Paris, May ’68: Lessons for Business

Christmas. That wonderful time of year with countless unforgettable moments of happiness at numerous festive events and family get-togethers, and even animated discussions. There is one dinner in particular that stands out in my memory when my good friend Alfonso Vazquez related an anecdote about how his niece’s boyfriend, who during another meal, expressed an absolute ignorance regarding the events of the May 1968 movement.

I admit I was just as irritated as my friend was by the thought that one of the highlights of the 20th Century should be completely forgotten by the youth of today. Obviously, I am not concerned about this particular young man, but rather what he epitomises about current society. Namely, the fact that there is little empathy for social movements, and the people involved in them, who transform and have transformed society. The excessive cult of the individual and of hedonism, have taken root amongst large swathes of society. As such, the power of the communal and the collective has been diluted in the midst of the ideological apathy of modern times.

Is it that the values defended by the youths of Paris May ’68, and their subsequent repercussion around the globe, are no longer relevant today? Do we really think that imagination has taken the reins of power and been put to the service of changing society? Can we testify to the ‘dream’ becoming reality? And what of famous phrase on the walls of the Censier Campus of the Sorbonne, “Change life, transform society”, have we taken ownership of that ideal?
This year is the 50th anniversary of that famous May ’68, and I am not going to be an apologist for the role the movement had in changing forms of governance, or in its ideological influence on certain political parties. Instead, since I firmly believe that some of the ideology is directly transferrable, I shall attempt to apply the logic of the movement to business practice as evidenced in the iconic graffiti on the streets of Paris. Although this will be considered heresy by some, I feel the company sometimes needs that ‘permanent shake-up’ that was vehemently advocated back in those times.  

The students protesting on the streets of Paris were aware of the need to combine the strategic sense of their thinking and actions with the operational imperative of transforming behaviour in the day-to-day. This was evidenced by what was spray painted on the walls of the Sorbonne, “All reformism is characterised by the utopia of strategy and the opportunism of its tactic.”

Dreaming for the future, anticipating it and passionately desiring it, is the motor of transformation in a company; but it is a quality that must go hand-in-hand with operational management which allows it to reach fruition. And I wonder, how many companies are capable of conveying to their members, the sense of strategic coherence for the future and the construction of a utopia which helps transform the participation of those involved? Have we not fallen abysmally into tactical manoeuvring as opposed to collective dreaming?

One of the rallying cries of the movement was to reject the status quo, to rebel against the established order. This mechanism of ongoing rebellion should be an unequivocal and constant feature of our companies. The world is changing at an astonishing, almost dizzying speed and with it, the dynamics of business. In particular, the way we were able to compete in the past, which has been synonymous with success, may not be adequate in the future if we wish to achieve sustainable development in the company. Therefore, ‘the systematic exploration of chance’, which was lauded on the walls of Paris, is actually the essence of future strategy for our organisations.

This systematic exploration must be directed towards improving the creativity of individuals and groups within the company. To do so, we must give some importance to the Sorbonne wisdom which told us to, “Forget everything you have learned. Begin to dream”; and, “Always question everything which has been established.” Companies must provide a platform and opportunity for meeting and working which encourages divergent opinions, and which facilitates new approaches and practices. In this way, instead of being bound by the chains of routine and a single, narrow viewpoint, the broad spectrum of capacities that co-exist within an organisation can find room to grow and flourish.

Amongst some of the major problems faced by companies is their overly bureaucratic and cumbersome organisational structures which leads to a negative impact on the creative capacity of individuals within the entity. This red tape leaves little breathing space for new initiatives or ongoing innovation, elements which are critical in the search for new working ways.

One of the main culprits of this internal bureaucracy lies in how these structures are conceived, since they are considered an end in themselves rather than being tools which serve to ensure best practice and smooth relationships. Let’s take heed of the scribblings on the Odeon Theatre, “We want the structures to be at the service of Man and not Man to be at the service of the structures. We want to enjoy the pleasure of living, and never again endure the pain of merely existing.” Let’s re-think our organisations and put them to the service of people.

Although the May ’68 movement was a collective and communal effort of social change, it relied on the contributions of individuals. Its constant reference to peoples’ behaviour is also applicable to organisations: “The right to live is a given, and must not be begged for”, and, “Let’s take our desires as reality.” Finally, in allusion to the Chinese proverb, “The soul walks ahead of the heart, but not far ahead.”
I would like to appeal to individual responsibility as a key element for transformation of organisations. We must use all our imagination, talent and effort to serve the development of our company; and, we must do so in a generous spirit of solidarity and teamwork which increases the organisation’s competitiveness in the area where we live.

As Dany Le Rouge said, “Collective change is always fruit of the individual actions of each protagonist.” And, although 50 years have gone by, as we head into the future, I invite you to re-kindle the spirit of ’68 in your professional role.


Sabin Azua

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