless.

Due to the nature of discriminatory barriers, which are typically unnoticed and insidious, an incremental approach to change carries the most transformative effects. The value of a small-wins approach is the lower likelihood of resistance and opposition on the part of those who would respond with defiance. As Kevin pointed out in a former class, history can often be the biggest impediment to change. Meyerson and Fletcher agree and argue that since discriminatory practices are imbedded in cultural patterns that have been established over time, incremental change is the only option for the ultimate goal of widespread buy-in. It takes revolutionary campaigns to get your voice heard and change policy, but effectively transforming culture cannot be achieved with continuous radical resistance. It requires patience, careful strategy, and a dedication to achieving small wins.

Meyerson and Fletcher credit professor and author Karl E. Weick as the originator of the small-wins approach in his 1984 article in Small Wins: Redefining the Scale of Social Problems.[5] I looked up his article and found a persuasive argument that explained the benefits of utilizing small wins to accomplish change. When trying to inspire change in others, portraying problems as massively serious may convey the gravity of the situation, but it won’t necessarily trigger effective action. What results from such a method is overwhelm and heightened arousal, which can actually decrease efficiency of performance. In contrast, scaling a situation down and defining it as a manageable issue that can be dealt with in incremental steps has the power to increase efficiency of performance. If the stakes are smaller, there is more room for creative thought and innovative solutions. This is exactly why the Starfish Story has endured. The difference between the two characters was just a matter of perspective, but such varying perspectives can have huge consequences on a change effort.

Why Should We Care?
Besides women, and men who are interested in such issues, why should anyone else give attention to Meyerson and Fletcher’s research? The fact that they drew parallels between societal norms and work behavior shows that organizational change is, in effect, social change on a micro level (p. 129). Whether your credentials include a MBA or MSW, the two fields are inextricably related by the practice of directing change in people. As Kotter and Cohen said in the conclusion to their book, “[t]he single biggest challenge in the process [of effecting large-scale change] is changing people’s behavior” (p. 179). It would be foolhardy to have a discussion about change management without discussing the entrance of women into leadership positions in the business world. The lessons to be learned from this and other social change efforts have the power to inform change management philosophy in formidable ways.

Additional Resources

· Carli, L.L., & Eagly, A.H. (2007, September). Women and the labyrinth of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 85(9), 62-71.

If you would like to read some of the most recent research on woman in leadership positions, check out this exceptional HBR article. The authors propose replacing the “glass ceiling” with a “labyrinth” metaphor to accurately reflect the array of complexities and obstacles a woman encounters along her career path. The astonishing statistics and studies they report on speak for themselves.

· Olson, K. (2007, July/August). The three keys to a successful change. Women in Business, 8-12.

Annie found this article while researching change management success and failure stories early in the quarter and shared it with me. Kimberly Olson was a member of the United States Air Force when legislation was passed allowing women to pilot planes. She describes the backlash that ensued, her efforts to change a culture that couldn’t be simply transformed with “the passage of a congressional bill,” and what she learned in the process.

1. Eiseley, L. (1978). The star thrower. New York: Times Books.

2. Cohen, D.S., & Kotter, J.P. (2002). The heart of change. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

3. Eoyang, G.H., & Olson, E.E. (2001). Facilitating organization change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/Pfeiffer.

4. Fletcher, J.K., & Meyerson, D.E. (2000, January-February). A modest manifesto for shattering the glass ceiling. Harvard Business Review, 127-136. Retrieved October 27, 2007.

5. Weick, K.E. (1984, January). Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems. American Psychologist, 39(1), 40-49. Retrieved October 29, 2007.

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