For most of the 20thcentury, the structure of corporations was based on the technology of mass production. It was a command-and-control model, with managers directing workers, who had a very specific task to accomplish. It was not unlike the military.
In the 1970s, that structure began to break down. It was almost odd – an organizational model that had survived two world wars and the Great Depression was breaking down for what appeared to be smaller factors. Inflation raged almost out control (I remember a prime lending rate of 21 percent); oil embargoes were turning major industries like petroleum refining, chemical manufacturing, and automobiles on their heads. National psychological blows happened as well, contributing to the disruptive environment – the Watergate crisis, the end of the Vietnam War, and the Iranian revolution that led to Americans being held hostage for more than a year.
The reckoning started in the 1980s, as company after company reorganized (over and over again), laid people off (over and over again), and often went out of business altogether. At the end of the 1980s, Tim Berners-Lee invented what would become the worldwide web.
It was an unsettled time to work for a large company. The company I worked for seemed to stay in perpetual reorganization. I found ways to deal with it, and they mostly had to do with innovation in my work. As a colleague once told me, “You dragged the company kicking and screaming into the electronic communications age.”
That was not an understatement. As email became established, I borrowed an idea from AT&T and started an email newsletter, over considerable opposition from both IT and my own communications colleagues. Two years later, we were back at it with creating a company web site. And eventually a corporate blog. Later came involvement in social media, building on the work of a friend at work who had had the foresight to reserve domain names and social media registrations.
It was like writing a different kind of poetry. The traditional, formal poetry of rhyme and meter wasn’t working any more, and we had to embrace an entirely different kind of verse. It was not an easy task, and there was a price to pay. I was labeled “conscientious objector” in management reviews – a kind of kiss of career death. I was spun off and laid off.
But in an organizational context, this is what a poet does. The job of the poet is not to make people feel comfortable and secure with the status quo, especially when the status quo is breaking up around them. Instead, the poet shines a light on the way or ways to go forward. This is not a job people will thank you for, but it is the job that you’re called to do and one that will best serve the organization you’re working for.
From Poetry at Work: “The creative impulse is essentially innovative,” poet Luci Shaw writes. “It’s always discovering new areas to explore. It experiments. It breaks down old barriers and ventures into new territory. That implies a kind of risk.”