Parallel Structures of Networks of Relationships

Structure - Collaborative into Hierarchy
One of the questions that continues to dominate many of the conversations that I have with organizational leaders is the one related to how they should structure their business.

For example, yesterday in a conversation with a friend and client, we discussed the role of the administrative assistant in his business. Like many small businesses, this role has shifted from an essential one to a discretionary one. Many employment positions have gone away because the benefit does not match their cost.

The issue isn't whether the tasks that these people do are not valuable.

The issue is whether the role as defined is.

This is a picture of the shift being taken in many places from a traditional hierarchical business structure to one that I call a parallel one. This parallel structure is a network of relationships.


As you can see by this chart, there are some real differences between the traditional approach to organizing a business, and one built around relationships.  This shift is hard for everyone who has spent their work life in a hierarchical structure.

In the traditional approach, a person is hired to fill a position. That position has a job description that outlines the specific tasks and responsibilities that they are to do. The employee's expectation is that is what their time at work will be like each day. Completing tasks that are assigned through the organizational design of the company. Responsibility is passed down to the employee,while authority is held at the top. This system worked well during an era of easy growth and social continuity.  It does so because the ultimate purpose of the organization is institutional integrity.

In a network of relationships parallel structure, the job description is also relational. It means that the individual's character and engagement with people is part of what makes them a valued employee. Some may think this has always been true. And that is correct. These parallel structures of relationships have always formed when a specific need emerges. But they were seen as temporary or adhoc, not a permanent or essential part of the organization's structure.

What We Want

The greatest business failure of the past thirty years has not been scandals or financial collapses. It is the failure of business to understand the value of their employees. This failure originates in the structure of businesses.

If employees are functionaries in an administrative, production system, then their value is diminished, by let say at least 30%, and in some cases twice that.

If the business is organized to create order, then employees are hired to comply with that order. Institutional integrity becomes the goal of the organization.

However, in a network of relationships model, people bring much more to their work. This is what the team building movement has been teaching us for a generation. How people relate and work together is a key ingredient in an organization's success.

I suspect though that here again the value of the individual to company is still not perceived well.

If you were to sit down with each employee for coffee and talk about their lives, you would find what I am finding. There are three things that they want. Everyone says them differently, but they can be summarized simply. 

Life-Work Goals
People want their lives and work to be

Personally Meaningful,

          Socially Fulfilling, and

                    Make a Difference that Matters.

This is what we all want. We want the values that matter to us to be central in how we live. We want some kind of purpose for our lives. There needs to be a point to it.

We also want our relationships to be healthy and whole. We don't like conflict. We don't like to be manipulated, to be taken for granted, or to be used for someone's selfish purposes. We want to walk into work hopeful and excited about the opportunity to share my day with the people with whom I work.

We want to feel at the end of the day that we did something that made a difference. Listen to what people say when they talk about a good day. One where they accomplished something. They overcame a challenge or an obstacle and succeeded at it. Also, they did something for someone else that was appreciated. It made a difference. There was real satisfaction in helping solve person's problems. That's what we want.

The Circle of Impact Connection

The lesson for me when I began to see this picture emerge is how congruent it was to the three dimensions of leadership that I had identified as the Circle of Impact.

Circle of Impact- simple
The three dimensions that command every leader's attention are Ideas, Relationships and Structure. We tend to segregate them, thinking that it is easier that way. Instead it creates confusion and greater complexity. That is why the four Connecting Ideas - Purpose or Mission, Values, Vision and Impact - are essential tools for helping link together the three dimensions.  And it begins by clarifying the Connecting Ideas.

The Circle of Impact applies to both kinds of structures, traditional and parallel, because this is a basic, fundamental understanding of all organizations, regardless of type. Every organization must address its ideology, its social context and how the business is structured to achieve impact. All of them. However, here's the difference.

The parallel structure, described above, is a Network of Relationships. Just like in a traditional hierarchical setting, this organizational structure requires attention to the Connecting Ideas, relationships and the organization of their work.

Networks of Relationships are formed around a Shared Mission and Shared Responsibility, where leadership, authority and responsibility to contribute are shared.

From this perspective of Shared Leadership, the responsibility of the individual is to take initiative to create impact. This is the most basic contribution of the team member. And because the group is organized as a network of relationships, their collaboration and communication is an essential focus of their relationships.

Three Contributions

Most of us have experienced team work where there was a genuine experience of coming together as a group of shared purpose and contribution. And most likely, we see these experiences as the exceptions in our lives.

Let's return to my conversation with my friend and client about the administrative staff person in his office.

How can this perspective about parallel structures, networks of relationships, shared mission, shared responsibility, shared leadership and impact fit into his traditional business structure?  

It begins with recognizing that each individual has unrealized potential waiting to be released. Everyone of us wants to work in an environment that is personally meaningful, socially fulfilling and makes a difference that matters. If that is so, then the first step is figuring out how those three personal goals can become the basis for the contributions of each person.

As a result, each person contributes that which is personally meaningful. Each person contributes in their interpersonal interaction that which is socially fulfilling. And each person contributes out of their own talent, expertise and character of personal initiative those actions that create the impact that makes a difference that matters.

For each person to do this means that the social structure of the business must change. And this shift is based on what each person shares with the whole of the organization.

Here's the insight that is a key to understanding this organizational change. Because these networks of relationships are parallel structures, they can work along side of, and even within the traditional structures of hierarchy. In fact they always have. But rarely as a core strategy, but rather as a tactical approach to team work. 

We can see this is the way businesses define positions of employment. Instead of focused on contribution, the emphasis has been task oriented. As result, the value of the employee is not realized, and it makes the case for reductions in force must easier to make.

The future belongs to these parallel structures. Let networks of relationships form. Let them take collective initiative to make a difference that matters, then new vitally and impact will emerge.

The Subverting of Hierarchy

Emotions - 382031318_17f9632b01

A decade ago The Cluetrain Manifesto was released as a prescient picture of what we are now coming to understand as the future that is fast becoming the present.

The Cluetrain authors, in a revolutionary style reminiscent of Martin Luther's 95 theses nailed to the Wittenberg church door starting the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe, posted 95 theses on the nature of organizations, markets and life in the age of the Internet. The entire book is available free online here.

The seventh Cluetrain thesis - Hyperlinks subvert Hierarchy - makes a point about information flow and access to that flow. A hyperlink like this one takes you to some other place in the online world. In this case, the main page at Wikipedia, but it could be any one of a billion different places. This ability to access information places power in the hands of people that we previously did not have.

Recently I heard Manuel Lima speak on the visualization of networks. You can follow his exploration of this topic at his blog Visual Complexity

Manuel Lima - VC - human knowledge

In his presentation he compared the French Encyclopedia of the 18th century with Wikipedia. As you can see from this slide from his presentation, the growth of information in our time is staggering. This growth of information and our access to it is forcing organizations to change.  From this one picture you can see how we now truly live in the Information Age.

Hyperlinks may subvert hierarchy but that is not replacing hierarchy. Reading Clay Shirky (See his recent book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations) may lead to the idea that we will see corporations go away, though he doesn't say this. In its place, we will all be self-organized into online social networks linked by our own hyperlinked profiles and communication means. This is already happening, but it is not replacing the traditional hierarchical organization.

For example, the free e-book, Managing Morale in a time of change is a product of the very phenomenon that both Cluetrain and Shirky identify.

The larger picture is something a bit different from simply being the end of formal organizations and the rise of communal structures. Instead, we are seeing a shift towards social influence that is more significant than simply the subverting of hierarchy.

Since humankind began to create communities and stop wandering as hunter/gatherers, hierarchy has formed as the power base of all organizations. Read Homer and the Old Testament history of the early Hebrews, there were always persons who held power and authority in a hierarchical structure that secured power and created order for their society. The difference between one lord and another lord was often (1.) the strength of their military defensive power and (2.) their moral vision that created either a just, prosperous society or not.  This is what we know of as organizational hierarchy up to this very day. It is the nature of hierarchical power that is at the center of the debate about healthcare today.

What Cluetrain, Shirky and many others point to is the realization that hierarchy's claim upon our lives has been loosened. I characterize this change as the end of a kind of institutionalism that is rigid and not adaptable, followed by the rise of social connection as the organizing principle of organizations. The hierarch doesn't really go away. It is rather transformed from within, and has been for at least a generation as the complexity and speed of life in organizations has grown.

Hierarchy of  Structure
Hierarchy creates order from top to bottom. Power resides in a graduated scale with greater power held by the few at the top, down through the organizational structure to lesser power held by the many at the bottom.

These vertically integrated structures existed for millennia on the control of the lower levels of organization. Control of access to information, resources and opportunity were some of the ways that hierarchy functioned.

In a time where most people were undereducated to their potential, and where the skills required to produce things were simple and repetitive, hierarchy worked. It is what made the industrial revolution so productive. In this instance, the worker in a hierarchical structure was only as free as their income allowed them to be. Dreams of wealth and advancement were not most peoples' privilege. Yet, beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries this began to change as exploration of the world, and tools for communicating ideas began to spread to the masses.

In our day it is hard to imagine a world without easily available reading material. However, prior to Gutenberg's moveable type press, the cost and time constraints on the production of printed information was such that the vast majority of people across the globe were functionally illiterate. As literacy and education became more common, so did the range of opportunities available to the average citizen grow.

Yet still, hierarchy ruled because there was not the means for any other kind of  organization. Over the past generation this has begun to change. Today, collaboration is fast becoming the norm in how business gets done.

Hierarchy of Relationship

Collaboration is the ability of people to communicate and coordinate complex work processes in an efficient and effective manner.

It is dependent on the ability of members of the collaborative group to work together, to communicate effectively and share in the rewards and responsibilities of the project.

Many collaborative groups function not by hierarchy, with one person in authority who delegates the tasks of the project. Rather many groups are lead by the "first among equals". This view also known by its Latin form, primus inter pares, treats the organization of work from the perspective of whomever has the knowledge, experience, expertise or responsibility is the leader. From this perspective, leadership is not a role, but the contribution we make within the social context of work.

In a collaborative project, with one person's client, the lead will be taken by the person who has the information or skills to address the specific need of the client. So, if a planning client of mine needs assistance on employee pension plans, then I bring in the expert on that area, and they take the lead on helping my client establish the best approach for them.

In hierarchical structures, leadership is a function of position, authority and power. In collaborative structures, leadership is a function of the character and influence of people in a social context. Personal character, communication skills and the ability to share power are keys. 

Network-Hierarchy Image

While this may seem rather mundane and ordinary for many of us, it is revolutionary in the context of hierarchy. It is so because it means that leadership is not held as a private privilege, but rather shared as a common responsibility. It is this way of work that is creeping into the hierarchies of organization as changing them from within.

It would be nice to think that this is all a very rational, forward thinking process, but typically it is not. Instead, when hierarchy breaks down, and goals and standards must be met, the last resort is to call a meeting to see who has any ideas for getting out of the mess.

What is pushing the acceleration of the adoption of this approach are many causes. However, at the heart is the access to information and tools for communication that the internet provides. The e-book Managing Morale in a Time of Change was the work of 36 people from 11 countries on four continents. The conversation we captured in the ebook took place over 12 days, and the production of the e-book a little over a month more. This is a model of the future in miniature.

What needs to happen is for companies to embrace the subversion of hierarchy in favor of social collaboration and allow for their businesses to grow from within at all levels.

I don't think that hierarchy will ever go away. It remains an efficient way to create order for the production and distribution of products and information that do not require high levels of interaction and collaboration. It It will lose its hold on society as people realize levels of freedom and opportunity that come from their social connections to one another.

Yes, subvert and elevate hierarchy to be an incubator of shared collaborative leadership.

This is the future that would have scared Agamemnon, Caesar, Henry VIII, Hitler, Stalin and all the little dictators who use hierarchy to subvert the interests of their people to their own private ones.

It is the future. Embrace it now, and learn to lead to strengthen hierarchy through its subversion to a more socially connection environment for work.


Managing Morale in a Time of Change can be download here.

Photo Credit: Flickr #382031318_17f9632b01

The Uncomfortable Nature of Leadership

Tribes cover

My friend David Pu'u pointed to Seth Godin's post on the uncomfortableness of leading where he quotes from his bestselling book on leadership, Tribes.

It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers.
It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail.
It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo.
It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle.

When you identify the discomfort, you’ve found the place where a leader is needed.

As they say, "No pain; no gain."

There are two kinds of leading.

The first kind of leading is by personal performance, knowledge and expertise as one of the gang, often referred to as "first among equals" after the Latin phrase, "primus inter pares."

The members of the group are equal in position, but one leads because of their knowledge, expertise or a position of authority.  Such as with a business partnership where one of the partners is the managing partner.

The second kind of leading is when you have a position of authority within an organizational structure.

It is the second one where the most discomfort comes in.

I was the scoutmaster for my sons' scout troop for eight years. I tried to run our troop as a "first among equals", until my lead assistant in charge of camping didn't like a decision I made about his son's advancement. Within five days, the situation went from a disagreement between us to a challenge of my authority as scoutmaster before the whole troop. It wasn't personal. It was the principle of the issue. However, when the line was crossed from being between us to involving all the families, I had to exercise the authority that comes with the position. In consultation with the troop committee, he was suspended from all future activities with the troop. It was a sad moment because it didn't have to go that far. The beneficial result was that it created confidence that the boys would be treated fairly and cared for appropriately. Confirmation of the difficult decision came as parents stepped forward, offering their support and help.

It was very uncomfortable experience and a great lesson in leading. To this day, five years later, I'm still affected by it. He was my friend and scouting partner. We hiked together. We were a great team together. And in a matter of a few days, it was over.

This is one of those issues that supervisors and middle managers are not taught to understand. They rise through the ranks of the company. Someone thinks that they have some leadership skills, and they are elevated into a manager position. The challenge for them is no longer being one of the guys. It is why leadership is an uncomfortable position to be in.

This is why leadership is not just tactics and strategies, but personal character and the capacity to change.

If you are in this position, here are three areas to focus your attention.

1. Be clear about the long-term impact you want to achieve.

2. Be clear about the values that govern your decisions and behavior.

3. Be clear that you can't take personally, the conflicts and disputes that come with authority, even if it is personal to the other person. You can't let it become about you, it isn't, but about principles and goals.

I encourage you to read Seth's NY Times bestseller book, Tribes, and to subscribe to his blog. I also encourage to read David's blog, especially right now as he chronicles his adventures in Bali.