Parallel Structures of Networks of Relationships

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

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

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

The issue is whether the role as defined is.

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


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

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

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

What We Want

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personally Meaningful,

          Socially Fulfilling, and

                    Make a Difference that Matters.

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

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

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

The Circle of Impact Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Contributions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Assumptions: role & responsibility

Leadership is a role within an organizational structure, and a responsibility within its social or relational structure.

The role of leader is job specific. The person of the leader transcends all roles.

When we talk about the responsibilities of leadership, we are referring to those standards of thought and behavior to produce positive influence and beneficial impact. Each person within their role, regardless of whether it is a leadership role or not, can fulfill the responsibilities of leadership by acting in this way.

I think this is an important distinction because I see in the literature of leadership both ideas presented, but rarely in conjunction with one another.  Without the context of role, the responsibilities take on a more superficial role.

Context and character are other ways of understanding the nature of leadership. I'll have more to say about this in the future.