The Platform of Desire, Part 4

The Platform of Hyper-reality

The world of social media is very far removed from our premodern ancestors' experience. Our experience is not one of a constant awareness of the physical danger of the natural world or of life on a farm. We live in a world mediated through sophisticated technology that, for many people, has removed them from any direct exposure to the world of nature.

We live in an immersive world of an always-on information feed directed at our sub-rational desires. And the worst of these onslaughts focus on our fears, not our ambitions.

As Marshall McLuhan wrote, “It is experience, rather than understanding, that influences behavior.”

Philosophers and social theorists call this hyper-reality. Italian author Umberto Eco writes that "the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake." French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation, writes,

"Today abstraction is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror, or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referrential being, or a substance. It is the generation of models of the a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal."

Albert Borgmann, in his insightful book, Holding Onto Reality, describes the transition to this hyperreal world through a description of how the place of information in human experience has changed. There are three different ways that information connects us to reality. There is ...

Information about reality - Our direct experience of the natural world.

Information for reality - Our experience of information as an interpreter or chronicler of reality.

Information as reality - Our experience where the medium is the message.

Here's one example of these three types of information.

Each of these forms of information can be seen in this video of the finale of Gustav Mahler's 2nd Symphony played by the Seoul (SK) Philharmonic Orchestra. (Don't skip this experience.)

 

The first type of information, about reality is seen in the singers and musicians actually playing the music. They are engaged in actually playing the music, not simply listening or observing it being played.Think of the experience of the choir and musicians, as the symphony reaches its peak of intensity during the last three minutes. This is a direct experience of the music as it was created to be experienced by the composer.

The second type of information is seen in the sheet music that the musicians are reading to follow the score. The lyrics of the score printed in the audience's program and projected on the overhead screen. This information enables the musicians to play together, and the audience to have a higher level of understanding of the meaning of thought behind the writing of the symphony.

The third type of information is our experience of watching and listening to this concert at another time, in another place, in a totally different and private context.  This third engagement is the platform of the hyper-real. The experience transcends the experience that Gustav Mahler envisioned when he wrote the work. Imagine listening to a recording on your IPod while standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or in the middle of Cathedral du Notre Dame in Paris. The recording creates a transcendent experience, providing another layer of experience that provides a way of personally interpreting the meaning of the physical place where you are standing. 

It is a wholly different reality. This YouTube portion is only 9 minutes of a symphony that is almost an hour and a half long. This fragment of the symphony, while dynamic and moving, is not the whole experience the symphony was designed to provide. Mash this video with other video content, and the information of the original becomes farther and farther removed from the original.

This virtual reality transcends the original. It is now no longer a representation of an event that took place in a specific place, at particular time, with people who were the participants at that moment. It is now a video that serves a different purpose. It has become its own reality.

The Hyperreality of Social Media

Social media is a platform for hyper-experiences of this nature. It is a medium where we can create relationships and experiences that are reflective of experiences that would not have been possible a generation ago.

Platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, intentionally guide the interaction that people have through it. I am convinced that people are changed by them.

The question that this raises for me is whether the purpose of the platform and the purpose of their organizations are the same.

Does Facebook's need to monetize the platform (organizational purpose) become the driving force that over time changes the purpose of the platform? 

Is it a social platform or a sales platform? Can both co-exist?

Here are other questions.

How would the platform of Facebook develop if the question of monetization never needed to be asked?

What if Facebook was only about the personal and social development of people in relationships in a global society?

What if the now shareholders at Facebook never asked about share price and dividends?

I ask these questions to highlight the importance of understanding the effect that social media platforms have. As a platform for human interaction, they different than anything in the past. The speed, immediacy and hyper-reality of these platforms changes us. It elevates old virtues like patience and listening.

The Difference between the Platforms

There are host of online tools that serve the interests of business people world-wide. For example, there are meeting platforms, conference call platforms, shared writing platforms, and all that can be done visually on a global scale.

In my work, I use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, along with many of the Google doc features. I use Skype as my office phone.  I use Pay Pal, SurveyMonkey, Slideshare and Scribd. I blog on Typepad and Wordpress platforms. And I have a Ning site. Each one is different. None are complete in themselves. All require skills that must be developed in order to take advantage of their benefits. All take time to master.

I am immersed like so many in the multitude of platforms that exist in the social media universe. And I, like I suspect many others, are dissatisfied with what they offer. For this reason, many of these platforms will not last. I say this because I am convinced that they are designed based on a certain perception, even philosophy, of human nature.

I like Facebook because it keeps me in touch with lots of people. I like it better than Twitter.

Google seems to me to be the only one of these platforms that really understands what I want, but its approach is less than appealing.

Ultimately, the difference between the platforms is not their companies' problem, but mine. I have know what I want to do with them, and use them for that purpose. But like much in hyper-reality, the old reference points fade, and new ones emerge.

For example, where most people use Facebook to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues, and others use it as platform for promoting their business, I use it more like a blog, as a place to engage people with ideas. And I find Facebook better for this than Twitter, Linked-In or Google+.

So, the difference then, is not just between the platforms, but between the people who use them. This means that the platforms of social media are a dynamic environment for human interaction, where peoples' lives can be transformed.

The Frontier of Social Media

Where does the hyper-reality of social media take us?

Is it a suitable and sustainable platform for our human desires for personal meaning, healthy, happy relationships and to make a difference that matters?

Is its virtual, almost disembodied state bode well for the ability of organizations to create collaborative structures that are prepared to replace the failing organizations of the industrial era?

These are the kind of questions I'll be asking as we continue to move through this series.


The Benefits of Adaptive Learning

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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. Circle of Impact
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.


Gaining Perspective

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Over the past three years, the ground upon which we stand has been rolling like the ground underneath this Vermont house after Hurricane Irene came through.

If you are still standing, congratulations. If you don't know which direction you are facing, welcome to the club.

If you have fallen, and are trying to pick yourself up, don't quit. What you've been through, in retrospect, can provide valuable lessons for the future. If you need a hand, just ask. It is how we stand together.

My Experience

Like many people, my last three years have been the hardest that I've ever faced. From losing all my clients within a six week period in the spring of 2009, to 2011 becoming the busiest, most productive year that I've had in the past decade, there are lessons I'm learning that each one of us can apply.

One of things I learned is that I was not as well prepared for the storm of the recession as I should have been. Like many people, I assumed that what I was doing was enough. It wasn't. As a result the process of the past three years has been a process of personal development that enables me to see what I need to do to make the next three years the best that I've ever had.

There are three things I did that have been infinitely beneficial. I want to share those with you in this post as a guide for how to look at the next year.  I suggest that you download my Circle of Impact Leadership Guides as a reference. Print them off, and use them for taking notes to your self. Keep them handy. They will help you gain and maintain perspective on what you are headed.

The Circle of Impact Leadership Guides

I'll give you a quick overview of each guide, and then speak to the three things to do that will help develop the impact in our life and work that we desire.

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Creating Impact In Times of Transition-TP

The first thing to know is that we are all in transition. If you think, maybe, you are just in a disruptive time, and, that things will return to where they were. Look at this list of 12 transition points. This is a random list I wrote down one afternoon. I'm certain that another dozen could be identified. The point is not to be overwhelmed with the sense of disconnection, but rather to see that change is normal. 

Change is happening to us all the time. We each need to make the mental shift from seeing change as random, disruptive chaos to a pattern of change that has a logic that we can tap into and take advantage of. Once we start thinking in terms of transition, we begin to see how a process of development can unfold to our benefit. This is where we start because with a transition mindset, we begin think more opportunistically about the future.

To see our life and work this way is to see how it is a system or a network of connections between various aspects of what we do where we do it.


Circle of Impact - Life-Work Coaching
From this perspective, we can see three broad areas that every leader faces:

The Three Dimensions of Ideas, Relationships, and, Social & Organizational Structures.

The problem is learning how to align them so that they work together. Our experience tends to be more fragmented, which is where our experience of the ground never being stable under our feet is found.

The key to pulling all of this together is being intentional about the ideas that link the dimensions together. These ideas are:

The Four Connecting Ideas of Values, Purpose, Vision and Impact.

Each one of these ideas needs to be clearly defined so that they can be effectively applied.

For example: You are building your team to start a new venture. You want to select or hire people who not only share similar values, but, are also committed to the purpose of the endeavor. Bring these two ideas together in the selection of a team, and, a vision for what is possible will emerge. As a result, instead of never getting by the team formation stage, your team comes together quickly, and, moves well into the process of creating the impact that you desire.

The Circle of Impact perspective provides a way to see the whole of an organization. But just seeing it doesn't mean we know how to apply it.

 

The Five Questions - Work-Life Coaching Guide
The Five Questions guide is the tool that helps us clarify, focus and move more quickly into action. Ask them continually over time, and we begin to see a pattern that helps to make better decisions. This is just a tool. It isn't a magic wand to wave over a problem and it goes away. It is a tool that must be applied and acted upon. So, when you have answered the five questions, make sure that you do something specific in response, and then come back and ask the questions again.

I created the My 5 Questions template to make it easy for me to quickly answer the questions whenever the need arises. The purpose is to clarify, focus and move me to action. There is no limitation on where you can use these questions. Use the personally, professionally, with your team, your family, with clients, or with someone you meet over lunch. The questions work very well in conversation.

Three Things that Mattered the Past Three Years (2012)

It is simple. Just three things to do.

1. Care for people. Regardless of who they are. Whomever you meet each day, care for them. Treat them with respect, dignity, and compassion. I don't mean take over their lives. I mean provide them a relationship that enables them to become a better person.

2. Think for yourself. Decide for yourself who you are going to be. Act with integrity towards your own values and goals, so you can help others do the same.

3. Live opportunistically in the moment. As a planner, I can confidently say that a long-range plan is more often a closed door than open path. The best plan is knowing who you are, what values matter, and the impact that you want to achieve. The process is discovered daily in the moment to moment interaction that we have with people. This is where real freedom is found.

Afterword Three Years Later (2015)

The years 2012 to 2014, for me, were ones of dramatic change. When I wrote the above post, I was optimistic about the future. Instead, within the first year, the non-profit that I had been hired to lead failed and closed. The recession's effect upon my consulting work lingered. And my marriage ended. Hard year, but still a year of transition.

I realized, as everything was ending, that something new was beginning. I had to get to that point so that I could begin. I took the time to reflect, to heal, and, begin to set my sights forward. I found myself working an hour a week with a group of women in an addiction recovery program. A totally new and different experience for me. And, then, I came to see that I need to relocated my life and work to Jackson, Wyoming.

The Circle of Impact Leadership Guides serve as a check point to connect perceptions that I had three years ago with those that I have now.

My Values have not so much changed, but have become clearer, more definitive, and, more focused on putting them into action.

My Purpose has changed. Instead of focused on businesses in a consulting context, I am redirecting my energies towards the personal leadership of individuals.

My Vision has yet to become clear. The reason is that Vision functions in the context of relationship, in a social context of collaboration and community. I have only move to Jackson within the past month, so time for visioning with others will come.

My Impact for the future will emerge as I go through the process of aligning my life and work with The Four Connecting Ideas.

 Attribution Some rights reserved by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region


Connect, Communicate & Contribute

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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.

Connection: Connection

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.

Communication: Communicating

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.

Contribution:  

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. Five Actions of Gratitude - blogpixRED

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.


The Subverting of Hierarchy

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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.

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

Photo Credit: Flickr #382031318_17f9632b01