Diversity in congress: Learn the system (to learn how to break the system)

Yesterday, the 116th Congress took their oaths as the most diverse congressional class in the history of our nation, with women comprising nearly 1/4 of all seats.

I woke up this morning to an exciting flurry of Tweets about this historic afternoon:

I’m inspired by the paths these trailblazers are setting for their districts and for our country. Finally, it’s beginning to feel that the diversity among the leaders who represent all of us is beginning to move in a direction that more accurately reflects the people they serve. This is an amazing thing to see. But of course, it’s only step one.

I think a lot about how systems or organizations or groups of people come together and come apart, and I’m noticing one thing ringing loud and clear: In order to disrupt and transform a system, you have to first know the system. We see this all the time with entrepreneurs — former doctors who start tech companies to change the way healthcare works, academics who believe there’s a better way we can teach people how to learn a new language, finance professionals who want to broaden access to the way Americans save money.

But you don’t have to be a future-founder or congressperson to practice understanding a system in order to break a system. This exists in nearly every part of your life. Maybe you’re in college and you forget your keycard back to your dorm room, but you know that that side door by the basement sticks so you might be able to get in that way. Maybe you’re at a restaurant where you’re a regular and happen to you know about a particular dish or cocktail that you can only order “off-menu.” Maybe you’re working as a mid-level manager at a tech company and you know that, while the VP of Product technically has the final sign-off, you also know it’s really the collaboration of the Director of Marketing, the Head of Analytics, and that random person who you can always ask to get scrappy with ideas who will help you move the needle.

There’s an oldie but goodie business-y book that gives a name to this idea — Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. As a 30-year employee of Hallmark Cards, Gordon learned the hard way how to get sucked inside of corporate bureaucracy. But then he learned how to see the system to free himself from the system and help the entire company innovate in new ways.

As he puts it, the first step is getting your foot in the door. The second is absorbing and internalizing as much as you can from “the hairball” that represents all of the process, the structure, the culture, the nuance. The third part, (admittedly, the most fun part), is where you “fly into orbit.” In this phase, knowing what you know about how decisions get made and which sort of people move the needle, you can forge your own path, find clever ways to get access to the resources you need, but still not be caught in the middle of the bureaucracy.

Personally, it was really hard for me to be the only woman in a boardroom for weekly, five-hour meeting. When speaking with friends of mine in the tech industry, I’ve heard echoes of these sentiments from others, too:

“It’s hard to be the only… [woman / LGBTQ person / person of color / parent / person without an MBA / person without an engineering degree / etc.] … in the room.”

There are questions only you will ask. There are feelings only you will feel. It can be lonely. It might feel like it’s impossible to move the needle. But every added person helps, and hitting a critical mass is where things start to really get interesting.

I don’t think we’re quite at critical mass level in Congress yet to make wide-sweeping changes, but wow, are we moving in the right direction. I’ll be crossing my fingers that all of these newly elected “firsts” take the time they need to know the system so they know how to break the system. We’ll know when we see them flying in orbit. And I think we’ll all be better off for it.

Originally published on Dry Erase, my personal blog and digital whiteboard.

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