Vive la Révolution

Episode 1: Julie Battilana

November 15, 2021 Mirakl Season 1 Episode 1
Vive la Révolution
Episode 1: Julie Battilana
Show Notes Transcript

Today's featured revolutionary is Julie Battilana, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and professor of social innovation at the Harvard Kennedy School. Julie's book, Power, for All, co-written with Tiziana Casciaro, can be found here.

[Intro Music]


Adrien Nussenbaum: Hi everyone, this is Vive la Revolution, brought to you by Mirakl. The podcast celebrating leaders who dare to improve their businesses, their community and the world. Leaders who recognize the need to act boldly and to go beyond the status quo. In each episode, a modern revolutionary joins us to reflect on their personal and professional past and invites us to explore the inspiration and motivation behind their bold actions. May their story inspire you, challenge you, and push you to discover your own revolution, because wait and see doesn’t make history.


Adrien: Today’s featured revolutionary is Julie Battilana, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and professor of social innovation at Harvard Kennedy School. Julie, who happens to be a friend, research explores what it takes to initiate divergent change and how to successfully implement that change. It’s a great pleasure to have Julie today to talk about her research, how to become a revolutionary, and her work on democratizing the workplace. Salut Julie, hi Julie. [laughs] So the first question, which is our traditional, signature question – do you consider yourself a revolutionary?


Julie Battilana: Bonjour Adrien, it’s a pleasure for me to be with you today. Thank you for having me. So, listen, I’m a social scientist and as you just mentioned my research tries to understand the process through which we can implement changes that break with the norms. Those norms that we take for granted in society. And so, in other terms, I’m interested in understanding the initiation and the implementation of what you would call those revolutionary changes. The changes that do not build on the existing norms, but that diverge from them. And one thing that I’ve learned through my research is that we are often not the best judges of the extent to which the changes that we’re pushing for are divergent, or what you would call revolutionary. Some people see themselves as revolutionary but all they actually do is reproduce the status quo. And others think of the changes they are pushing for as being incremental when in fact what they’re trying to do is quite revolutionary. So, this is to say that you should take whatever I’m going to say now in response to your question with a grain of salt. So that being said, for me personally, as a researcher, as a scholar, I don’t necessarily think of myself as being a revolutionary. Why? Because I’m building on the shoulders of a genealogy of scholars, of researchers, who have preceded me and have studied those changes that break with the existing norms. Now one big reason why I decided to study these changes is because we know that progress towards social justice has been achieved by breaking with the existing norms, for the implementation of divergent changes. And this is why it’s so important in my eyes to better understand the process by which these changes are implemented. Now I guess you could say why, why do I care about those? But at least that answers your question.


Adrien: No, I guess, you know, you were born in the beautiful, sunny city of Marseilles in the south of France, and you chose a course that led you to being one of the most brilliant professors at one of the greatest universities in the world. Was there anything that kind of triggered the career of yours?


Julie: So, you’re right to say that I grew up in the south of France in a family of Italian descent. And as a young girl I quickly became aware of the power of traditions, and the reproductive force of social norms. And so, in the world I grew up in, women were often restrained to the domestic sphere. And when I looked around me, except for my mother who was and still is an artist, she’s a painter, I didn’t see many models of women who escaped this domestic sphere. And so, in this context I was very fortunate that my parents were adamant never to impose any limits on me, be they intellectual or physical limits. So, they were unrelenting in communicating that anything was possible for me. So, I guess that these parallel dynamics led me very early on in my life to want to escape the dominant model around me. And I should also say that my younger sister, who I am very close to, was born with a [inaudible] disability that’s related to a rare disease that’s called Pura Syndrome, and so this experience I think further led me to question what is considered – and what was considered at the time and is still considered – normal in society. So, all of these factors, all of these experiences I think led me from a young age to develop a strong interest in what it takes to diverge from the norms and set a different kind of path. So, in that sense you’re right to take me back to those early years. They certainly played a critical role in wanting to understand how we can diverge and contribute to a collective march toward social justice.


Adrien: So, when we looked at your Harvard Kennedy School profile, one of the things that is said about you is that your ambition – and I’m quoting now – is to “elucidate what it takes to initiate divergent change and how to succeed in its implementation.” I’m really interested in trying to understand how to go on a quest like that. Because you talked a bit about the beginnings, but it’s a bold ambition, I would say, to understand the mystery of triggering divergent change. So, I’d love to understand how you think about dedicating your life to that.


Julie: So, you’re right to say it’s ambitious, it takes humility. So, I just see myself as being a part of a much broader movement of researchers and practitioners who all care about the same set of questions. So, I have a modest part in that movement, and what I picked is to try and understand what it takes to succeed in implementing these changes with the hope that I could then serve and help the social changemakers who do the really hard work on the ground. That’s the whole purpose of the work I do. So, as I said, the reasons why I decided to do that too goes back to my early years, and if you think about my trajectory since then, what I’ve done is I have made choices along the way that were really meant to help me better understand this process of divergence from the norms and from the status quo. Not surprisingly, as a teenager, I was drawn to disciplines like economics, sociology, philosophy, political science, and when time came to pick what I would study when I became a student within the French university system, I picked economics, sociology and management. And the reasons why I picked all three of these disciplines is because they each gave me a different angle, a different perspective, on that same question. The puzzle I wanted to explore was still the same, right, that I identified as a child, which was all about understanding how you can break the norms and change the rules of the game in society to try to get closer to an ideal of social justice. But now what was different was that I was learning about tools, reading the literature, meeting with the social changemakers on the ground too and studying what they were doing, and I was able to refine those questions and become more specific. So that specificity is helping in the sense that then you start thinking about now how you initiate these changes, what are the factors of success, you think about the research methods, but you’re right to say it’s still very difficult to answer these questions and it takes a lot of humility, and cross-sector work with others.


Adrien: And so, you talked about breaking the norm and you talked about your upbringing and your education, but was there a ‘now or never’ moment where you broke the norm, the first time?


Julie: I think certainly being a young woman in the south of France and deciding to leave Marseilles to go study in Paris and join this system of preparatory classes was something different from what most of my friends and family members had done up until that point. So, there was some divergence in terms of my path. Now I would say, when it comes to doing what I’m doing now, maybe it was not a ‘now or never’ moment – I just repeatedly dug deeper to seek answers to these longstanding questions about the reproduction of the status quo, divergence, and the path towards social justice. So, sort of, kind of doubling down, trying to better understand, get more tools, engage with more people. It’s more trying to be resilient in the face of a difficult, important question.


Adrien: Never stopping. So, what’s interesting, we’re actually talking to you at a really interesting time because you’re soon to release your new book which is called “Power, For All,” which is an area where you’ve put a lot of your findings and learnings over the last ten years of teaching. And in this book – so I think it’s very fascinating because you talk about power, and obviously power is a theme that is everywhere – but you define power, once again I’m quoting, as being ultimately “the ability to influence another’s behavior, be it through persuasion or coercion.” And so, the question I have, when I was putting this together was, as a professor, do you view yourself exercising power and if so, can you define the nature of this power?


Julie: It’s a very good question. So, to answer the question about the power that I have, I first have to clarify what power actually is. So, you’re right to say that power is the ability to influence people, be it through persuasion or coercion, and this is how we define it in the book. But then the real question becomes, where does this power come from? And what I’ve come to realize from my work as a researcher, as a teacher, teaching a course on power, which I’ve done for years now, is that we have a lot of misconceptions in mind about what power is and what it’s not. And I’ve come to worry a lot about the implications, the consequences of these misconceptions because what I’ve seen is that individually our confusion about power frustrates us, because it limits our ability to have control over our lives, to influence others to get things done. And collectively, misunderstanding power is even more catastrophic because it makes us less likely to identify, prevent, stop abuses of power that can threaten our freedoms and our wellbeing. I’ve seen those misconceptions. I’ve also learned from my work, again my teaching and my research, that power can be taught. And this is the reason why I decided to write this book, “Power, For All,” with my dear friend and colleague Tiziana Casciaro and we’ve written it for everyone. So, when Machiavelli wrote for the prince, the idea here was to write about power for everyone. Now back to that key question: what is power made of? Power derives from control over access to valued resources. I have power over you, Adrien, if I control access to resources that you value. And you have power over me if you control access to resources that I value. You may actually control a budget that I need to go and do something, and if so, it certainly gives you some power over me. But we human beings fortunately do not only value material resources and money, we also value psychological resources. You may actually be standing for some moral values that are critically important to me and that I want to be associated with, and if so, it gives you some power over me. Why am I taking this time to define what power is and where it comes from? Because we need to be clear about what it is to think about the power that we each have. So now, you’re right to point out that as a professor I do have power over my students, right, because I control access to knowledge. I also control, to some extent, their grades. So, these things, especially the knowledge, are all things that they value. They come to study because they want to have access to a certain kind of knowledge. I also have power, we could say, outside of the university. As professors we’re seen as controlling access to scientific knowledge and that gives us some platforms and access to audiences. The networks I have inside, and outside Harvard are also sources of power. But what ultimately, I would say, matters the most, for me and for every one of us, for you too, is how we decide to use the power that we have, for what purpose. What I face, what you face, what we face, is that when we have some power it can intoxicate us. We can become overconfident and self-focused. The good news is that we know that there are antidotes to the poisons of power, and what we need to do is to cultivate humility and empathy. And so, in my case, the criterium that I try to apply to myself, to really try to assess my impact as a teacher and as a researcher, is the following: the question I ask myself is to what extent have I been able to use the power that I have to empower others? To make a positive difference not only in their lives but also in the life of others. And in our book, we actually cite Toni Morrison. She like to say that if you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. And so, I think my job is not only to empower my students, but to educate them so that they can go and empower others to make a positive difference in their communities and more broadly in society.


Adrien: so, I really love the theme of exercising power to empower others to do things, and it’s something that really resonates with me personally, but I think with Mirakl and its mission in a sense. And we’re not here to talk about Mirakl, but most of what we try to think about every day in our professional lives at Mirakl is how can we empower organizations to evolve, to change, who can champion change projects within organizations, take that leap. And I think what I would like to understand from you is really, you kind of have this notion of the ability to initiate diverging change, and one thing that I’m always asking myself is what are the human behavioral drivers behind creating a situation where someone will be a change agent, and someone will be conservative and prevent change from happening. And so really what are the human behavioral traits – can anyone, is it for everyone, or is there some form of inequality where not everyone can be a change agent triggering divergence? I’d love to hear – I know you have tons of stories around that, but maybe hear from you a bit on that.


Julie: So, it’s an interesting question. I will start by saying that whenever we walk about individual trades, or what one person can do, I always want us to be careful for the following reasons. If there’s one critical thing, I’ve learned studying these major changes that break with the norms is that a single individual very rarely changes the course of an organization or a society on their own. What enables us to change laws and to change cultural norms is when we get all together, as part of movements for change. And to your question, when it comes to being part of movements for change, we can all be part of these movements for change. It is up to us to decide if you, as you said, want to wait and see (at the beginning), or if we want to engage and be a part of the improvement of society. In our book, we actually start the book with the story of Lia Grimanis, who is the leader of Up with Women, an amazing not-for-profit organization that’s meant to help women who are dealing with a situation in which they have been homeless for some time and they’re trying to rebuild their lives. Lia is the leader of this organization; she is herself a very successful executive. What you should know though, and what she talks about, is that she herself was one of these women earlier in her life. She was a homeless person. And so, Lia thinks of herself as being part of a movement for change. She wants to help these women by giving them access to coaching, from certified coaches so that they can rebuild their lives and then get back on their feet and regain control over their lives. And so, Lia would say that she’s part of this movement to just change the lives of these women, only one of the people contributing to that, and she herself was able to gain enough power to make that happen even though she was in their situation before and felt completely powerless. Now how did she do that? She had this incredible personality, charisma, but again she would say that she didn’t do it alone. She met people along the way with whom she could work, and they helped her develop her work with women and together now they’ve made it the success that it is. So, this is all to say that for any kind of change to happen, you need multiple people. And what I see in my work is that when it comes to those really radical changes in society, you actually need to make that happen, you need agitators, innovators, and orchestrators. The agitators are the ones who actually speak out against the status quo and raise the awareness of the problem. Think of the climate activists of Fridays for Future, that is a great example. The innovators are the ones who actually come up with the alternatives to the status quo. Lia Grimanis had this idea to say what we need to do to help these homeless women is create a coaching program for them, so she created it. And now you also need to be able to scale those efforts and to make change happen. Orchestrators who coordinate among all the different stakeholders toward change adoption. So, we can all play a role as an agitator, innovator or orchestrator – some of us play multiple roles at once. Again, it is up to use to decide, but it is always a relief, I think, for everyone to realize ‘ok I don’t have to do it by myself, I’m joining forces with others, but it also means I have no excuses because some people are out there working and doing the work and maybe I can help them.’


Adrien: There’s another area in your book where similarly, I think, as we come out of 2020, we’ve seen technology everywhere, technology about communicating, technology about healing people, technology about accelerating processes, and shopping and all that. You have an area in your book where you say that ‘monitored carefully and used wisely, technology can give the power disadvantaged access to resources that would otherwise be beyond their reach.’ I have a bit of a – I could argue over dinner with you for a long – I mean not argue but create a long discussion over dinner with you about that because I’ve seen who has really benefitted in 2020 versus who has not, but I’d love to have an example from you on specifically this idea of power disadvantaged who have been able to benefit from technology.


Julie: So, let me first say that I would in fact, if we were to have that conversation, I think we would certainly agree to say that technology is neither good nor bad in and of itself when you think about the kind of impact it can have, inequalities, issues, how do we use it? And if you look at how digital technologies, for example, have been used and how they have reshuffled the cards, we sadly have to say that although there was this huge promise that digital technologies would empower all of us, digital technologies, for a lot of them, have actually increased existing inequalities. And I think that this is something that we have to tackle and be very serious about. The reason why I have hope, and I think that that can be done. We could intervene and create programs and regulate so as to make sure that these technologies would not only serve a wealthy few but would instead really empower everyone. What gives me hope is that we know how to do it. From, again, the impressive work of some social changemakers who have used technology to really better the lives of others. So, one example, that we also use in the book, relates to solar panels technology. So, I’ve studied and followed the work of a not-for-profit organization called Barefoot College that was created in India. And what’s really interesting about Barefoot College is that they developed a model that harnesses solar technology to electrify villages that are off grid, while contributing to the economic enfranchisement of women in poor rural communities. So now how do they do it? Barefoot College has actually created a training program for women to become trained solar engineers. And so, they go through that program for several weeks and then they go back to their villages, and they know how to electrify their villages. The women who are recruited by Barefoot College are often illiterate, so Barefoot College has developed a curriculum explicitly made for them, that is really anchored in learning by doing, this whole pedagogy that is about learning by doing, and that is designed in fact by former women who’ve gone through the Barefoot College program beforehand. So today they work in 93 countries, they’ve trained up to 2,000 women who’ve become solar engineers. But here’s the magic of the situation. Whenever you train a woman who comes from a poor rural community to become a solar engineer, not only is she going to bring electricity back to that community, but you’ve also contributed to changing the structures of power in that community. Why? Because now she’s coming back, and now she’s controlling super valuable resources in the community – that electricity. Now she’s really gained power. She controls electricity. That’s a great example of how training people, giving them access to a technology, enables them to empower others by giving them access to electricity, but also changes their power position, and gives these women much more power and much more importance in their villages. The reason why I’m hopeful is because, again, we know now from the experience of these incredible organizations and the people within them and working with them, we know that it’s feasible. It takes time and energy, it takes specific kinds of training, but we can help people who are power disadvantaged be empowered by the technology. I’m thinking of when Meghann Fallon was the CEO Barefoot College, told us when we interviewed her, and what she said was it was only when the women, the women that train at Barefoot College, will be able to sit at the table with the engineers and help design technology that better meets human needs, is only when that is going to happen that we will be on the way to creating a technological revolution that is truly inclusive. I think we’re far from that. But this is what we have to do. We have to rise up to the occasion. And we have no choice because if we continue to let inequalities increase, Adrien, then we’re going to hit the wall.


Adrien: So that’s probably your next chapter, your next revolution. But I think what’s interesting with you, Julie, is that you’re a professor to some of the brightest people in the world and I get how, by attending your class and your programs you can transfer knowledge and energy and desire. At the same time, you engage in this kind of going around the world of social entrepreneurs, change agents, and you have a huge, amazing wealth of stories, like Barefoot and others. At the same time, you’re an intellectual also, and you write books, and in your books, you try to pass on knowledge, pass on power, and pass on ideas. You’ve been a bit busy, because yes, you’re releasing Power, For All, but previously in 2020 you co-authored a manifesto on the future of work, and lessons from the pandemic. Which basically called for a complete overhaul of work as we know it. I think this action was signed by 5,000 researchers and it led to the creation of the website. And so, once again, we can’t go without asking you, so what is your vision for the future of work and knowing that you’re not going to have like an hour, or five days to answer this question. Why do we need those changes to happen? What do we need for this to happen? And then I’ll have a little closing question, well I’ll tease you a little bit.


Julie: [laughs] Looking forward to hearing your final question. So, on the question of why we need to change, the crisis that we are currently facing is clearly not only a health crisis – we’re all deeply aware of this health crisis and the tragedy it has been – but we’re also facing a social and economic crisis of our inequalities, we’ve been talking about that. And we’re also facing an ongoing environmental crisis, that has been ongoing for some time now. It’s a moment in time where staying the course is not an option. If we continue to let the economic system be run in the same way, building on the neoliberal ideology of maximizing profit and value only for shareholders, we know what’s going to happen. It’s been documented by research, economic and sociology. We will further increase inequality and we will further destroy the planet. So, it is time for us to actually take action, and try and think about how we can help rebuild a more just, more democratic, and greener society. And it is this aspiration to sort of try to get together and think about what we as researchers do that brought me together with Isabelle Ferreras and Dominique Meda, two of my colleagues, in April 2020. When we had our first meeting together, trying to think about what we can do in the midst of this pandemic, as academics, as researchers, as intellectuals, we asked ourselves a single question, which was what can we learn from this crisis? And it became very clear to us that if there was one thing we could learn, it was that workers are much more than mere resources. And yet, although at the time we were finally recognizing the contributions of essential workers, the reality was that – if you think about the salaries that people are paid – we are nowhere close to recognizing the importance of the work of essential workers and workers in general. It seemed critically important to us to try and bring everyone’s attention to this issue at a moment when we were finally recognizing some of the work of these people. So that led us to write an op-ed, that we thought would be published in the newspaper Le Monde on May 1st, but Le Monde decided to wait for 15 more days to have this op-ed come out. And we were left with 15 days in front of us, so we decided to share this op-ed with a group of women researchers whose work had inspired us. And the reason why we turned to women is because there were many more men than women who were the experts who people were turning to to get answers about what to do and how to rebuild society. And these women decided to sign the op-ed with us and decided to share it broadly with the community of researchers, academics, and later on practitioners, and as you mentioned it ended up becoming a manifesto because it came out in more than 40 newspapers on five continents mid-May and was signed by thousands of people across the world. What we highlight in this manifesto, that later indeed led us to write a book and we’re currently working on the English version of the book that will come out in the United States in 2022, the French version came out in October of last year. So, what we highlight in the book are three key principles. The need to democratize firms, to give real say and real power to the workers. At the moment all of the power is in the hands of the shareholders, top executives, representatives of shareholders and boards. This time for workers to have a say in the decisions that affect their working lives and their livelihoods. The second principle we highlight is the necessity to decommodify work, recognize that work is not a commodity, it is a right that is actually recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And building on the work of Pavlina Tcherneva, who is one of the coauthors of the book The Case for a Job Guarantee, that would enable people who want to have a job to have a job and have the safety and self-esteem that we all deserve to have as human beings so that we can be contributors to the society we are a part of. And the final pillar is all about decarbonizing and protecting the environment, remediating the environment. What we’re saying in the book you could say in the manifesto itself, is not new. People have talked about the necessity to democratize firms, decommodify work, and to actually decarbonize the environment for a long time. But what we highlight is that the three go hand in hand. They go together. We need to do all these things at once if we want to be able to rebuild a greener, more just, more democratic society. And that’s the reason that we decided to launch this initiative.


Adrien: And so, maybe for those who are listening to us, entrepreneurs or CEOs or any manager, if there’s one thing, we can go this afternoon and do, what should it be?


Julie: Well again I think it really depends on the kind of position – 


Adrien: One simple thing! [laughs]


Julie: One simple thing that you can do, like I’ll take you as an example Adrien, at Mirakl right. So, question is, what’s the power of your employees, at the moment? Whose deciding, and are they represented, and do they have a voice? And what I’m going to add to that too is that it is so critical that you have this diversity of voices because what I have seen in my own work is that the companies that have more of this diversity of voices and more democratic decision-making processes, they are better able to pursue social and environmental goals alongside financial goals. The critical thing that I hope leaders like you are going to do in the future is also commit to saying it is not only about financial values, it is about financial value and it is about social and environmental value, and so let’s work together with our shareholders, with our employees, with the different stakeholders, to think about how we can have the governance that will enable us to pursue all of these objectives at once. I do realize it’s challenging, but we need people like you and the other leaders of organizations in Europe, in the United States, across the world to take the lead. And we need governments to start to regulate to facilitate your work and make sure that those who actually commit to pursuing these multiple objectives get rewarded for doing that, and that those who don’t then in some instances get punished for destroying the environment and not taking care of their employees the way, they should.


Adrien: That’s great advice and resonates with some of the things we are actually doing and announcing soon at Mirakl. Maybe, you know, unfortunately we’re kind of at the end of our conversation. So, we started with asking you if you were a revolutionary, and you didn’t give us a yes or no straight answer, you gave us a very subtle and argumented answer. But it’s obvious to everything you do and that you’ve done that there is a deep revolutionary spirit that runs through your blood. I started mentioning that you went to school with our dear French President Emmanuel Macron. Is this the next thing for you? To actually translate your teachings into direct action? Do you plan to run for French president in 2027? 2032? Yeah? Are we going to see you on the billboards of Paris any time soon? Or you’re happy in Cambridge, Massachusetts teaching to the elites of the world?


Julie: [laughs] So let me first say that yes it’s true, I was a student in preparatory classes with Emmanuel Macron but I have not seen or talked to him since then, in fact over more than 20 years now. So what to I aspire to do, in the short/medium term, what I want to do is to continue to do what I’m doing now. I created the Social Innovation and Change Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School to help support the work of social changemakers. I see myself as being part of a broader movement to change the ecosystem so that the social businesses that have actually tried to change the system will be in a better position and will be able to show the lead so that the social changemakers will also have the kind of environment conducive to their work. So again, it’s a broad movement to change capitalism, to change the norms in our society and I’m one of many in that movement and I intend to continue to be part of it and learn from others and push that forward. In doing that, I have the great pleasure of working with other scholars, across other disciplines and together we’re obviously thinking about how our work can inform the actions of governments. So I’ve had the pleasure to collaborate with the European Commission and I’ve also had the pleasure to collaborate with representatives of public authorities here in the United States and I care deeply about that work as a French citizen, as an American citizen, anytime I can contribute I’m delighted to contribute and I try to do it and I intend to continue doing that. Now as for the future and what it will hold, we’ll see. Again, I think it takes humility, it takes humility and it takes empathy and so I am not preparing for anything else but to continue to teach my students and try to enlighten them and empower them, and I hope that as I continue to do that I’ll be able to have a positive influence on their lives and the lives of their communities, and we’ll take it from there.


Adrien: So for everyone listening, reading between the lines, this was the first declaration of a –


Julie: - of a non-candidacy! [Laughs] I am not a candidate to anything.


Adrien: [laughs] You can use the power of technology to tweet and blog and slack and Instagram to –


Julie: - to say that Julie, exactly, that Julie will apparently continue to teach about social change in the years to come and will talk about power and try to empower others. So that’s good news. [laughs]


Adrien: [laughs] Well on a personal note, and really I’m very thankful, I think your work is truly inspiring and all the people you meet and educate. I think, as an entrepreneur, as a CEO of a company, we often get sunk into the day-to-day, and the different pressures around us, and it’s always good to have the opportunity to step back and try to implement some elements of change as we grow our businesses and the communities around us. So hopefully, I’m sure like many people will find inspiration in this conversation, and beyond that they should go and read your book – Power, For All – which will be out sometime early fall I believe. If I’m not – 


Julie: August 31st. Yep late August.


Adrien: August 31st. Perfect back to school and the manifesto is still out there. So Julie thanks a lot for your time and it was great to have you.


Julie: Thank you Adrien. Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me.