“It is experience, rather than understanding, that influences
behavior.” - Marshall McLuhan
Recently, my friend David Pu’u asked me about my vision. In
a moment of rare, uninhibited candor I said,
“I want to change
everything related to 20th century organizational purpose and structure.
I want to replace the institutions that created the problems we face now.
I no longer want to be sad because of the waste of human potential that I see
The structures that I am referring
to are not just organizational structures, but also social, moral and
ideological structures. It is important to understand that these structures are
systems of processes that affect us through our experience of them.
From the vantage point of my Circle
of Impact model, my conclusion is that ideas change, relationships change, but
the social and organizational structures that comprise the context in which we
think and relate do not change without great forces of disruption.
This is especially so as social and organizational structures disconnect Ideas (Values, Vision, Purpose and Impact) and Relationships from the processes and order of the institution. These structures are highly resistant to change, and only change when people join together around a set of common values, a shared purpose and a clear understanding of what difference their organization should make.
The Structure Lives
I have had a long standing interest
in the structure of organizations. Not the structure of the organizational
chart; but the living structure, the one that actually functions.
If an organization's
structure was a spy, it would be a double agent, both working for and against
the people of the organization.
The structure of an organization,
whether it is a bricks & mortal business or a social media business, is
designed for a purpose. Henry Ford's assembly line that made the Model T was
designed for the purpose of mass production. Facebook's platform structure is
also designed for a purpose.
A business' purpose and the purpose
of its organizational structure are not the same. The former is born out
of the values that inform its mission; the latter out of the need for order and
Marshall McLuhan said a half century
ago that "the medium is the message".
At that time, he was speaking about how the form in which a message is
delivered is a message in-and-of-itself. The form of communication is as
important as the content of the message.
The classic example from McLuhan's
era, the 1960s, is the effect of the nightly pictures of the Vietnam War.
During the dinner hour each night, we saw pictures of US aircraft dropping napalm incendiary
bombs, of piles of dead bodies, of unclothed children running from the
fires of bombings, and executions in the streets.
The visual medium of television
created an experience, whether accurately or not, which words in a newspaper or
magazines, and governmental spokespersons could not. The medium was greater
than the message in itself.
Today, the digital revolution is an
extension of this same reality. Even in a day when any photo can be
Photoshopped, pictures carry a stronger influence than words.
The medium, the
structure, the platform is the message, and always has been.
It is important to understand how
organizational structures and social media platforms affect us. They are not
neutral, but a living context which change in response to our actions.
Consider for a moment the morale in
your office today. Is everyone happy and productive? Or are there people
who are disgruntled and angry about being there.
Several years ago, in collaboration
with a global group of colleagues, an ebook of a conversation about morale in
the workplace was published called Managing Morale in a Time of Change. It is worth
reading. Without stating it, the conversation points to the impact that
organizational structure has on the people who work with it. The structure attempts to dictate identity
and behavior. To paraphrase McLuhan's
words at the beginning of this post,
the experience of working within a highly integrated corporate structure, not
the understanding of its structure, that produces issues of low morale."
The medium of structure is a message to which we must pay attention.This is true regardless of size or organizational
form, whether industrial or digital. We are influenced by the structures of the
organizations where we engage in life and work. This is also true for all
things digital and virtual,especially the form of social media platforms.
Social Media Platforms as Organizational Structures
... Facebook is a new
thing. But it thinks like an old thing. It thinks bigger is better. It’s the
old industrial mindset. The bigger it gets, the harder it will be to change
course. I’ve felt for some time that FB has about five years of relevance left
before it is replaced by multiple platforms that someone figures out how to tie
together without creating confusion. This is already happening.
Why? Because people
change, and it isn’t that they want more, they want better or different.
Facebook is changing their expectations, their behaviors, and their attitudes
towards themselves. We already see it in the proliferation of so many different
social media platforms.
Here’s where I see the
It used to be that we
individuals had to fit into the institutional structures, and Facebook is an
institutional structure, to find relevance and identity. The institution was
king, and we were simply serfs. Now, that scenario is flipped, and the
individual is king, and becoming more so, and Facebook is just an optional tool
for our use. For these platforms it is a race to relevance in a fickle
It isn’t that these
platforms are changing, people are changing by using these tools to express
themselves in way that they did not have in previous eras. They / we will gravitate
toward those platforms / tools we need right now. I find Facebook is the lowest
common denominator social media platform that provides a basic level of
interaction, but not much more. I know they are trying to add features, but the
mold / brand is set. FB is a slave to their own brand, not we to them.
The medium of social media is
changing us. It is a platform for change. And, we, just may be changing faster than the
platforms can keep up. Why is this?
What is it about social
media that makes it so appealing?
How does it touch us, touch those aspects of our lives that other structures can not?
How can we better utilize these platforms to align the Four Connecting Ideas with our relationships in the organziational structures where we live and work?
These are the questions that I find most compelling.
A couple of my friends have had adult children who moved back in with them. In one instance, a son returned from a long term overseas assignment to restart his professional career. For another, a son lost his job, and estranged from his wife, moved home. I learned from both these friends the importance of openness and compassion in the midst of change.
These transitions, for both child and parent, are difficult. The found space that parents retrieved after their children began their adult life is taken over by their children whom they love. The question that nags in these situations is, "What should our relationship be now?"
Transitions in life and work are not simply processes of change and economic reordering of life and work. The social and organizational contexts that encompass them are intensely relational. They strain the well-worn path that relationships built over time develop.
When life altering change comes, and we find ourselves in transition, we need to focus on the social as much as the practical questions of job search and finding a new place to live.
Long-standing relationships develop a predictability that becomes expectation for continuity. Disturb that pattern, and relationships become frayed.
Something as simple as a job change that requires a move can become highly disruptive. It isn't just the one employed who moves, but the whole family who is uprooted to a new place to establish roots in a new place. If the family unit is fragile, the transition can be more difficult than it should be.
When we enter a transition space moving toward that point where change is made and a new course is set, reflection, communication and a refocusing of values is needed.
Reflection is a form of self-criticism that enables us to see the logic of change in the midst of the transition.
Communication allows us to see a broader picture as we discover how those who are also impacted feel. We listen and learn from them how best to manage the transition.
Refocusing of values serves to ground us in what is matters most to us, which serves to focus our purpose as a vehicle for those values to live.
All of this is best done in open and honest conversation regularly scheduled.
If you are a parent whose adult child has moved home, talk with one another about how this is personally impacting each of you. Discuss what is important in the function of the home, and reach an agreement on the basics of living under the same roof again. While the adult child is still a child to the parent, and the parent to the child, they are also adults who should share responsibility for living together again.
If you are in transition, and find yourself, living at home again, especially after years away, recognize that you are not reentering the home of your youth. You have entered a social environment that has changed. No longer is this place oriented around the nurture and protection of children. Your parents, while they still love you, have moved through their own transitions into new stages of their life as adults. There is a place for adult children in the lives of their parents. But it must be discovered, and not merely assumed it is an extension of what their childhood was like.
Change is hard. It doesn't have to be as hard as we make it. All is required is for us is openness for the relationship to be what it needs to be today, not as it was in the past, or wish it had always been. Going through the transition points in our lives are hard enough without our relationships becoming an obstacle to positive change.
A Support Plan for Relationships in Transition
My proposal is not a widget that fits every situation, but can beneficial in many situations.
Just thinking about how different the 21st century is compared to either the 20th or 19th. Working on a post about this. What would you all say is the difference? I'm curious.
It is an important question if we are to effectively lead into the future. Here are some of the ideas shared. (Thanks Jenni, Pat, Richard & F.C.)
The social aspect... communication in a heartbeat
The entirety of the gross data and factual information within the world is within your 1.5lb. laptop.
Less face to face social interaction. Less informal group social interaction. More social interaction at a wire's length.
Too many businesses have forgotten ... being the people business.
19th more face to face ... 20th letters and telegrams ... 21st email, mobile phones and social networks - instant responses, less thought - little or no opportunity to convey intent except by emoticons that have become part of the language. This is a change so significant that I think it's as big as the printing press being developed.
In summary, these friends are seeing changes in technology, relationships and communication. I agree. These are the core differences that are impacting us daily.
If we use my Circle of Impact framework, we can identify others. This is a valuable exercise because it helps us in two ways. First, in seeing the transition over the past two hundred years, and second, to give us an idea of where to put our energy and resources for the future.
Using the Circle of Impact to Identify Change
Ideas: The Importance of Clarity.
Today, ideas matter more than ever. In the past, the communities and places of work were fairly homogeneous, not as culturally diverse as today. Now we need to be very clear about our values and purpose, and be able to effectively communicate them in visual and tangible ways.
In the past, we could measure our business by the bottom-line, and have a pretty good idea about whether we were succeeding. Today, if we are not clear about the impact we are creating, the purpose of our businesses / organizations seem vague. Impact is the difference that matters, and distinguishes us from others in the same industry. The core meaning of impact is the change we are seeking to create, and how we know when we have.
Lastly, is having a vision that is clear about what each person brings to the mission of the organization, and by that I mean, understanding what is their potential contribution. Then knowing how it is aligned with the operating structure to produce impact. And thirdly, each member of the organization being able to articulate that vision from their own place within the organization. Same vision, different expressions of it.
Relationships: The Importance of Being Present
Today, the person who is prejudiced, condescending and exclusive toward people and other cultures is viewed as backward, narrow and insecure. Openness and welcome are important behaviors that leaders and their organizations need to exhibit.
This mindset, so to speak, is really just an entry level attitude toward relationships. At the core, what made for a healthy relationship two hundred years ago, does so today. A year ago in a post, Honor and the Lost Art of Diplomancy, I wrote,
Diplomacy is the practice of respect applied in places of diverse cultures. It is the ability of one person to be able to empathize with another person, even though their cultural, ethnic and philosophical backgrounds are not similar. ...
This type of respect is a form of humility that places the dignity of the other person ahead of one's own perogatives. It is what I see missing in much of the social and civic interaction that takes place in our society.
This aspect of relationships has always been true. The difference today is that it has to be treated as one of the strategic initiatives of the business. How the business relates to the person and the culture will have a huge impact upon how well they do.
In addition, the importance of respect, honor, dignity, and trust are now functioning within a social environment where technology mediates our relationships more and more. This is one of the most significant changes of the past two hundred years. And as one of my Facebook friends noted,
... instant responses, less thought - little or no opportunity to convey intent except by emoticons that have become part of the language. This is a change so significant that I think it's as big as the printing press being developed ...
This means that the quality of our relationships is really a matter of the person we are. Our character, integrity and values matter more than ever. They do because with many people we only have a moment to convey the depth of who we are. If we come across as shallow, narcissistic, unempathetic, or distracted, then we may never have a chance to change that impression.
The impact of all this change in relationships and social context is that we must constantly be present with our best selves, if we hope to build relationships for the long term. To be present means that our first inclination is not to tell our story, but to ask questions to identify their story. When we know who they are and what they value, then, with genuine integrity, we can tell our story. We are able to do this when we truly approach each person with dignity, respect and trust.
Structures: The Importance of Leadership
A major change over the past two hundred years is in how businesses organize themselves. In the past, the industrial model depended upon a standardized, formal structure. Today, the complexity of doing business has placed a greater burden on workers to be problem solvers and initiative takers. The expectation that workers take greater responsibility is changing what it means to be an employee. In effect, this shift is a change in what is leadership.
In the past, leadership was a position, a title which often was personalized into a heroic narrative of the senior executive. Today leadership has become the impact that each person has within the business structure. It depends upon their ability to communicate, problem solve, relate well to others and contribute in ways beyond their job description. In effect, the skills of leadership are now the skills of an entrepreneur, and are needed by everyone within the structure.
With this shift, a company where more and more employees have the capacity to take initiative to lead, the quicker the company will adapt to changing situations with customers and in their industry.
The Difference that Matters
Here are five actions we can take.
1. Be clear about the Four Connecting Ideas of Values, Purpose/Mission, Vision and Impact. Develop an elevator speech for each, so that when the moment arises you have something clear to say.
2. Develop Ideas in Conversation. Identify three to five people with whom you work, and often have lunch, and begin to share your ideas with them. You may want to share this post with them, and see where the conversation goes. The idea is to learn through collaborative reflection.
3. Volunteer with an Organization that Serves People in Need. I have found that working with people who have lived through or are living in hard times gives me perspective on myself. I learn to appreciate what I have and gain the ability to respect those whom I may have not been able to see any value. The resiliency and adaptability of people who are in need provides us a window into our own capacity to change.
4. Develop a Set of Questions to Ask Everyone You Meet. What sparks your curiosity? This is how the Circle of Impact was developed. I asked questions of everyone I met. Once the Circle became clear, I began to use this as a framework for my discussions with people. Now it is printed on my business card. Do this is to take initiative because your desire is to make a difference.
5. Go Slowly on Beginning to Take Initiative. Yes, leadership is an initiative taking function. But not all organizations have embraced this idea. In fact, many think that relinquishing control over employee freedom to lead ends with chaos and confusion. It certainly can if there is poor communication and coordination between members of a team or department. Understand, therefore, that leadership in this perspective needs alignment between the three dimensions of leadership - Ideas, Relationships and Structure.
The last thing to say is that while the changes over the past two centuries have been great, the core attitudes and behaviors that make for effective leadership remain the same as always. The primary difference are the changes in the social and organizational contexts that have come through technological innovation and the growth of life and work on a global scale.
Well, they are, but what we use are not real measures.
What we typically measure is management, not leadership.
The management of people, products and processes.
That is different than leadership.
Management numbers may ... may ... have a relationship to leadership. But it needs to be defined.
So, if you are going to measure leadership then you need to define what it is, and define it in such a way that you can measure it.
Here's how I define leadership.
Leaders take initiative to create impact.
Each word is intentional.
Leaders start, engage, facilitate, act, do and take the first step.
Leaders generate processes, products, systems, relationships, openness, cultures, opportunities, or the next ones, and they adapt, form, and bring into existence what is new, needed and necessary.
Leaders make a difference that matters by creating change.
By this definition any person can function as a leader. What does this mean for those people who are in executive and supervisory roles in traditional vertically integrated hierarchical organizational structures?
It is simple.
Executive leaders initiate the creative processes which produce leaders who initiate to create impact.
This means that executive leaders are measured by the leadership of those for whom they are responsible. This is quite similar to what we have thought of as management, but there is a difference.
The difference is that the management of efficiency, predictability and consistency requires control those who work for them. The reality is that this is a fading reality. Businesses are rapidly changing, by necessity, and our understanding of leadership needs to catch up.
The Three Dimensions of Leadership
Now if everyone simply initiated change in a random manner, then greater chaos would ensue.
Therefore, an integral part of executive leadership is coordinating the leadership of others. Executives do so through three principal areas: Ideas, Relationships and the context which each person has through the social and organizational structures of their work.
In other words, leaders facilitate clarity around the Connecting Ideas of Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact. They facilitate the communication and coordination of the actions that follow the organization's purpose.
Executive leaders build a culture of shared leadership through the shared responsibility for the organization's defined purpose, values and its vision for impact.
As a result, leadership spreads out through the company. We can see a better connection between the company's purpose and the means to achieve its bottom line. Better communication, and a greater sense of community between the people in the company, fosters a culture that adapts more quickly to the opportunities and obstacles that present themselves every day.
So, how do we measure leadership.
First, we define the change we want by defining the purpose of the impact that we seek.
We track change. We track the changes that we see in how the Connecting Ideas are being use. We track change in how people communicate and work together. And we track changes in processes as they adapt to new circumstances.
Second, we identify and track employee initiative.
We track the connection between communication and issue resolution. If people are taking initiative to resolve issues at their own point of responsibility, then you are seeing the spread of leadership in the company.
Third, we track the speed of change.
How fast does it take for an idea to be enacted? The key to this returns to the Connecting Ideas. These ideas provide a context of understanding that can guide the initiative leadership of people.
Ultimately, the measure of leadership is the number of leaders who have been formed and nurtured by the company, and the collective impact of their shared leadership.
By growing a leadership culture of initiative, a company can become a community of leaders whose impact is far beyond what it was when everyone was being managed to just do their job.
The other day, I stopped by to see a friend and colleague. On his desk was one of the best leadership books of the past decade, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow. It is stellar description for leadership of the importance of the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances. Adaptation is a key skill for leaders who are managing change, while at the same time creating stable, sustainable enterprises.
Peter Mello and I had the opportunity to interview Marty Linsky on the book for two Weekly Leader podcasts, Part 1 and Part 2. It is worth hearing Linsky talk about the book and his work with Ron Heifetz.
Sitting there with this friend in his office, talking about leadership, how we deal with people in various situations, I came to a realization about myself, and about adaptive leadership.
In order to be an adaptive leader, we must be an adaptive learners.
I realized, then, that virtually everything I know, I learned from someone else.
It wasn't like a being student in a classroom learning from a teacher. Rather, it was learning by listening and observing to the lessons embedded in a person's perceptions and experience.
Listening and Observing - keys to being an adaptive learner.
Informational or Contextual?
There is no way I can tell you what I have learned from any particular individual. It isn't that type of learning.
It isn't informational learning.
Rather it is contextual learning. Learning from the context of a person is learning to see how ideas matter within a certain distinct situation.
It isn't abstract, or detached from experience. Rather, it is how an idea that transitions from the idea itself to something practical and real, that's applied in a particular situation.
The use of values in an organization is an example.
There are two types of values.
There are the ones that are on a list that the company claims are their values.
Then, there are the ones that actually are practiced by the people in the company.
These two sets of values are not always the same, congruent or even aligned. Depending upon different conditions, the same understanding of value will have a different application in an organization.
Company A espouses to be an open, transparent organization placing a high value on communication. Company B makes the same claim. The difference is in their context.
Company A is physically structured so that executives are separated into their own discrete offices. Communication is mediated by administrative assistants, and written information distributed throughout the company. If you want to speak to V.P. Joe, you go through his assistant Mary, or look at the latest memo.
Company B is physically structured around an open space concept. My friend Dana Leman of RandomKid share with me her experience of touring the Bloomberg offices in New York. She sent me a link ot a video tour of their offices. Regardless of your position, your office is in the midst of this open concept. The benefit is a greater exchange of ideas.
So, two companies can claim allegiance to the same values, but their application of those values be totally different. To understand the difference is to understand how to these insights and apply them in your own context.
Through my conversation with Dana, my perception of how to organize office space is different.
This is how adaptive learning happens. We listen for insights for applying ideas in various contexts. The more we learn from others the clearer our own understanding becomes, and how we can be adaptive leaders.
This kind of understanding is tacit and intuitive. It isn't an understanding derived from an analytical process. Rather, our brains synthetically weave together many thoughts, impressions, experiences, and feelings to provide understanding. The more this emergent awareness is allowed to take place the greater the capacity for adaptive leadership.
Adaptive leadership is a shift away from the old command-and-control method.
It requires openness to other people, their ideas, their experiences and an appreciation of their particular context. The easiest way to begin to learn this kind of adaptive behavior is simply to listen and apply the good ideas that you hear each day.
The Difference Adaptive Learning has made to me.
Sitting in my friend's office, I came to realize that adaptive learning had been my practice for over 30 years.
Listen and learn from people, whomever you meet, you can learn something from them.
Listen to them, ask questions to clarify what their experience was. Listen without trying to compete. Listen to learn.
Take what is heard and seen, then, reflect, process and apply what you learned.
Share what you learned with others. Express gratitude.
This is how the Circle of Impact Leadership Guides came to be developed. From lots of conversations over the years, about what was happening in organizations, each one contributing a little piece of wisdom and understanding, creating a holistic perspective, I learned what I was suppose to see in leadership. In effect, these are not my ideas, but rather my catalog of what I've learned from other people. These lessons have wide applicability because this is the product of contextual learning, not simply the exchange of information.
The benefits of adaptive learning are many. Here's what I've learned.
1. We learn that Ideas matter.
They are the key to understanding where we are and how we can adapt to the changes that are constantly confronting us. They connect us to people. They are tools for being more effective communicators. All learning at the most fundamental level is about ideas. Without ideas, we are left only with feelings. As a result, adaptive leaders must also be idea people who are interested in the ideas of others, not just in what they are thinking.
2. We learn that Relationships matter.
When we place ourselves in a position to learn from every person with whom we meet, every single one, we come to understand how our interaction within a social context is where the action of organizations is found. The greater our capacity for forming adaptive learning relationships, the greater our capacity to develop the adaptive capacities of employees. Those adaptive capacities provide employees the opportunity to lead from their own specific work context. This is part of what I mean by the idea, Community of Leaders.
3. We learn that Structures are either tools for adaptive learning and leadership, or they are obstacles.
If the structure of a business does not provide a way for people to learn from one another, and to apply that learning, then it is stuck in a system of operation that is not sustainable.
For many businesses, the structure of their organization is, seemingly, the only tangible, secure, stable, set, concrete, real thing that exists. It is a monument to the past, not a platform for constant adaptation and innovation.
4. We learn that learning matters more than knowing.
When our posture towards others is learning from them, we are less concerned about making sure they understand just how much we know.
It this is an issue for you, then practice asking questions about things you do not know. Read books in subject areas in which you have no background. Stop trying to reinforce you own knowledge, and start expanding it. Start listening for the wisdom and insight in others.
5. We learn that if we never stop learning, we also never arrive at a full and complete understanding of anything.
Adaptive learning isn't a tactic we deploy for a period of time to ramp up our current knowledge on a subject. Rather, adaptive learning is a lifestyle of openness to new ideas, fresh insights from people and a reflective approach to applying ideas by doing things differently one step at a time.
6. We learn that adaptive learning changes us so that adaptive leadership is possible.
Adaptive learning simplifies the way we approach leadership. It becomes about the impact we need to have right now. The old way of strategic planning is having to change to become more adaptable. This approach produces leaders who are nimble, intuitive and able to take advantage of the changes that are constantly happening.To adapt is to change. To change in this way is to make a difference that matters, it is to create impact. Becoming impact focused simplifies leadership.
7. We learn that adaptive learning leads to adaptive leadership which leads ultimately to becoming a Community of Leaders.
An adaptive leader will be most effective in creating a culture of adaptive learning. To do so means that each person takes responsibility for their learning, their contributing and their responsibility to create impact. Adaptive learning starts with the personal decision to learn from others. This nurtures within the individual the personal intiiative from which all leadership originates. It isn't just the individual initiating change. It is the whole organization as a community functioning as adaptive leaders. This is what I see as a Community of Leaders.
Realizing that I have lived this way throughout my life, my gratitude grew towards the hundreds of people from whom I've learned. Many are no longer with us. Many have no idea of the impact that they have had on me. Many are friends who are my go-to-people for counsel when I need it. Many are random people whom I've met in passing whose stories and insight helped me gain a deeper appreciation of so many different ideas and ways of leading organizations. If you are one of these people, I thank you.
Engagement is the hot leadership strategy these days. On some subliminal level, we know what it means. But on a practical level, it is much more difficult to define. It is like so many ideas during this time of epic transition in society. Abstractions are easier to understand that actual actions.
I'm involved in a project with the Presbyterian Churches (PCUSA) in North Carolina to raise money for our ministries on college and university campuses. It is more than a fund raising project. It is an engagement one, as we engage all segments, levels and congregations of the North Carolina Presbyterian world to support our work with students, faculty and university administrators.As we have worked through the various strategies that we need to successfully meet our financial goals, we are at the same time affecting change in people's perceptions and actions. This is very much what engagement means in its current use.
Our engagement strategy is built around actions that we are asking people and their churches to take. In this sense engagement, isn't just marketing, but encouragement to action. The emphasis on action, rather engagement, is because engagement is an ambiguous term. It can mean only mental engagement. And ultimately that sort of engagement does not produce results. Actions builds confidence, and confidence builds strength. So the goal of any engagement process should be more people participating, action, doing, taking initiative in three specific areas that we have identified as critical to our success.
We are focused on three types of actions: Connection, Communication and Contribution. If we succeed in increasing the level of connection, communication and contribution, then our campaign will be successful. This is true for any organization.
The simple idea that lies behind connecting, communicating and contributing is the importance of personal initiative. If you want people to be engaged, then they have to take initiative. When their initiative is focused on making connections with people, communicating their mission in terms of a story, and intentionally and strategically contributing by making a difference that matters, then engagement ceases to be a cool abstract business idea, and a living reality within your organization.
I cannot emphasize enough that the key is creating an environment where people feel free to take initiative to connect, communicate and contribute. If there is fear or too many boundaries to cross or obstacles to overcome, then they won't.
What does it mean to Connect, Communicate and Contribute?
Here's a starting point for each.
We all move through our lives in relationships with others. Some people are family, others are friends, many are colleagues and the vast majority are people who are nameless faces that we pass by along our life's journey.
There are three keys to connection.
The first key is that through our connections we open ourselves up to a broader, more diverse context. The perspective we gain helps us to better understand who we are and how we fit in the social and organizational settings where we live and work.
The second key is our connecting strengthens community. When I introduce one person to another, the opportunities that can grow from that connection far out weight the ones we have without those connections. Living in isolation, which is not the same as being an introvert, weakens the institutions that society depends upon for its strength.
The third key is that when we connect, we are placing ourselves in a relationship of potential mutuality of contribution. I can pinpoint people with whom I connect with around the world for whom our mutual support for one another is an important foundation strength for our lives. We don't connect just to receive something from someone, but also to give in mutual benefit.
With the growth of social media, everyone is a communicator. However, what do we mean by communication?
The most common fallacy regarding communication is that it is about what I communicate to others. It is the old model of information distribution as communication.
The kind of communication that matters, that engages people to participate and contribute, is one that is more like a conversation. It is a two exchange, rather than simply a one-way download of my opinion.
The real purpose behind communication is to establish a connection that builds an environment of respect, trust, commitment, and contribution. This produces real conversations that matter. This is how communication becomes genuine engagement.
I have seen so many organizations during my professional career that were languishing because there was no spirit of contribution.By this I mean, the people who were the organization did not see themselves as the owners of its mission. They were employees hired to do a job.
A culture of contribution is built upon a foundation of appreciation and thanks.
Typically, people see thanks as a response to a gift of some kind. As a response, it is less an act of initiative, though deciding to write a note, rather than sending an email, is a greater act of initiative because the effort and cost are more.
The purpose here is to understand how increasing contributions by people is a form of engagement.
The Five Actions of Gratitude are acts of personal initiative. They are intentional and strategic. They are acts of mutuality that provide meaning and reality to the connections that we've made. Let's take a quick look at each to understand their function as sources of contribution. I've written more extensively about this under the title, The Stewardship of Gratitude.
Say Thanks: Too often saying thanks is a way we close a conversation. That is not what this is. Instead, we are expressing a perspective that identifies how the connection to someone, group or community has made a difference to them. Our giving of thanks contributes to the strengthening of the ties that bind a social or organizational setting together. I've heard it said that Saying Thanks is the "lubrication" that greases the wheels of society, making them run smoothly. This is part of its contribution.
Give Back: When we give back in service, we are giving, contributing to a person, an organization or a community that has given to us. This is the heart of what we know as volunteerism and philanthropy. For many people, this is where our most significant contributions are made.
Make Welcome: This act of hospitality, or Hostmanship as Jan Gunnarsson suggests, creates an environment of openness, inviting people to join as participants who give, create, contribute their gifts and talent. Openness and hostmanship are not automatic actions. They are intentional actions of initiative that create the opportunity for an organization to develop a culture of open contribution. Where there is openness to contribute, there is engagement.
Honor Others: When we practice honor, we elevate the human connection that exists in an organization or a community. I cannot think of an more important contribution than to create an environment where each person is honored with respect and thanks for the contributions that they make. Do this, and the motivation to contribute will grow.
Create Goodness: If we were to live to create goodness, we'd spend our days as contributors, and less as passive recipients of others creative goodness. My vision of this is to see an organization where every single employee take personal initiative to create goodness that makes a difference that matters. To do this means that we'd face all those obstacles and cultrual barriers to engagement, and create a place where people can discover a fulfilling life of contribution as creators of goodness.
Strategic Connection, Communication and Contribution
These actions of personal initiative are not tactics for failing systems to buffer themselves against the harshness of a declining situaiton. Instead,these are strategies of change that help leaders and their organizations make the necessary transition from the organizational forms of the past into those that emerging. These are strategies of engagement because that create a different social environment for people.
At some fundamental level, we'd have to address the organization's structure to determine to what extent it can support a growing environment of connection, communication and contribution. This is the most difficult question because are embedded forms that are resistant to change. They do not adapt well to creative forces from outside of their own control. Yet, the engagement are identifying with these three strategies is an intentional relinquishing of control so that people are free to create their own ways of contributing.
In this sense, leadership shifts from a control mandate to a facilitating, equipping and visioning one. Leaders create an environment of openness so that personal intiative can create new structures for contribution. As a result, leaders become the keep and nurturer of the values of the company. They are constantly reminding everyone of these values of personal initiative, creativity and contribution. They are protective of this openness that produces engagement.
The future belongs to those people who can create an organizational and community environment where personal initiative to connect, communication and contribute becomes the culture. When we do this, engagement transitions from being the hot topic of the moment to the reality that we find live with every day.
To create order is to create a structure for control. To release control creates a opening for initiative and collaboration. This is the transition point that modern organizations are passing through from hierarchy to the network.
If you know me, you know that meeting people from diverse walks of life is a passion for me. I find people infinitely interesting, their background, their thinking, how they found themselves doing what they do, their hopes and dreams, and their perception of their strengths and potential.
There is a reality that I see in many of them that is equally interesting. Many of them are unfulfilled in their life and work. It isn't that they don't have a passion for something, or don't know enough about themselves to know what their strengths and gifts are. No, it is that most have never found themselves in either the social or organizational setting where they could flourish as human beings.
As I write this I'm mentally scrolling through the places where I live and work. I'm thinking about the people whom I've met and known over the years. Thinking about common characteristics that distinguish them and united them together.
What are the common characteristics of non-fulfillment and of life fulfillment.
Here are three.
Do you have a purpose, a mission, or a calling? Can you define this as something more than what you do as an activity, and more as something you create and achieve?
Do you have a supportive, encouraging, open and honest network of family and friends? Are there people who understand you, who stand by through thick and thin, who believe in you, your mission and the impact you want to achieve?
Does your workplace and home life provide a context where your purpose and your relationships can flourish? Are you constrained by the structures that frame your life? Or, does the lack of order within your calling mean that there are opportunities that you fail to achieve?
My observation is that these characteristics are in descending order of occurrence. More people have a sense of purpose, fewer people have a truly healthy social network, and by a large margin, the fewest people work and live in social and organizational contexts where they can flourish.
The Circle of Impact
For a decade, I've been using this diagram as a conversation / thinking tool to help leaders and their organizations understand where the gaps are in their business. Here's a simple description of what I see.
Leadership is a function that every person can perfom to take "personal inititative to create impact."
I am not defining leadership as a role or an organizational postion. Like many leadership theorists, I see these roles as management, rather than leadership.
Therefore, the Three Dimensions of Leadership that every leader must address are Ideas, Relationships and Social & Organizational Structure. Ideally, every person within an organization takes personal initiative through their ideas and relationships, within social and organizational structures to create impact. As a result, a company becomes a leader-filled organization, rather than one starved for leadership.
The four Connecting Ideas of Purpose, Values, Vision and Impact provide the glue, the ligaments and tendons that create the wholeness of an organization.
Each of the three leadership dimensions must be aligned with one or more of the Connecting Ideas. Here's how.
The social and organizational structures are aligned with the organization's purpose. If these structures aren't, there is conflict and fragmentation.
The relationships within an organization are aligned with the values that create a common identity and character as a community of people.
However, it is not enough, to have values. Many organizations have a strong value system, but lack purpose. A community of people need a vision for how their purpose that makes a difference that matters. It must challenge them to grow, to remain open, and to inspire leadership initiative all with their community.
The Connecting Ideas permeate all aspects of an organization. Every person, every unit, office, group, committee, or board needs purpose that guides, values that unite, a vision that inspires, and an understanding of impact that defines the future of their organization.
The Structure Dilemma
Having been working with this perspective for over a decade, I've come to a challenging conclusion.
The problem in most organizations isn't the attitudes and behaviors of people. The reality is that people are products of their environment, or the social and organization structure of your business dictates what attitudes and behaviors fit within that system.
Most organizations work from a hierarchical stance. There are bosses and managers who direct employees work. This industrial model of management worked well when the tasks of work were non-creative, repetitive and mechanical skills based. Today, we live in a world of creativity, information and the skills require are for human interaction, communication and collaboration. The old structure doesn't align well with this new reality.
As I wrote in The End and The Beginning, this shift from hierarchy is an epic one. As I said recently, "Imagine Proctor & Gamble without bosses and managers, just leaders."
The emerging structure for organizations is the network. Each person participates by their own initiative. Each person contributes through their own unique offering to the network.
I call this "leading by vacuum," which simply means that people do what they are gifted or able to do, which opens up the environment for people with different talents and skills to contribute.
In an hierarchical structure, the efficient ordering of the parts and their compliance are primary. This structure is highly susceptible to fragmentation, compartmentalization and corruption through concentrations of power.
In the network, personal initiative, collaboration and communication make human relationships central. This is an emergent reality, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The power resides in the network and those who know how to engage more people to contribute. It is a leadership of facilitation and ingenuity, rather than control.
I first saw this reality in mid-1970's when I heard the Modern Jazz Quartet in concert. Sitting in a large concert hall with these quiet instruments I saw these four musicians communicating through them. Here is MJQ playing one of the signature tunes, Django. Watch for how their unspoken communication and timing work together.
Each person in the band is essential. Each person has their part to play. The impact is a sound which transcends one instrument, and blends the four into something evocative.
The Quest for Wholeness
If you know that your business or organization is fragmented, splintering apart, difficult to hold together, then what you are experiencing is the end of the viability of a traditional hierarchical structure. You feel it before you can truly see it. By feeling it, you know that others do too.
Bringing wholeness to your structure begins with the Connecting Ideas.
Reaffirm your purpose.
Identify the values that build connections between people.
Create a vision that inspires personal initiative.
Define the difference you seek to create so that you and everyone else can be absolutely clear as to what your impact is.
Begin this process in conversation. Use the Circle of Impact Conversation Guides. Hire me to come facilitate the conversation, if necessary. I'd welcome the opportunity to work with you and your leaders.
Creating a network business structure starts with establishing relationships of respect, trust and mutual reciprocity. Out of those healthy relationships, the network emerges to provide a platform for leadership initiative to create impact.
As the network grows, allow it to establish the organizational structural components that it needs. Remain open to change. Stay vigilant in affirming and acting on the Connecting Ideas.
The future is the network. And the future is now.
Creating a Network of Relationships
Here are some additional conversation guides that can help you understand how to create your own network of relationships.
Near the end of my father's career, the company for whom he had worked for over 35 years, was purchased, and, not so slowly, its assets drawn off and exploited for use by the parent company.
I remember him telling me of the day that he was on a management recruiting trip in Pennsylvania, and received a phone call that the company was not going to make payroll that week. He returned home to help usher through the closing of the company and be the last executive remaining as he handled the outstanding employee medical and benefit claims against the company. He was of an age where he could retire. It was a sad day for him. He had worked for the company his entire career.
My dad's story is not unusual. It is symptomatic of the time we are living in. I thought of my father as I watched last year's under-appreciated film, The Company Men. It is a story of executives and their families coping with change as their corporation goes through a series of downsizes simply to raise the share price. Like my father's experience, the film illustrates a very common experience of change. Here's a clip of a meeting where decisions are being made as to who is to be let go.
This has become a very normal experience for people. Even with a nice severance package, the emotional trauma of being fired is something that doesn't quickly go away. What lies behind this approach to quantifying the value of a company is a way of thinking about organizations that I believe is ultimately destructive rather than a path to sustainability. The logical outcome from over a century of this way of thinking has been the narrowing of the value of a company to something short term and specifically related to its financial value.
Consider the executive's rationale for downsizing staff and eliminating a division of the company in this exchange between Tommy Lee Jones and Craig T. Nelson's characters from the movie. .
Nelson: "Stock is stalled and revenue is flat."
Jones: "Entire economy is flat. We are in the middle of a recession."
N: "I only closed two of the shipyards. Should have closed all three of them. Stock is in the toilet."
J: "Everybody's stock is in the toilet."
N: "Well, the stockholders would like to see their share value maximized."
J: "Heh, Heh, Heh, Well ... sell the Degas'. ... three thousand jobs?"
N: "Gene, we aren't some little shipyard any more. I'm not going to keep pouring money into a losing operation."
J: "We innovate, retool ..."
N: "American heavy manufacturing is dead. Steel, auto, shipbuilding ... the future is in healthcare infrastructure and power generation."
J: "I have to be involved in any decision that affects one of my divisions."
N: "You wouldn't have approved the cut. ... You'd go behind my back to the board again, right?"
J: "They were good people, Jim."
Both men are backed up against a wall. They are caught by a way of thinking about the value of companies that worked in times where growth was relatively assured. Now, the competition is tougher, more astute and far more flexible in their ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
Do you think they could have seen this coming? I'm not sure. It goes back to how to you determine the value of a company. I'm not talking about how Wall Street values it, but the people who are touched by the company in some manner. How do they value the company?
Can the value of a company be reduced to one thing, like the share price, or the charismatic leadership of the CEO or a design innovation? Or is the value embedded in the whole structure and context of the organization?
We are in a time of global transition in all aspects of life. Short-term, reductive, passive aggressive, reactive thinking is not going to lead us out of a recession into a new era of peace and prosperity. Instead, we need to realize that our approach is failing, and that we need a new way to think about how organizations function. It must start with the willingness to be different, to think differently, and invest in changes that provide for long term development.
The Context of Change
The ancient Greeks had a word for change which is metanoia. Literally, it means a change of mind, but it has come to mean something much larger and more comprehensive. Metanoia points to a change of orientation, perspective and direction. There is a sense in the meaning that the change of mind is accompanied by some regret. So the change, upon reflection, is a choice to follow a different path. People choosing to turn toward different values and new ways of expressing them. Metanoia is a change that embraces the whole person, the mind, feelings and will, and is expressed in action that is change.
This change of mind is an awareness that the path we have been on is no longer sustainable. As I wrote in my post, The End and The Beginning, this change marks an end of an era in several ways. The nature of this redirection means that the recent past is no longer an adequate guide for understanding what we must do in the future. As I began in that post,
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
The continuity between the recent past and the near future has broken down. This is a turning point for us. The 20th century may provide our most immediate experiential memory, but for the purpose of understanding the future, it is now ancient history.
Reflect upon the attacks on 9/11, our response to them, and the global recession of past three years, and our response to it. Can you see how the tried-and-true methods of the last century have not worked. Neither peace nor prosperity are being restored, in fact, the world is less peaceful and prosperous than it was a decade ago. Terrorism maybe contained upon our shores, but it still festers in places of poverty throughout the world.
Fear, doubt and diminishment in the confidence in our leaders and institutions are increasing. Greater diversity, interconnectivity, and, yes, even greater business efficiencies, are not answering the question about what it is that we must do.
We are now at a crossroads that requires metanoia, a change that is comprehensive and whole. This change of mind requires us to begin to see businesses as a whole organizations, rather than as a collection of interchangeable, discardable, transferable, value-specific parts. The company in The Company Men was dying because it too, like my father's company, was just a collection of assets to be exploited. There is no future in this way of thinking. To have a future requires us to change our minds and see things differently.
To change our minds, we need to make Three Turns of perception, understanding and orientation.
The Moral Turn In the first clip from The Company Men, above, Tommy Lee Jones' character raises questions about the selection of people to be let go. His response, that there is an ethical question involved, is met with a legalistic answer.
By reducing the decision to a question of share price and what is required under the law, the company is not just making a business decision, but also a moral choice.
What is a company that no longer manufactures its products? Is it now a money machine for its share holders as long as the money holds out?
The moral turn is first and foremost about the purpose or mission of the company.
Does a company whose actual purpose is share price encourage confidence and trust?
Does a company whose primary focus is share price understand its connection to the people who work in the business and the communities where they are physically located?
Is a company more than its financials?
Does a company have a responsibility that goes beyond its shareholders, and what is defined by what is strictly legal?
Every organization exists in a context that is greater than the sum of the parts of the organization. There is a culture that is physical, ideological, technological and social.
For example, what distinguishes an insurance company in London to one based in Sao Paulo or Detroit is geography and culture. Yes, they each ofter insurance plans. Yes, they each have customers. Yes, they each generate revenue. The difference is the local context that helps to define the culture of the business.
As a result ...
a company is not primarily its mission or purpose, but its values that are embedded in ideas and relationships within the context, culture and structure of the organization.
Values permeate the whole of the business, including those persons and organizations outside of the business who are influenced by it. Values inform its purpose, its vision of impact, its relationships with all those who are touched by the company, and how the company measures its impact.
The mission of a company is a product of its values.
When the purpose of the company is more than its financial value to shareholders, it is no longer, just a reservoir of assets to be exploited, but a context in which to create the future.
Recently I heard a presenter during in an organizational development workshop describe organizations that are mission driven as organizations on the rise. He used a diagram similar to this one that I use to describe organizations in transition.
When a company reaches a point of maturity or stabilization or equilibrium, the importance of its mission as a guide often fades. What follows is an increasing focus on its financial assets as its primary purpose. The presenter was convinced that once an organization shifts from a mission focus to a financial focus, it has entered a stage of decline. In effect, they no longer see how a company can grow, but rather be sold.
The moral turn that a company needs to make is to reaffirm its values and reestablish its mission as the driving force of the company as a whole.
The Social Turn When the value of a company is reduced to its share price, the company loses the value that exists within its social structure. Not every member of the organization benefits from a rise in the share price. As a result, the company fragments into internally competitive parts to see who will survive the company's disintegration.
For example, as a Boston Red Sox fan for over 45 years, I was particularly disappointed in their collapse this year. It was not that old patterns of attitudes and behaviors that had hampered the team in the past had returned. Rather, it was the squandering of the talent and potential that existed on paper, at least, at the beginning of the season.
By all appearances, the social environment of the team is the core reason for their decline. At the beginning of the season, they were the odds on favorite to win the World Series. Great pitching, the acquisition of two all-star hitters, and a coaching staff that had produced two World Series championships held great promise for the upcoming season. Yet all that collapsed into a mess in what appears to be based in a collective selfishness and lack of accountability for the team's social environment and on field performance.
The Social Turn is the recovery of the human dimension in organizations. As human beings we are social beings through which our individuality develops. Much of the fragmentation of modern business organizations isolates individuals and business units into individualized roles that make collaborative team work more difficult. As a result, the connections that exist between people in the workplace are treated as having marginal value.
In The Company Men, when Ben Affleck is fired, the stated reason is that his position is redundant. In effect, the company was recouping a cost that it viewed was exceptional rather than necessary. The company also loses in this kind of fragmenting of the social structure of the business. Affleck's character was not just a person in a cubicle, but was a connection point in a network of relationships that provided information and influence beyond the company. The value may be redundant, but it is a redundancy that creates strength and resilience, not weakness.
Social fragmentation is not just found in businesses, but in global society at large. Its destructiveness finds its way into companies and organizations, weakening their ability to marshal the talent that exists. The Social Turn is one that values relationships of honor, respect, humility, trust and mutual reciprocity. These values function to create a social fabric that allows for diversity and interconnectivity that creates the sustainability that businesses and communities need.
The Structural Turn The industrial model of business was conceptualized around the idea that a business is filled with a few smart people and a lot of laborers. The world has changed, yet the structures of organizations have not. Still the structure is a hierarchy of decision-makers "leading" a larger number of decision-implementers.
This approach does not work as well as it once did. Here are just a few reasons.
1. Technology levels the information playing field.
2. Advances in public education, and the expansion of higher education has created a society of workers who are much better informed and equipped to do decision-making type work.
3. The complexity of working in a global environment of diverse cultures makes it more difficult for a few people to know everything they need to know about the issues that confront their business.
4. The skills required for leadership and management of business are much more accessible to far more people than every before.
5. Hierarchical structures are organized for control through compartmentalization and standardization.
The Structure Turn that is taking place elevates personal initiative, network collaboration, and adaptive learning as the keys to the organization and leadership of businesses.
Instead of a structure organized around compartmentalized roles and defined areas of responsibility, the emerging structure is an open environment where the skills and resources needed for the work of the business is acquired through a network relationship structure.
In this structure each person is responsible for the whole of the project, not just their segment. Each person can function in the role of leader, while not having a title as one.
In this networked structure, the premium skills are placed upon thinking skills that are both analytical and intuitive.
As I recently commented to Dana Leman of RandomKid,
"Imagine Proctor & Gamble without bosses and managers, and everyone is a leader."
Leadership ceases to be a title, and becomes a set of behaviors and attitudes that all share. For the character of this kind of leadership to take root, it requires changing the structure.
The Structural Turn is towards an organizational culture where people are free to create and contribute, to communicate, to initiate and to pitch in where they see a need. Instead of being doers of assigned responsibilities, they are facilitators and problem solvers. In many companies, this kind of structure is developing. However, it must happen at the senior level for the turn to be successful.
How would the company in The Company Men function differently if they operated under a network structure?
1. More people would be engaged in meaningful reflection about the challenges facing the company because they knew that had an actual stake in its success.
2. Innovation would be more prevalent as employees practiced a higher level of leadership initiative and problem solving.
3. New business applications through employee ingenuity would expand the number and range of revenue streams the company has.
4. The company would be unified behind its shared values and mission.
5. The company would be a more attractive place for the top talent to work.
6. The company could more easily adapt to financial downturns.
7. Communities would be vying for the opportunity for the company to create a local operation.
The central message of the Three Turns is for your mission to drive change in the company, centered around values that unite people to create a shared company culture of trust, personal initiative, and a desire to contribute to the company's success. When this happens, the turn from hierarchical structure to a network one can take place as a natural evolution of the company.
This picture of innovative technology points to the social change that is occurring because of the advance of technology. Besides lowering the cost of prototyping and manufacturing new products, people can now take their ideas from conception to market in a shorter period of time. Kulkarni spoke about what used to take months to produce that now can be done in a matter hours or days.
As I listened to Rajeev Kulkarni's Hatch presentation, I realized that in these printers I saw three significant social shifts. When the cost of manufacturing and production time are reduced, and the technology becomes affordable for individual use, then we are moving through a transition period from one era to the next. The shifts that I see taking place are:
1. From consumers to creators / producers
2. From mass market to mass customization
3. From a mass culture to a local culture
Let me describe each.
1. From consumers to creators / producers
With the use of basic design software and the RapMan 3d printer, any individual can become a producer of products for sale. The materials that can be used in the printing process are extensive. So, no longer will people have to depend on the marketplace to provide the products that he or she needs. With some ingenuity and business sense, they can make a shift from being a consumer of products to being the creator and producer of them.
Of course, six billion people will not automatically shift from being consumers to creators / producers. And every producer needs consumers to buy her product. Yet, it does not take many people embracing this shift in culture to dramatically impact it. The picture above is of an school girl in England using the RapMan printer.
Imagine every school in your school district having a 3d printer to complete a learning process of idea creation to product completion. Imagine the change of mind that comes to the students in that school when they can create, and not just consume. Imagine a generation of men and women who think of themselves as creators and producers, as leaders, rather than just consumers of other peoples' creative output.
One of the first realizations I had about 21st century leadership was that it was about personal initiative, not about roles. Leadership begins with personal initiative. Tools like these 3D printers place into the hands of people the opportunity to initiate, to create, and to produce products and solutions that can make a difference.
2. From mass market to mass customization
The nature of product development cycles used to be months, even years, necessary to bring a product to market. As a result, it required that product to have as wide an appeal and as long a shelf life as possible. With the advent of technologies, like 3D printers, this is changing. Now in a matter of a few hours, a specialize part can be designed and produced for a customer.
There are a couple implications for this shift.
First, it changes how a company relates to the marketplace. In a one-size fits all world, the marketplace is the lowest common denominator. In a mass customized world, the individual is the market. Marketing to individuals is different than to a mass culture. This is the insight that Chris Anderson wrote about in his book The Long Tail.
Second, it makes the relationship between manufacturer and consumer more important. I've learned this as a consultant. I cannot approach any project as if there is a formula that applies to every other organization in their industry. I have to build a relationship of interest, inquiry and adaptive response to meet not only their expectations, but their needs. I enter into their organizational setting with a set of tools, not unlike a 3D printer, though I don't have one, and use my tools to address the needs that they have.
In a mass customized world, relationships matter, and that is a key to managing the shifts that I'm identifying here.
3. From mass culture to local culture
Prior to the 20th century, life for most people from the beginning of time was experienced in small towns. I remember my grandfather telling me near the end of his long life that the most significant invention in his life time was the radio. When asked why, he said, "Because it showed us what life was like in other places."
The 20th century was a century lived on a global scale, with World Wars and multi-national corporations, and, with institutions that were designed for a mass culture. It was a perspective where one size fits all, and that all people are to be treated a like. Individuality was rebellious and conventionality was the norm.
Those days are slipping away as innovations, like 3D Systems printers, make it possible to create a business that serves customers globally from an office in a small town with an internet connection. It is the twin developments of innovation for individual productivity and the failure of large organizations to function in a one-size fits all world.
As a result, the meaning of global and local is changing. It is less about a mass market culture of sameness, and more about a culture of relationship where I can serve you, regardless of where you or I live. We can be connected. We can communicate, collaborate and coordinate our projects from wherever we sit today.
It isn't just that we live in a time of the long tail, or that technological innovation provides a basis for mass customization or a better foundation for individual initiative. Each is true. At a deeper level, it means that any individual with a minimum investment can pursue their own sense of calling as a person, and do it in a social context of others who share their vision and commitment. This is an emerging reality that will seriously impact the nature of leadership and organizational design in the future.
One way of understanding this development is to see this as the ascendency of the local. I've written about it here, here and here.
The key to making a local orientation work is openness. For many people, local is just another word for provincial, or closed. However, if local is less physical place, and more a relational space, then we can begin to see that my local can include colleagues in Japan, Pakistan, England, Canada, and my neighbors nearby in Asheville.
In a local community, you share a concern for people, for families, for education systems, the business community and for those less fortunate. It is a concern for the whole person, not just for the transaction.
For example, I can share a concern that my friends in California have for the economic and social conditions of their small coastal town, and feel that as their community grows, that I contribute to their growth.
A local community orientation can function in any social or organizational structure. It is the heart of team work. It brings personal initiative, shared responsibility, and common goals and values together.
Leading Through These Shifts
The implications of these shifts for organizational leaders is fairly simple. It means that instead of being organizational process managers, we must become culture creators. The culture that forms from our leadership provides an open environment for individual initiative, relationship building, and shared responsibility.
The early Greek polis has often been called a nexus for exchange, consumption, or acquisition, but it is better to define it as an "agro-service center." Surplus food was brought in from the countryside to be consumed or traded in a forum that concurrently advanced the material, political, social, and cultural agenda of its agrarian members. The buildings and circult walls of a city-state were a testament to the accumulated bounty of generations, its democratic membership a formal acknowledgment of the unique triad of small landowner, infantry soldier, and voting citizen. The "other" Greeks, therefore, were not the dispossessed but the possessors of power and influence. Nor is their story a popular account of slaves, the poor, foreigners, and the numerous other "outsiders" of the ancient Greek city-state. The real Greeks are the farmers and infantrymen, the men and women outside the city, who were the insiders of Greek life and culture.
The rise of independent farmers who owned and worked without encumbrance their small plots at the end of the Greek Dark Ages was an entirely new phenomenon in history. This rougly homogeneous agrarian class was previously unseen in Greece, or anywhere else in Europe and the surrounding Mediterranean area. Their efforts to create a great community of agrarian equals resulted, I believe, in the system of independent but interconnected Greek city-states (poleis) which characterized Western cutlure.
The shifts indentified in this post, to me, point to a similar opportunity that the early Greek farmers had. Through their collaborative relationship of shared responsibility, together they created the Greek polis that remains as the model for what cities and communities are in the West.
The ascendency of the local will come as a result of these shifts. And with it a new conception of leadership as more personal, more collaborative, more focused on impact, will emerge to provide it descriptive power that inspires innovation.
What if our past experience instead of illuminating the future, obscures it? What if the way we have always approached a problem, or the conduct of a single day, or the organization of our work makes it more likely that we end up not accomplishing what we envision?
Working in planning processes over the years, I've concluded that people can see what they want, but fail to reach it because of how they go about it. We can imagine the future, but not see the path that will take us there. This gap in our abilities is becoming more acute as the ways we have worked are becoming less effective.
From another perspective, we rarely see the end of something coming, or the beginning of the next thing. We tend to see in retrospect. Our aversion to change, I believe, is largely because we don't like surprises. We defend the past hoping that it is sustainable into the future, even if we see a better, different one.The past, even less than ideal, at least seems known and more certain, more secure, more stable, more predictable, more comfortable, at one level. It does not mean that it is satisfying or fulfilling, but it seems safer.
As a result, instead of providing us a sound basis for change, the past can inhibit us from achieving the vision that we see. Instead, we live by a set of cultural forms that must be defended against change. In other words, the form of the way we live and work remains the same even after its vitality has gone.
Change that has come
What impresses me about our time is how fast change is happening, and how quickly things we thought were normative seem less relevant.
Ten years ago, websites were the rage. You weren't on the cutting edge of business without one. Today, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and a host of other social media platforms are the norm for a business. Twenty years ago, CDs were the norm. Now, digital I-Tunes downloads. Thirty years ago, the Soviet Union was the West's nemesis, now militant Islam. Forty years ago, Vietnam and racial equality were the dominant issues of our time. Now we have an African-American President, and Howard Schultz wants Starbucks in Vietnam. Fifty years ago, President Kennedy was challenging the nation to go to the Moon within the decade. Today, the government is putting space exploration on the back burner as space travel is becoming privatized.
Could we have imagined these changes? Possibly. We'd probably not be able to see how they'd happen. That is the curious thing about visions and visioning. We can imagine the end, but not the means. The pathway to the future goes through today and tomorrow. Yet, we are captives of our past thinking and experiences. They are the measure of what is possible and what can be done.
The End and the Beginning
I have been reflecting, in particular, on these thoughts over the past several months. I've tried to step back without prejudice and identify what I see without reducing it down to a few simple categories. What I do see are the markers of change in three broad areas.
For one it is the The Beginning of the End, for another The End of the Beginning, and for another, surprisingly, The Beginning of a long delayed Beginning.
Some of this reflection was prompted by a conversation about a project event to take place later this year. It was a discussion about how businesses function. The contrast was between a focus of work as a set of tasks to be done and the importance of human interaction in meeting organizational goals. I realized coming out of that conversation that this project, for me, represented a turning point in human and organizational development. It provided a picture of the past and the future. The past as the Industrial model of business organization and the future of organizations as communities of leaders. That last phrase was what I envisioned a decade and a half ago when I began my consulting business. Only now, after all these years, do I see that simple idea beginning to have relevance for the way we live, work, organize and lead organizations.
What I see is:
The Beginning of the End of the Progressive ideal.
The Endof the Beginning of the Capitalist model.
The Emergence of freedom and democracy on a global scale.
The first two, Progressivism and Capitalism, along with modern Science, are the principal products of the age of Enlightenment.
The Progressive ideal believed, and still does by many of its advocates, that through government control of science and industry a free, equitable and peaceful world could be achieved. Conceived during the 19th century as a belief that society could be perfected, and as a counter-balance to the industrialization taking place in Europe and the United States, it was an utopian belief in a well-order, controlled, uniform world.
The Capitalist model was born in a belief that each individual should be free to pursue their own economic welfare, and not be forced by government rules or economic servitude to do that which they choose not to do. It was the ideology that provided the basis of the industrialization out which has come prosperity for more people in history and the rise of the modern middle class.
Both the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have brought great benefits and liabilities to society. They form the two sides of virtually every divisive issue confronting the world today. They are quite similar, yet in very different ways. Both are organized around the control of power and wealth. Both have been institutionalized in the large, hierarchical organizations in Washington and on Wall Street, and in similar institutions throughout the world.
Over the past decade, the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model have begun to show their age. The assumptions that underlie these ideologies are being challenged by forces of change that are beyond their control. Because the control of global forces of change is problematic and less realistic.
A principal assumption of the Enlightenment is that we can know what we need to know by analytical decision making. In other words, by identifying the parts of a situation, we understand it, and therefore can design a strategic mechanism for controling the outcome. This analytical process works very well in the realm of the natural sciences, less so in the realm of the social sciences. To paraphrase novelist Walker Percy, "Science can tell us how the brain functions, but not about the functioning of the mind."
At the beginning of this essay, I wrote of what I was seeing The Beginning of The End of the Progressive ideal and The End of the Beginning of the Capitalist model. Neither of these observations are political statements. I am not a Democrat, nor a Republican. I am not a Progressive nor a Libertarian. I find none of the current choices of political affiliation representative of my own perspective and values. I speak as an outlier, not an antagonist.
I see these ideological movements as products of a different time in history. The assumptions and the way of thinking that brought these ideologies into prominence are now receding in appropriateness. The conditions that gave rise to these ideas over the past three hundred years are now giving way to new conditions. If progressivism and capitalism are to survive, then their proponents must change.
These ideologies born in the age of Enlightenment share a reductive approach to knowledge. In other words, we gain knowledge and understanding by breaking things into parts. The assumption is that things are collections of discrete parts. Yet, we know that in the natural sciences, the mixing of different chemical elements creates something new and different that cannot exist in any other way. Water being the most obvious example.
However, in the social realm, there is a shift toward emergent knowledge as the basis for understanding what is. The emergent perspective sees connections and wholes rather than just parts. In a network of relationships, the value isn't one person, but rather the connections that one person has to other persons.
Think of it as the difference between those radio ads selling lists of sales leads, and knowing the person who has a relationship with 100 of those buyers. The former is a list of contacts, of names and addresses. It is a parts list. The other is a picture of a network of connections that one person has. This second picture is the picture of the future, for it is a picture of relationships.
We see emerging forces all around us. Again, this is not a political statement, but an observation. One difference between the Tea Party demonstrations and the Union demonstrations of the past year is the difference between an emergent organization and a traditional hierarchical one. The Tea Party organization is intentionally decentralized in local communities. Unions are designed as centralized concentrations of power. One body speaking for a host of organizations.
The difference here is between a centralized and decentralized organizational structure, like that described in Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom's book, The Starfish and The Spider. The centralized structure (the spider) is vulnerable at the top. Take down the leader, and the organization suffers significant loss of prestige and power. The decentralized system (the starfish) is not vulnerable at the top, because there is none. In a decentralized system, no one expression controls the fortunes of the whole. The centralized is the industrialized model, and the decentralized, an emergent one. The system that the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model share is one of centralization. Operating separate from both are independents and small business entrepreneurs. The difference is between a hierarchy of control and a network of collaborative relationships.
The recent rebellions in the Middle East are also examples of this emergent model. The use of cell phone and internet technology to connect people in agile, less structured ways make these rebellions possible, not necessarily successful, but possible.Their desire is for a freedom that they see provided and secured by democracy. When thousands of demonstrators fill the streets of Cairo seeking the end of a repressive regime, their impact is far greater than their numbers. We see a visual counterpoint of the difference between being a nation of free people and one living under an authoritarian government.
In business, the emergent model has relevance. When a business perceives itself to be a structure of parts, processes and outcomes, following upon the centralized industrial model, then it has a much more difficult time seeing the value that exists in the relational connections that exist both between people and within the structure itself. It is why so many businesses become siloed and turf battles insue.
However, when a business sees itself as a network of interactive individuals, then the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The result is higher levels of communication, collaboration and coordination.
While the Progressive ideal and the Capitalist model are products of the age of Enlightenment, emergence, freedom and democracy are even older ideas finding new ground and relevance. In the traditional business organization, their relevance can be seen in two ways.
First, in the freedom of the individual to take responsibility through their own initiative. This perspective harkens back to the ancient Greek democracies where Greek farmers and small business owners participated in the governance and protection of their city-state. For businesses to replicate such an ethos requires a shift in perspective from employees as functionaries of the tasks of the company to a recognition of the potential contribution that each person offers. It is in this sense that each person leads out of their own personal initiative to give their best to the company.
Second, in the emergence of businesses as human communities of shared responsibility. The traditional approach has been to break down the organizational structures into discrete parts of tasks and responsibilities, and to staff to that conception of the organization. This traditional hierarchical approach worked in simpler times when businesses were less global, more homogeneous, and employees less well trained, and had the technology to advance their contributions beyond their individual position in the company.
Today, the environment of business has changed, as the context becomes more complex and change accelerates. Agility and responsiveness are not embedded in structure, but in human choice and in relationships that amplify those shared choices to make a difference. It is the freedom to take initiative to act in concert with others that creates the conditions of successfully managing the challenging environment of business today. The result of a greater emphasis on relationship, interaction and personal initiative is a shift in culture. One only has to select any page in the Zappos.com Culture Book to see the influence of genuine community upon the attitudes and behaviors of the company's workforce.
The Keys to Change
I began this post by saying that we rarely see the end of something coming or the beginning of something new. What I offer here has been germinating in my mind for the past three years. It is still not yet fully formed, and may never be. Yet, I am convinced that the changes that I see happening mean that there is no going back to the halcyon days of the 1990's or even the 1950's. Business organizations will not long succeed as mechanistic structures of human parts. Rather they must emerge into being communities of leaders, where individual initiative, community and freedom are fundamental aspects of the company's culture
The keys to the future, in my mind, are fairly simple.
1. Leadership starts with individual employees' own personal initiative to make a difference. Create space and grant permission for individual employees to take initiative to create new ways of working, new collaborative partnerships and solve problems before that reach a crisis level.
2. Relationships are central to every organizational endeavor. Create space for relationships to grow, and the fruit will be better communication, more collaboration between people and groups, and a more efficient coordination of the work of the organization.
3. Open the organization to new ideas about its mission. Identify the values that give purpose and meaning to the company's mission. Organize around those values that unite people around a common purpose, that give them the motivation to want to communicate better, collaborate more, and coordinate their work with others. Openness is a form of freedom that releases the hidden and constrained potential that exists within every company.
We are now at the End of an era that is unprecedented in human history. The next era is Beginning, and each of us has the privilege and the opportunity to share in its development. It requires adapting to new ideas, new ways of thinking, living and working. I welcome the change that is emerging, because I find hope that a better world can be gained through its development.