Power, power and more power

Camouflaged but hardly hidden

Even with the danger of digital cubicles, it is easy to assume that our seclusion represents a turning point the transformation of our work. There is some anecdotal evidence that people are discovering the power of new ways of working and are surprised the technology works. This could be cause for the long term advocates to rejoice that the next phase of work

The danger of this thinking was eloquently summarised in the following tweet:

Confirmation bias is real. We look for validation of our own beliefs and social media is flooded with people’s confirmation that whatever they believe is right. We need a better quality of discussion. Hope is not a strategy. We need to examine the real organisational dynamics that stand in the way of change.

Hope is not a Strategy

There’s a lot of love in those advocating for change. It is hard to imagine what else would sustain them. For more than 20 years, change agents have been advocating for new and better ways of work that use the digital tools to empower, to enable and to make work more human. There have undoubtedly been many successes – great case studies, improvements and some enduring changes. There has not been the transformation we all wished to see. Love, hope and community can sustain the change but won’t get you there.

Adam Kahane in Power and Love describes the need for change to balance the engagement of love and of power. We are missing the conversation about power in the future of work.

Let’s Talk Dirty

People are masters of the interpretation and management of power. We find & sustain hierarchy even where it doesn’t exist. Because it is seen as a dirty (& dangerous) topic we are often reluctant to discuss the power dynamics in our organisations. Some of the most powerful and privileged in our organisations go out of their way to deny that power matters.

Because it is unspoken, power is an even more influential element of our thinking. Like the predator that may be lurking in the long grass, power is hidden but threatening. Concerns about power, such as recriminations by those with power or loss of power, reputation, trust and status, are found at the heart of much of the concerns around psychological safety.

Traditional change management models have extensive discussions of how to co-opt the powerful in the organisation to win their support, their advocacy or at least their disinterest in the change. We all know to win senior executive sponsorship and support. It’s so fundamental many change projects end up as contorted as a pretzel to win and sustain that support as power shifts and organisations change. In many cases, the compromises to win exectutive support are why the change fails.

If you want to predict the future of work, follow the paths of power:

  • Data and Knowledge: We know that what gets measured gets done, even if that’s not what’s worth doing. The definition of data, its gathering and its interpretation are all tools of power. Most AI and automation is centralising, not decentralising. It reinforces the exercise of power and makes knowledge and data power. There are still managers and team members who hoard knowledge to accumulate a form of influence, if not power. Even Kanban gives new data and enables greater knowledge on the workflow process to give comfort in new ways of working.
  • Control and Influence: In a discussion with Change Agents Worldwide on the weekend, I said one of our challenges is making the future of work safe for managers, especially middle managers. Modern management practice is optimised for their control and power. If we look at many early models of self-organisation, they are often power-blind, which either reinforces current power structures or creates a hidden feudalism as people seek safety in new tribes, or they require managers to vote themselves out of existence. Managers want to be more effective and more human but we can’t ask them to surrender power, when that is seen as their sole lever of performance and power is perceived as the commodity of success.
  • Policy and Process: The appeal of process is the appeal of power. You only have to read Frederick Winslow Taylor on the appeal of mindless workers executing a process to see that process can be a vehicle of control. New processes can help mitigate the loss of control in changes to new practices of work. The success of Scrum, as a process of agile work, is a clue to this role of process.
  • Trust and Inclusion: Inclusion and exclusion are the oldest human tools of power. Underpinning these is how far groups extend circles of trust. You can be in the team and on the video call but be excluded, if you are not called on, not trusted or if your voice is not valued. New ways of working must explicitly engage in growing and developing trust if there is to be an ability to leverage wider circles of people and their potential.

For some it may seem, that this list implies no change is possible. Rather I am making the case for the opposite. If we explicitly engage with the dynamics of power, we can design new ways of working that improve work and also address data and knowledge, control and influence, policy and process and trust and inclusion. We can make work better and make it safe for those who have to manage before during and after the change. We don’t need to move from tight totalitarian control to full anarchy. There are many shades of activity in between.

No amount of love, collective energy or human potential is going to change our work for the better, if it ignores these fundamental dynamics of power. We do not need to respond with a cynical organisational realpolitik, but we can be optimistic and clear eyed as we plan to make change in our organisations and design that change to engage with the organisational and political realities.

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