From Life-crushing to Life-affirming Work


My parody post on the Life-crushing Magic of Hierarchy, rightly prompted the reaction: “Yes, but what do you recommend we do about it?”. This entire blog is an extended essay on what to do to help make work more human. I believe the critical challenge for organisations as we move into the future of work is how to use learning, leadership and collaboration to create more life-affirming workplaces and work. For those who are looking for quick clarity, I thought I would distill a few basic responses to the challenge.

Call The Life-crushing Management & Discuss it

Frighteningly several people have taken the post at face value as a recommendation of management practices. This highlights our need to discuss the excesses and abuses of management practices more widely. Transparency & debate is a first step, because many of the practices will be stopped or adapted when challenged or discussed openly. Importantly, transparency alone is not enough.  We need people to act on change too.

Calling hierarchical leaders to explain their actions is not a step taken lightly. Like it or not, the call will challenge some leaders and not all challenges are welcome. Simple steps can be taken to make it easier to call bad practice and start a discussion:

  • Don’t do it alone: Build a coalition or at least check your perspectives with others before you call a bad practice. Ensure that there is a crowd of supporters for your view point.
  • Seek to understand: Begin by seeking to understand the management perspective. Don’t presume malevolence or incompetence. Most bad decisions come from a lack of shared context.
  • Based your questions in higher purpose, values or strategy: Appealing to and clarifying the higher order can give you more basis for a challenge.
  • Add external perspectives: Closed systems atrophy. Some times lack of diversity can be the problem. Add external ideas, data and perspectives to add weight to your call.
  • Offer help: If you call something, be prepared to work to create a better way. There’s a lot of critics. There are fewer collaborators.

Discuss People, Outcomes & Purpose

The practices “recommended” share a common goal of valuing management power over the effects of work. Creating a vibrant discussion of purpose, the importance of meeting people’s needs and the impacts of work beyond the organisation is critical to moving to more meaningful work. Starting with a strong sense of why work is to be done and the goals it is to achieve for the organisation, the individual and other stakeholders is a key part of a better more engaging work environment.

Importantly, this begins to foster and “outside-in” perspective that pushes hierarchical managers to look to new data and perspectives in their decision making.  Being clearer on goals and purpose is also a fundamental underpinning to allowing new forms of autonomy for employees to react and make change.

Grow Accountability, Autonomy and Change

As we add human accountability to the networks in our organisations, we enable people to begin to grow trust and influence. Think of the definition of wirearchy and focus on increasing ‘the dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results”. Many simple issues in our organisations can be addressed by allowing people to share more information and begin to exercise autonomy to make decisions that need to be made beyond roles, mere compliance and process constraints. The exercise of that autonomy rises as accountability & trust rises. At the same time, we start to accelerate the pace of change in our organisations enabled by the distributed talents of our people. Increased accountability is one of the goals of traditional management, but common practices tend to disempower. We need instead to increase accountability and empowerment at the same time.

Build Capability

The appeal of traditional management practice is that managers need not be very effective at coordinating people and the employee’s roles are kept rote and simple. Working in more human ways will require organisations to build new capability to lead and to influence and also to make more complex decisions in every role in the organisation. We can’t manage and work in different ways if we have not helped people to develop the required capabilities. Enabling people throughout the organisation to gather information, to learn, to make change and to influence others becomes very important.

Continue the Collaboration & Change

There are no quick fixes, no gurus and no systems to buy to make a more life-affirming workplace. The steps above need to be led by management and by the entire team in the organisation over an extended period of change.  We don’t necessarily need to start by throwing out hierarchy or managers.  In most cases, they come back in another form anyway. What we need to do is to learn to work in new and much more effective ways that value human potential inside and outside the organisation.

Capabilities aren’t learned overnight and new ways of working take time to embed and be secure from the next round of management changes and new hires. The best way to carry this journey forward is to embed it in a collaborative change program that the entire team embraces.  Making life-affirming work part of the cultural fabric of the organisation must be the ultimate goal.  After all, there is no destination, just an endless journey of improvement and change.

Working out loud on Career Transition

I throw a spear into the darkness. That is intuition. Then I must send an army into the darkness to find the spear. That is intellect. – Ingmar Bergman

Working out loud on your intuitions is critical to success of career transition. So is bringing your network to bear as an army of hunters and collaborators to help make the new role a success.

A bunch of friends, collaborators, and inspirational leaders were made redundant yesterday. At the end of a day of reaching out to offer help, I came across the quote above from Ingmar Bergman and it reminded me of each of my past career transitions. Enforced change is daunting and can be a time of doubts and confusion. We can be deeply unsure of what comes next.

When career change takes us by surprise we usually never quite know what we want next. We are deep in the realm of doubts and hopes. We need to trust our intuition as a signal of personal purpose. We need to throw some experimental spears. Working out loud is a great way to test the waters, refine your hopes and draw opportunities. Throw a few spears and see what happens.

However working out loud is just the beginning. The next challenge is to send out an army to help you find the next role, project or help you start the next business. There’s too much for one individual to do alone. Networks are the most powerful way to search for, find or even create the new role. Combinations of strong and weak ties will make things happen that you could never expect. Working out loud can make the network aware. You will need to work the network ongoing with all your intellect to turn ideas into opportunities to fulfil your purpose.

My friends are well placed for success in this game. They are highly talented and know how to work like a network. They have global networks. They have authority on the difficult challenges in change and adoption in the future of work. They are trusted experts and partners. They are ideally placed to leverage the wirearchy to their next success. The opportunity now is to work out loud and connect, share, solve and innovate with those who admire them.

For all of us who are pondering our next move, how are you leveraging working out loud and calling on the power of your networks? How are you helping others find their next horizon?

Your Purpose in a Network

“All the value that we create is delivered for others and negotiated with others. We cannot escape the networks in our work. We are not an island widget producing output in a process. We are humans tackling increasingly complicated problems in webs of relationships that stretch through our organizations and out to the network where our purposes have their effects.”

We can’t escape networks as individuals and as organisations. We are embedded in a wirearchy that is far more powerful than we are aware. When avoidance is no longer a strategy we must engage. What is the purpose of your work and leadership in the networks around you?

There is no Island

Let’s say you were a traditionalist manager and you saw social communication as a distraction from the perfect order of your process driven life and neatly structured hierarchical silos. You can ban any form of networking in your organisation. You can ensure that employees never get together physically across the boundaries of teams. You can turn your organisation into closed cells in the name of efficiency. You can replace employees with robots to make the more compliant.


  • You still have customers and they are organised into networks that reach around into your organisation
  • Your competitors are leveraging networks to reach new customers, to learn, to solve challenges and to create new innovations
  • Your suppliers are using networks that involve your employees and customers to understand how best to create value too
  • Your employees still have phones & internet connections, friends (some of whom are customers), connections in the real world that may want to influence your organisation or even their own thoughts on what your organisation should be doing from their external community activity.
  • Even your robots will be networked in an era of the internet of things

Even if you wanted to ignore the network and focus solely on the performance of a hierarchical process driven organisation, you no longer can. The network has subverted the hierarchy.  The networks have always been there disrupting your efforts at perfection. They are just more visible and more capable than ever. Your employees, competitors, suppliers, customers and community have always been networked into groups large and small by human interaction. Now those conversations are global, mobile, persistent, transparent and real time.

Purpose in a Network

Welcome to the wirearchy. It doesn’t replace the hierarchy. It works with it, shaping your actions and the actions of others in your organisation with its ‘dynamic two way flow of information, trust and authority’. 

The wirearchy challenges you to consider your purpose. Your purpose guides how your actions reach out into the networks around you and have an effect on others.  That effect on others is what determines the information you receive, the authority you are given and the trust you earn. Improving these things takes work. It cannot be delivered by management fiat or a great personal or corporate brand campaign in the era of networks.

In a wirearchy, we each have the opportunity to improve our information, authority and trust. We each have the opportunity to lead. Unlike traditional management this is an opportunity, not a requirement. Fail to use it when required and the network will route around you taking away your hard won gains. The network doesn’t require your participation; it simply values it.

The Purpose is in the Work

The purpose is in the work. You won’t find it in a job, a manager’s opinion or in a book. Choose the work that you like to do and go have an impact in your networks doing that. Your role in the wirearchy will be surfaced by action. You will also get a better sense of the value that you create for others, helping you to better appreciate your performance in the network. 

The simplest purposeful actions that each of us can take are those that create value for others in our networks:

  • Connect People: Help others find their path & communities in the network
  • Share our Work and our Passions: work out loud on the activities going on in your life to let others learn and help
  • Solve Challenges with and for others to share your expertise, experience and capabilities
  • Innovate and Experiment to create new value together

Start where you feel comfortable. Start where you feel you can make a difference. Your networks and your purpose will guide your leadership work from there.

On Accountability in Networks

Following on from my recent posts on accountability in networks, I was asked recently whether a network could be accountable for an action or an outcome over an individual. This is an important question as we move into new ways of working. Anxiety over changes from the perceived effectiveness of alternatives to hierarchical models of accountability is a major barrier to management adoption. 

Answering a question about accountability usually involves a number of layers because management tends to be vague when it uses the term accountability. The linearity of hierarchy makes accountability an easy concept to use loosely.  Hierarchy often conflates accountability to make decisions, accountability for the outcome and responsibility to do the work

Let’s pull apart each of these meanings of accountability. 

Accountability vs Responsibility

First, we need to separate responsibility to do the work from accountability to deliver an outcome. Of course, you can have single accountability with networked responsibility. We do that every day. Almost every work scenario has one person to hold to account.

However you will need the holder of the accountability to understand the network leadership required to ensure the outcome from the network. This is why CEOs should not fear working like a network. It is how they actually work.  Most CEOs know their orders go through so many layers that influence and authority in the organisational network matters more than the power inherent in their order.

Accountability in a Group

If you wish for network accountability, remember every network has sub-networks that will hold & manage that accountability on behalf of the group and manage the responsibility of other sub-networks to do all or part of the work. An every day example is a board of a volunteer, movement or not for profit organisation. Often the accountability can be diffused in a formal or informal executive committee of managers, the chair and other key influencers.  The responsibilities for work are widely spread in free agent volunteers. This kind of accountability works but requires strong leadership in the group and the wider network.

Remember human networks have lots of accountability mechanisms like gossip, trust, reputation, authority, shunning and ultimately exclusion to manage situations where there may not be a hiearchical power to enforce accountabilities. Many of these techniques work without resort to force even against countervailing power. There’s a good reason volunteer organisations have lots of ructions.

Accountability to Decide

If you focus specifically on accountability as defining who holds the decision making rights, then network accountability needs a decision making system. Humans have lots of network decision making systems from consensus to democracy to more authority based models.

Networks work

Networks are how humans get stuff done. We have solved these issues in our history. Jon Husband’s definition of wirearchy captures this capability of networks neatly:

“a dynamic two-way flow of  power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology”.

We need to work differently and we need to use different approaches to leadership, trust and authority to make network accountabilities work. That doesn’t make it less effective. Managers just need to learn new skills to leverage the exponential potential of human networks.

Orderly Processions are Over

Hierarchy likes order. Networks manage complexity.
Hierarchy walks in an orderly procession. Networks hustle.
Hierarchy wants projects to go from a through to z. Networks experiment across the alphabet.
Hierarchy wants a clean status. Networks solve for problems & mess.
Hierarchy reinforces status. Networks value results
Hierarchy manages stocks. Networks manage flows.
Hierarchy likes secrets. Networks share.
Hierarchy approves, authorises and allocates. Networks learn, enable and do
You can wait for your spot in the orderly procession. However the orderly procession might never reach you or might pass you by blind to your talents to walk in lockstep.

Join the network of doers instead.

To Shape Change, Start Leading Change


“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” (spoken by Tancredi) from ‘The Leopard’ by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

Times of disruptive change are difficult for those in power and those who benefit most from the current way of things. Many of these people prefer to ignore the rising changes in society. In effect, they abandon their leadership role in shaping change in the system.

Enduring disruptive change demands an engaged form of leadership. The future in disruption is not written. Leaders should seek to engage, lead and shape change to the benefit of their organisations. 

The Networked Economy is Here to Stay.

Many leaders of organisations have a lot of power, status and wealth tied up in the way things are now.  They are the masters of the current system, adept in its ways and confident in managing the current model of work and the organisation.  They have both personal and professional reasons for hoping that nothing changes.

Change doesn’t work that way. We are now part of a global ecosystem of actors connected in digital networks.  Access, visibility and transparency have increased driven by the new connectivity.  Change that enters this new system is magnified, spread and developed by the action of agents all around the world.

Lead or Let others Decide The Future

The connected digital networks of global actors means the future of work won’t be ignored, stopped or reversed. Others will go on to develop better ways of working whether you and your organisation participate or not. The less you participate, the more you appear a candidate for disruption by one of these actors.

Organisations face a leadership challenge in this environment.  Effective leadership, continuous learning and a vibrant culture is required to take effect of the advantages of the new approaches.  Senior managers need to play a critical role helping organisations adjust and maximise the benefits from these changes.

However, managers face changes in the future of work that change their power, status and potentially their financial position.  Networks can operate with less layers of management and roles that were once managements prerogative are being delegated to frontline employees or automated in systems. New two-way conversations with engaged and enabled employees, customers and other staked holders can require leaders to deal with new complexity. In this case, it can be tempting for a senior leader to sit on the sidelines hoping the changes are a fad or that they might pass over the organisation.

You Can’t Lead a Community if You are Not Engaged

A simple case study of this mindset comes when you consider the level of management attention to stakeholder activism in social and digital media. Because this activism is now more visible and empowered by digital and social networks, management can see resentment that once was hidden. Bear in mind the resentment is not new.  It just has a bigger audience and influence than before.

Many of these social activist activities have large impacts on organisations because the activist have a community and the organisation has only a network.  

The critical difference between a network and a community is how engaged the participants are. That engagement arises as a result of acts of leadership to create common purpose, to shape an agenda of action and to influence others to act. Leaders who ignore the burgeoning networks around the organisation allow others to shape the communities, their purposes and their influence.

Senior leaders of organisations need to engage with the networks around their organisation.  The opportunity to create productive communities far exceeds the risks. Listening and acting on feedback of networks of stakeholders is one of the better mitigants of risk. Failure to engage and to understand the needs of the networks creates an opportunity for others to lead. 

Networks Demand Leadership. Make Your Choice. Act.


Leadership in networks is less about the position you are assigned. The opportunity is the role you choose and the challenge is building authority. The job might be assigned, but the role is chosen and your authority is earned. The networks in and around your organisation are waiting for you to act. If you don’t act, they will move on without you.

Networks solve obstructions

Networks route around obstructions. One potential source of obstruction is the formal roles in an organisation, the hierarchy and the resulting silos.  What results is a wirearchy which Jon Husband has described as

a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology

Think about your organisation. There is a formal process to get a decision made, but everyone knows that the real decisions don’t follow the process. There is informal lobbying. Often someone who is not the decision maker is hugely influential. People chat casually testing positions. Additional information is shared. Deals are done. Trust and credibility play a key role in influencing the ultimate decision, often more than the facts on the table.

These actions are all examples of a network working around the potential obstruction of a hierarchical role or process. These conversations are all examples of how ‘two-way flow of power and authority’ is shaped by people’s actions to demonstrate ‘knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results’.

You are a potential obstruction

If you aren’t results focused, aren’t performing the roles required or the network doesn’t have confidence in your actions, a network of people working together will start to route around you.  Your failure to lead others becomes an obstruction. No matter how fancy your title or your place in the hierarchy the network will start solving for the obstruction that you represent. The network in and around every hierarchy is what makes the hierarchy functional.

To avoid being an obstruction, you need to focus on your authority and fulfilling the roles that advance the needs of the organisation and its networks. Your job won’t save you.

Authority takes Action

Leadership in networks is not an abstract and exalted status. Every person in a network is connected. Leadership is demonstrated when people take on needed roles and others move to action.

Leadership is the technology of realising human potential. Leadership is the technology that inspires and enables others to action. That takes a decision to embrace a role, action, influence and authority.  In networks, including the networks wrapped around your hierarchy, that authority comes from action, not position.

The differences in influence and ability to create value come through action.  Action is what builds authority.  The best way for someone to assess your ‘knowledge, trust, credibility and focus on results is to experience it’.  Authority grows influence with other people in the network and that accelerates further action. 

Networks and Network Leadership is not Bounded

If a network needs to go around or outside the hierarchy to solve a problem it does. All it takes is a connection for your network to extend further. Network leaders need to ensure that their leadership goes outside their hierarchies as well.

Customers, community, other stakeholders all influence your knowledge, credibility, trust and focus on results. Sharing the voice of the customer or the community can be a significant part of influencing change. Try to have influence internally without influence externally and you will find over time that your credibility erodes. Celine Schillinger has described how change agents can find that they need to build credibility externally to be more influential in their internal networks.

Leadership is a Choice. A Choice to Act.

Taking on a leadership role is a choice. It is a choice to help others make something happen and enable them to realise their potential. Whether you are in a hierarchy or a network matters little. The same rules apply. The choices that you make, the knowledge that you gather, the influence you build through credibility and trust determine your authority as a leader and whether others will follow.

Nobody has to follow you. Our hierarchies are a fiction that supports our need for status, order and clarity. The networks in and around your organisation know that and work around the hierarchy every day.  

That same network is waiting for your choices and the actions that follow.