The schoolyard and the marketplace
In describing business interactions between people, the usual metaphor is that of a mediaeval market: bustling, busy, merchants shouting their wares, people stopping to buy – and a few dubious deals being done in the background! Few of the producers of all those wares can be seen: most are hidden away out of sight, at the back of the stall, or in some foreign country. Other ‘non-producers’ are rather more visible: at times the merchants, and even their customers, seem to be outnumbered by the ‘between-takers’ – the literal translation of ‘entrepreneur’ – all jostling to interpose themselves in every transaction, demanding either the official excise or, more likely, their own personal cut from each deal. And we’d have to admit, too, that there in the marketplace the most common means of ‘making money’ – as distinct from ‘making a living’ – consists of misleading others about the true value of what’s on offer: a cynic could easily argue that much of what goes on there is little better than ‘maximising theft within the law’ – with the law being fierce on small offenders, but strangely lax and lenient with regard to the richer merchants…
That market-metaphor still works well at the much larger scale of the modern ‘mass market’: the merchants are now the multinationals, but their customers are now mere ‘consumers’. The producers remain as invisible as ever… to be seen to actually do anything, expressing personal power and response-ability in productive work, is still assigned the lowest status of all – though no-one seems to know why. There are still plenty of dubious deals going on in the background, of course – though some of them have new names, such as ‘price-fixing’ and ‘insider trading’. And the ‘between-takers’, the ‘middle-men’, are even more plentiful and persistent: and some of them have new job-titles, too, like ‘charge-card service’ or ‘commodity-futures broker’ – or ‘tax inspector for the State Board of Equalisation’!
But to understand what’s really going on in the marketplace and in those forgotten ‘manufactories’, in terms of interpersonal transactions, there’s an even better metaphor: the primary-school playground – the schoolyard. After all, it’s there that we each learn most of our habits for adulthood: all that’s happened over the years is that those children have grown larger – and better at concealing, from others and even from themselves, those habits that are far from helpful in the real world.
So go there to the schoolyard and have a look around; look around in your memories, too. We may have thought that the marketplace was busy, but the schoolyard is even busier – so much so that even trained athletes can’t keep up. And the hard part is that you’ll see there every one of the power-problems that we looked at earlier: power-over and power-under, cooperation-against and competition-against, and object-based and subject-based attitudes to others. Much of it makes even office-politics seem tame by comparison: “nature red in tooth and claw” indeed!
See all those metaphors for what goes wrong in everyday business, as the children teach each other their own misguided ‘lessons’ about power, delusion and export. Over to the right, for example, three boys are mocking the others as ‘losers’ – trying to hold on as long as possible to that delusory feeling of being ‘the winner’, even though the new game’s already started. Further away, two girls aren’t bothering with any of the niceties: they’re in full-on screaming combat about something, feet flying, claws out, raking through each other’s face and hair – surrounded by a cheering, jeering mob, each propping up their own sense of ‘being powerful’ by seeing others disempowered in the fight. Closer to hand, and much more quietly, two hulking ten-year-olds are demanding a smaller child’s meal-money. Over to the left, a gaggle of girls are playing the ever-popular game of ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ on a hapless boy, taunting him as a wimp and a coward unless he goes into the girls’ toilet – and as soon as he does what they demand, they run off to the teacher to complain, demanding punishment. And off in the corner, a mixed group are plotting the downfall of a popular girl – for no reason other than that she’s popular whilst they themselves are not – through that most dreaded of all forms of bullying: the carefully crafted rumour, just close enough to the truth to be credible, but as far as possible from the truth so as to maximise the hurt. In none of these incidents is any real power being created at all: instead, to paraphrase the British humorist Terry Pratchett, it seems pleasant enough to hear and see little children at play, but only if we take care to be far enough away not to hear what they’re actually saying… or see what they’re actually doing to each other, and to themselves.
But there’s much that does work out well there in the schoolyard, of course. We’ll see, directly, that interweaving of work, play and learn, as all manner of skills – physical, mental, verbal, emotional, social – are developed. We’ll see power being created, apparently from nowhere, as children face new challenges – many of them set by each of the children for themselves. We’ll see power-with, as children work together, play together, learn together, practice together, explore ideas together; we’ll see it as an older child advises a younger one, helps another tackle a difficult obstacle, or sits with a new student to overcome shyness and awkwardness on that difficult first day at a new school. And we’ll see cooperation-with, too, as children organise themselves into teams to play a game, and use competition-with to push each other to greater skill and greater achievement. Learning the difference between the real forms of power and the delusory forms, in relating with others, is the one lesson we most need to learn in childhood: but it’s a lesson than many people never learn – and lack of awareness of the need for that lesson, in the structure of the school and the schoolyard, tends only to make the problems worse.
That was the work/play/learn of the past: yet it’s still an accurate metaphor – and often painfully so – for the work/play/learn of the present. How to handle what happened there in the schoolyard – how to find functional power from amidst the multitude of delusions – was our choice then: and it’s still our choice now, in the muddle of the marketplace. Nothing’s really changed: sure, everyone’s grown up in size, but not necessarily in awareness – and in any case, most of us tend to revert back towards the self-centredness of childhood when we’re under stress. It’s a real problem – and, as usual, it’s one that we won’t solve by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
For most managers, managing the money-side of their part of the company’s overall economy is easy enough: but managing people is hard. Yet the reason is simple: within most businesses, most of the structures for managing relations between the various stakeholders are no better than those of the schoolyard – they do little to help people find their own functional power, and often do a great deal to hinder it. The usual attempts at ‘control’ – the HR ‘bible’, the endless edicts from upper management – lead only to a kind of chaos within which bullying, manipulation and other forms of power-over and power-under are more likely to be rewarded than reduced. All too often, it’s back to the schoolyard again, with oversized egos indulging in toddler-stage tantrums, whilst everyone around them runs for cover… and anyone who’s actually doing anything useful gets trampled on in the rush. The real ‘rule-book’ – the one that everyone’s forced to follow, far too often – says “keep your head down; never argue with the boss; steal the credit wherever you can; trashing the competition and your colleagues is the only way to success”. And productivity drops like a brick – with results that echo all the way down to a damaged bottom-line.
The chaotic confusions of corporate complexity, the muddle-headed miseries of most office-politics, the adversarial aggression of so much ‘industrial relations’ between management and line-employees: these things don’t ‘just happen’ – ‘business as usual’ is what creates them. They’re the direct, inevitable results of the usual attempts at ‘control’, and the usual failure to understand and respect the nature of power and response-ability. And it hurts: it hurts everyone, including the corporation, in every way. The only way out of this mess is to move move beyond ‘control’, beyond ‘business as usual’, beyond the power-games of the playground: to re-think and rebuild entirely the structures through which we manage our business-relations – our relationships with all of our stakeholders – and reframe them around a better understanding of the human side of systems.
Shareholders and stakeholders
The first place where we need to do this reframing is with the shareholders: that small group of stakeholders who so often – and so mistakenly – believe that they alone are the owners of the corporation. We’ve actually seen this issue already in a slightly different form, but we now need to make it more explicit. A company consists of its purpose, its ability to fulfil that purpose, its relationships, its knowledge, and its assets. The shareholders may own the assets of the company: but they do not own the company itself, because the assets are only one part – and sometimes a very small part at that – of the overall company.
Assets are things: tangible objects. Describing anything intangible as an ‘asset’ can be a dangerous delusion – as the millions who lost out when the ‘dot-com’ bubble burst discovered to their cost. The company purpose is an aid to productivity, and may be the result of enormous investment of effort: but it’s not an asset in the sense of being something that can be owned. Machines and materials to fulfil the purpose are assets: but they may not even exist, especially in companies which essentially rely on human inventiveness and ingenuity. Corporate knowledge is not an asset, a saleable ‘commodity’ – unless it’s converted into some tangible form of ‘intellectual property’, and even then its value as an asset may exist only in someone’s imagination. But above all – above everything else – people are not assets. No matter how much we may sink into subject-based delusions – or worse, into the stupidities of slavery – people can never be assets in that crude physical sense: their productive ability – and, especially, their creative ability – can never be owned by anyone other than themselves.
“Our people are our greatest asset!” – how many companies have we seen making this kind of claim? Yes, it sounds impressive, and yes, it’s true that the people will be probably be the greatest strength of the company: but describing those people as ‘assets’, as things that are ‘owned’ by the company, is a straight-out insult. Describing people as ‘human resources’ is an insult, too; placing a thin veneer of ‘people-friendliness’ on top of the same old human-resource policies and calling it ‘People Strategies’ instead isn’t much better. And executives who expect – demand, even – that ‘their’ people will be highly creative and committed for the shareholders’ benefit alone aren’t showing much awareness of human needs – yet another reason why ‘making money’, on its own, doesn’t work as a corporate purpose. Either way, corporations and their ‘owners’ usually get what they ask for. Real people don’t respond well to insults – and surly, disaffected, dispirited robots tend not to be very productive at all. Conversely, corporations which do bother to respect the human side of systems tend to be very productive indeed. But it’s depressing to see just how few ‘owners’ seem to understand this rather obvious point…
Regardless of what the law might say, the shareholders alone are not the owners of the company: the true owners – or stewards, more accurately, as we saw earlier – are the people who actually make the company and its purpose part of their way of life. (This is true of many shareholders, of course, especially in small or family companies, or those with employee stock-holding schemes: but it’s far less common for shareholders of large companies, especially for those which are publicly quoted on the stock-exchanges.) Stewardship arises from response-ability, not ‘rights’: yet as we also saw earlier, their exclusive ‘limited liability’ in law means that shareholders have almost the least responsibilities of any of the corporation’s stakeholders – and thus, in most cases, the least awareness of the effects of their actions on the company as a whole. As Charles Handy and other business commentators have argued, the appropriate role for shareholders is similar to that of the banks: no more and no less than a supplier of finance – with a proper balance of rights and responsibilities. But because of their inappropriate ‘owner’ status, shareholders’ self-centred obsession with short-term dividends is often allowed to obstruct any type of long-term investment: and astute ‘investors’ can safely run away at the first signs that the corporations they cripple in this way are starting to spiral into final decay – accelerating a collapse in which everyone but the shareholders will lose. The same problem tends to override the concerns of all other stakeholders: so much so that vast amounts of health-and safety legislation are required to enforce any respect of staff, and separate certification is needed to ensure support for other stakeholders – for example, ISO 9000 on quality, for customers, and ISO 14000 on enviromental management, for the wider community. And the lack of integration between all these different systems and structures tends only to make things worse.
By any functional measure, the present system of company law can only be described as seriously insane – in every sense of the word. It all but guarantees poor productivity and poor long-term efficiency – and poor real returns for shareholders in general, too. By appearing to provide the greatest rewards to those who show the least responsibility as ‘owners’, the present system invites and incites shareholders to act like schoolyard bullies – entrepreneurs as ‘between-takers’ in the worst sense of the word – and actively promotes power-over and power-under in the worst possible way. But it’s the system that we have: which means that we have no choice but to work within its constraints – however absurd they may be. From the company’s perspective, necessarily juggling the needs of all stakeholders, the best tool to manage the bizarre bias towards shareholders is the corporate purpose: clarity on purpose creates a true relationship with shareholders – as stewards rather than ‘owners’ – and assists them in understanding the long-term aims of the corporation, and the real need to create a better balance between long-term requirements and short-term returns. The continuing – and increasing – success of long-term-oriented ‘ethical investment’ and ‘sustainable business’ portfolios is at last educating the more aware investors toward a more balanced role, yet there’s still a long way to go.
Relationships with stakeholders are at the core of every company: relationships with shareholders, with customers, with suppliers, with the general community and, especially, within the company itself. A corporation’s ‘greatest asset’ is not ‘our people’, but its relationships with those people. A relationship is a real – very real – asset of a kind: but it’s not an asset that can be ‘owned’, bartered, bought and sold. And relationships are fragile: if not treated with respect, ‘our’ market could vanish, ‘our’ reputation and goodwill could fade to nothing, or ‘our’ knowledge, skill, inventiveness and creativity – and relationships with others, too – will just walk out the door and go someplace else. So it’s in the company’s interest, and therefore the company’s responsibility – far more so than anyone else’s – to create and maintain those relationships.
But it’s fascinating – if sometimes depressing – to see just how poorly most companies handle their relationships: power-under, and even power-over, are the norm rather than exception, especially in most corporate ‘human resource’ materials – and the companies then wonder why they have problems with employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders… In the old days of mass-mechanisation, roles were based on single skills, so tightly defined and delineated that companies could delude themselves into thinking that employees were interchangeable objects, that their staff were mere subjects, subordinate extensions of the corporate will; in the old days of mass-markets and mass-media messages, companies could just about get away with treating their customers as ‘consumer-objects’. Those days are gone: yet many managers fail to recognise this fact – even though the companies themselves played a major part in the change. Customers demand customisation; and as the Cluetrain Manifesto pointed out, they may well know more about the company and its products than the company itself. Robot-machines have replaced most robot-work, not just on the factory floor but in the office too; adaptability, flexibility and multi-skilling have become essential requirements, forcing roles to fit people rather moulding people into preordained ‘roles-for-life’; and companies have trimmed out the ‘fat’ so much – repeating the ‘fewer people, better people, more work’ mantra over and over again – that they may have no reserves left for the times when Chaos Department passes by. In short, people matter once more: they’re no longer so easily interchangeable. Which means that relationship-management is no longer a luxury: increasingly, it’s the only means by which a company can survive.
Relationship-management is nothing new: for example, most large corporations use automated ‘customer relationship management’ tools. Yet functional relationship-management happens only when all stakeholders are treated as true co-creators in the corporation’s purpose, and are treated with the same respect currently accorded only to customers, shareholders and senior management. Most employee-relationship materials, for example, need to be rewritten to emphasise mutual responsibilities – rather than the usual attempts to grasp hold of ‘rights’, and foist all the responsibility, and all of the blame, onto others. As Charles Handy puts it, companies are not commodities, but communities, and corporations are federations of such communities: so the best way to avoid political problems – and reduce the chaos created by all the covert office-politics – is to make the politics explicit, with a formal constitution or its equivalent. And any relationship problems can be avoided by starting from responsibilities rather than ‘rights’ – the traffic-law analogy again – with the emphasis on mutual responsibilities.
Relationships are human: markets are conversations – and those conversations can only be carried out in a human voice. Trying to ‘control’ each relationship – by faking a ‘voice’, for example, or by limiting who is allowed to speak – leads only to trouble, and usually the loss of the relationship. To manage a corporation’s relationships in a functional way, everyone needs to be able to speak in their own voice – and may need help to find that voice in the first place. To corporations that are used to the spurious certainty of ‘control’, that kind of freedom can be frightening: yet it’s the only way that works well.
Open and closed
If markets are conversations, the best way to create a market is to create a conversation. In business terms, that means creating open, two-way conversations with all manner of stakeholders – not just prospective customers, but suppliers, shareholders, employees, government and everyone else. Involving stakeholders directly in the business in this way demands a lot more openness than most businesses are used to, yet it also creates many advantages for the company. Improved reputation, improved product-development cycle, improved time-to-market, improved saleability of product, improved self-marketing, improved tolerance by customers of faults and problems: the proof of the advantages of openness are now well known. And in most cases, all that stands in the way of those improvements is fear: corporate fear of uncertainty, of loss of ‘control’.
Fear breeds secrecy – and secrecy is a reflex habit that applies to everything, as far as many businesses are concerned. Everything that the company does is private, proprietary, protected, patented – yet it’s often not such a good idea as it sounds, because the secrecy can cause more problems than it solves. In any case, as Cluetrain have demonstrated, it doesn’t even work: at some point, the business must communicate with others – otherwise there’s no business – yet there’s no absolute way to control that communication. So why bother? What’s the fear? It’s worth exploring that question in some depth…
With the Internet, intranets, extranets, email and the Web all breaking down the old broadcast-style barriers to communication, some important information sources at last become available to the company: the company’s customers, and the company’s own employees. Historically, most companies have shut them out, silenced them, with rules, regulations and Customer Relations departments all designed to prevent two-way communication – which is just plain stupid. The employees know how the company’s products are made, and the customers know how the products are used: almost by definition, they know more about the products than the company management or marketing department do – so it’s wise to let them speak directly with each other, in their own voices, without the company getting in the way!
From a marketing perspective, this is far from trivial: research-studies consistently show that customers who receive the brush-off on reporting a problem rarely come back for more, whereas customers whose concerns are addressed – even if the problem could not be resolved – are just as likely to be repeat-customers as those who never had any problems at all. And as the Open Source movement has demonstrated, with the development of Linux and many other ‘open’ software projects, prospective customers who are involved in a project from its inception onwards become committed as active stakeholders in the project’s success – and are far more loyal and tolerant of problems than those whose role is reduced to that of passive ‘consumers’.
Trying to keep everything closed down and controlled creates other problems too. Another word for ‘proprietary’ is ‘owned’, with all the ownership-issues that that implies, as we’ve seen earlier: all too often, ideas and inventions are trade-marked or patented not for the purpose of doing something useful with them – in other words genuine power, ‘the ability to do work’ – but to withhold them from others, or to create a monopoly, a mandatory ‘between-taker’ relationship in some type of transaction. To many people, of course, that sounds like the ideal form of business: a ‘guaranteed earner’ which no-one can avoid, yet costs little or nothing to maintain. But quite apart from the ethical and legal issues, such ‘monopoly-games’ don’t work anyway: all they do is create a nuisance for everyone else – and a lot of ill-feeling, which is not a good idea in business. In the early days of steam, for example, someone managed to patent the crankshaft – something that fundamental to almost all classes of machinery – and demanded a royalty from everyone else: yet rather than pay up, other manufacturers made do with the cumbersome sun-and-planet gear until the crankshaft patent expired – by which time the patent-‘owner’ was already bankrupt.
In more recent times Unisys tried the same kind of game with the GIF compressed-image file format, one of the key standards for Internet graphics, and demanded a royalty from every user: despite their undoubted ownership of the patent, the resultant furore forced the company to back down, to a royalty only from producers of commercially-sold editor software – and alternative open standards were rapidly developed, in case Unisys tried again to claim a cut of everyone’s work on the basis of their supposedly exclusive ‘entrepreneurial rights’. And in another notorious example, the leaked ‘Halloween documents’ implied that Microsoft had implemented a deliberate policy of adding proprietary ‘extensions’ to existing international data-communication standards, not to add any value for end-users, but solely to lock-in their users by preventing communication with open-source software built in accordance with the original standards: that Microsoft then attempted to use copyright law in order to ‘protect’ its monopolistic misuse of such standards resulted not only in further damage to the company’s already-tarnished reputation, but led to a legal fight that has put at risk the entire international system of copyrights and patents – not a wise move on the company’s part… In practice, manufactured monopolies of this kind are a variant of power-over: they invariably reduce the overall ‘ability to do work’, for everyone. They also reduce overall creativity, because increasing amounts of effort need to be expended on patent-searches and in devising work-arounds, rather than on getting the real job done.
By contrast, sharing ideas, and opening to everyone the best ideas, can be one of the best marketing strategies – because shared standards create markets, in which those who share the most usually gain the most of all. One famous example was Philips’ publication of their design for the compact cassette – making it freely available to every audio-equipment manufacturer. Prior to that release, every manufacturer had their own proprietary design – much like the fragmentation of the Unix market, as mentioned earlier – with the result that few potential producers had bothered to create content; tape-machines were used primarily for recording, and the overall market remained small. But the rapid take-up of the cassette design, playable on machines by many different manufacturers, meant that it became worthwhile for producers to create content – which in turn created an entirely new market for simpler machines which could only play back prerecorded content. The cassette design was patented – but only to prevent someone else arbitrarily declaring ‘ownership’ rights on it, as had happened many times before. In this sense, the patent system was used as originally intended: to make the exact details of an invention ‘patently obvious’, for everyone’s benefit. And the openness was good business in another sense, because although Philips had effectively created competition for themselves, they’d still gained several months’ lead-time over everyone else – and also confirmed to their competitors, and to the general market, their reputation as one of the leading innovators in the field.
This approach to ownership of objects and ideas is sometimes described as a ‘gift economy’: wealth and status are indicated not by what is hoarded and withheld, but by what is given away. In a tight market, such status can be crucial in promoting relationships with customers, suppliers and other stakeholders. The most spectacular recent success of the ‘gift economy’ concept has been in the Open Source movement, in which hundreds of thousands of programmers worldwide have competed with each other – in a ‘competition-with’ sense – to create computer-code to be shared freely with anyone: these include the GNU/Linux operating system, the Apache web-server, the Samba file-server, and many other lesser-known programs such as Sendmail and BIND which, together, essentially run the entire Internet. At the present time, the SourceForge repository hosts more than thirty thousand software projects, which are open to everyone: a literal library of code which anyone can read, redesign and re-use for any appropriate purpose – the exact opposite of the ‘trade secrets’ so dear to so many commercial corporations.
Some of these projects – Apache being one well-known example – are directly supported by major computing corporations such as IBM and Sun, either financially or with paid staff-time, or both: yet the end-result is still free to everyone. And it’s not ‘corporate altruism’, or an expensive exercise in corporate public-relations: everyone wins. IBM, for example, gets to take part in the evolution of the world’s most-used web-server software – and at a far lower cost to the company than if it tried to maintain its own competing product. True, IBM’s competitors benefit too – but less so than if they were to cooperate in the project themselves, so that IBM actually gains competitive advantage in its own market by apparently ‘giving away’ its intellectual property. In fast-moving markets such as computer software, many companies have found that one of the best ways to create a market for their product is to give away, free, and with no strings attached, full copies of their previous version. The same principle often applies with much more mundane products: for example, much of the early success of Ben & Jerry’s was attributed to the word-of-mouth publicity arising from their free festivals and ‘Free Cone Days’, at which the company’s founders and their colleagues hand-scooped free samples of their high-quality ice-cream.
The real assets of a company are not its staff, or its customers, but its relationships with those people: openness and inclusiveness are some of the key means by which these relationships can be created and maintained. At the same time, no company can afford to give away everything! Once again, a clearly-defined purpose statement provides the best guide for this: things which are truly central to the company’s purpose – Coca-Cola’s famous formula, for example – must remain proprietary, of course, but anything which is peripheral to the corporate purpose is probably better shared with others. The simplest test is to assess whether ‘opening up’ would affect the corporate bottom-line: if doing so would improve it, or cause no change – the most common case – then sharing with others is almost certainly the best way to go.
This suggestion for open sharing particularly applies to generic facilities such as utility-software. Most businesses need information-technology specific to their own needs: often the requirements cannot be met by off-the-shelf tools, yet the costs of developing and, especially, maintaining custom software can be prohibitive. The standard ‘ownership’ attitude assumes that because custom software is expensive to develop, it must be an asset that could be sold to others, and hence made as private and proprietary as possible. But for prospective buyers, it would almost certainly need local adaptation to their needs, which is difficult, if not impossible, without access to the source-code: so as a proprietary item it’s often an ‘asset’ which no-one will buy – and the effort to sell it distracts effort from the company’s primary purpose. In many if not most cases, a better solution is to publish the software or whatever – or at least the generic parts of it which are not specific to the corporation’s own needs – and thus share the maintenance effort with others. That way everyone wins, everyone learns – whereas the ‘make-it-proprietary’ option forces everyone to develop their own tools independently of each other, wasting everyone’s time and effort.
And here we come full-circle: the benefits of openness are evident, yet the main obstacle that stands in the way of those benefits is not technical, or financial, or legal, but a ‘people-problem’ – a fundamental fear about loss of control, loss of supposed certainty. It’s a fear which is endemic in most corporate managements – mainly because of the prevalence of power-over and power-under in those organisations. To get much further, we need to address those issues, and the relationship-issues which arise from them – both in terms of individual behaviours, and organisational structures which support or suppress specific behaviours.
Personas and power-dynamics
Power-relationships are at the core of every company. At this stage, though, it’s worth reiterating the definition of power that we identified earlier: ‘the ability to do work/play/learn, as an expression of personal choice and personal response-ability’. This is not, unfortunately, what people usually mean when they talk about power in terms of office-politics and the like: but it’s the functional form of power, whereas the supposed ‘power’ in office-politics is usually little more than a muddle mess of power-over and power-under – which can only be reduced through a clear focus on power-from-within and power-with.
Much of office-politics and other intra-organisational behaviour is frighteningly childish. For example, we’ll often see a nasty variant of the childhood game of ‘musical chairs’: in metaphoric terms, people running around chanting “round and round in the usual old game: I take the credit and you take the blame”, until the music stops – at which point they all make a rush for cover, and scream “it’s all your fault!” at the last person left exposed… Yet power-relationships are not so much about any individual, as the interaction between individuals – in other words, the ‘We’ created between them. Although we can each be directly responsible only for our own ‘I’, we also each contribute to the ‘We’ formed between ourselves and others: yet without sufficient awareness of that mutual responsibility, ‘We’ tends to revert to the lowest common denominator derived from the individuals – which is often extremely self-centred and childish. Seeing each other through the filter of ‘We’, there tends to be an assumption that it’s the other person, not ‘We’, that is childish: so there’s a real tendency to react to that perceived behaviour in a similarly childish way – which is what leads to the chaotic mess of export and counter-export that so often takes the place of functional work-relationships.
And failure to understand the true nature of power, as the individual and shared ability to do work – power-from-within and power-with – is what leads to the problems in the first place. At the individual level, the two fundamental issues are the zero-sum concept, and the very common delusion that power is not so much the ability to do work as the ability to avoid it. For example, we’ll often see (though more easily in others than in ourselves) a desire for ‘authority without accountability’, the subject-based ‘right’ to tell others what to do but without accepting personal responsibility for the end-results – which, by definition, is actually a form of power-under. Time and time again, we’ll see people playing win/lose, putting others down, on the assumption that this will necessarily advance their own career – and failing to understand how much they’re dependent on those others to have the power to do the work that they themselves want done.
We’ll also see individual people, or entire work-cultures, lost in object-based or subject-based delusions, demanding that others should behave solely as extensions of self – rather than as what they are, namely individuals with their own power, their own purpose, and their own choices within the creation of ‘We’. For example, Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ – the basis of the mass-production revolution of the early twentieth century – depended entirely on an object-based error: the assumption that the greatest efficiency occurred where work was rigidly partitioned into ‘brain and ‘brawn’ – where all thinking was done by management, assigning tasks to workers whose only role was to follow those orders without question or thought. (“Check your brain in at the door”, was how one of those ‘worker-objects’ described it.) Yet in practice such mechanistic systems are startlingly inefficient: there are some gains from economies of scale, of course, but they’re swamped by the losses arising from reaction to the power-over on which the system depends, and from the systematic rejection of feedback from the factory floor. As Deming and others proved, several painful decades later, far greater efficiency can be achieved by treating a work-group not as a machine, but as a living entity: one in which all parts – all roles – are semi-autonomous and interdependent, with the ‘brain’ providing overall coordination rather than step-by-step ‘control’.
Another practical problem is that the ‘scientific management’ model creates a classic codependent structure: many managers like it because it gives them the power-over illusion of control, and many employees like it because it provides the power-under illusion of offloading responsibility to the managers – whilst at the same time allowing both groups to indulge in the ‘right’ to complain about what the others are doing! Because codependent structures provide both parties with apparent payoffs whilst at the same time being highly addictive, it can be far from easy to move such an organisation toward a more stable and effective type of internal relationship: a clear demonstration of the advantages to everyone of relationships based on functional power and response-ability is often the only way to do so.
It’s easy to label the problem just as the foibles and limitations of individuals – especially others, of course – but it’s usually not as simple as that. As we saw earlier with Masks, work-roles themselves acquire habits – and tend to impose those habits on whoever takes on the role. The Zen monk Edward Espe Brown described this process particularly well in The Tassajara Bread Book: “First came to Tassajara when it was still a resort. Got a job as the dishwasher, learned to make bread, soups, and scrub the floor. I could never understand the cooks. One of the cooks quit. Offered his job, I jumped in right over my head. Instantly I understood – in fact I acquired – cook’s temperament. What a shock!” I remember also one colleague in a research laboratory whose role shifted from engineering-troubleshooter to manager: he failed to recognise that he was losing connection with the fine detail of each project, but still assumed that he alone had the knowledge needed to make things work, and hence delved into everything without being aware of the real consequences of doing so. In effect, he ended up sabotaging every project he touched – but remained blissfully unaware of the fact, because his senior role meant that others were now responsible for tidying up the mess. For everyone involved, the manager was soon regarded as a problem, a danger to everyone’s work: yet the real problem was not the manager himself, but was, in a very literal sense, hidden behind – and within – the Mask of his role.
Organisational culture can be a Mask in much the same way: we acquire the habits of the organisation, and think that they’re our own. If those habits are based on power-over or power-under – which they often are, if only because so many organisations still base themselves on competition-against rather than competition-with – serious relationships problems will be almost inevitable within the organisation. Even worse, once we put on a Mask, it can sometimes be very difficult to take it off, even when elsewhere – as the partners of people ‘taken over’ by a dominant organisational culture often know only too well! The only practical defence against being subsumed in this way by an organisation or a role is to develop a clear sense of self – another reason why it’s in the organisation’s interest to assist its members to identify not just their relationship to the organisation’s purpose, but their own purpose as well.
The way in which work-relationships are structured also creates a kind of compound Mask. For the same ‘lowest common denominator’ reasons that we saw earlier, these tend to default to dysfunctional forms – with one of two types being most common, according to whether power-over or power-under is dominant within the organisation or work-group. Where power-over is more common than power-under, we often end up with what we might stereotype as a ‘male’ form, hierarchical and object-based: it’s no accident that Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ model was so hierarchical, given that it came out of a work-culture which was almost exclusively male. But the stereotypically ‘female’ form, where power-under dominates, is equally dysfunctional: it’s a flat structure that purports to operate by consensus, but has no clear locus of responsibility, and is characterised by an excess of subject-based blame – “you should have known what I wanted you to do”. The ‘male’ structure is still common in large corporations, and is typified by the hierarchical ‘org-chart’, with ‘power’ – or, more often, ‘authority without accountability’ – being determined by position within the hierarchy-tree. By contrast, the ‘female’ structure is typified by a web, in which ‘power’ again is determined by closeness to the current centre, although often – as is typical with power-under – it can be extremely difficult to tell where that centre actually is; this structure is more common in government departments and non-government or ‘non-profit’ organisations, though it’s also the classic ‘Mafiosi’ model. By their nature – being based on power-over or power-under – none of these structures work well, in terms of supporting the maximum possible ‘ability to do work’: in practice, the fear, backstabbing and general confusion can often reduce their overall efficiency to that of a single egotistic child – which could hardly be described as functional.
Perceptions of organisational structure can also be dangerously self-referential. If asked about the structure of their organisation, many managers would point proudly to the neat, tidy ‘org-chart’ on their wall: yet that chart describes only a tiny subset of the real structure of the organisation. Nowhere on the chart, for example, would we find the suppliers, the customers, the cleaners and other contractors – all those ‘outside’ stakeholders on whom the company’s work ultimately depends. The organisation itself is only one system within a larger economic system – and it’s at the edges of systems, the interfaces with other systems, that most of the problems occur. As multi-skilling becomes the norm, and working alliances mean that outside stakeholders become more actively involved in projects, the org-chart may cease to be an accurate guide even to the internal responsibilities of the organisation. Increasingly, the only approach which works well is to emphasise the organisation as an entity within a greater whole, and assist staff in finding their own response-ability – with the org-chart no longer presented as the ultimate definition of the organisation, but simply a guideline as to where appropriate information about aspects of the organisation’s work may be exchanged.
Productive work-relationships need to be structured according to the nature of the work, in ways which provide the maximum support for individual response-ability. And given those as selection-criteria, any structure may be appropriate: for example, hierarchies are the most efficient model in high-stress contexts which need centralised coordination – two classic examples being electricity power-distribution, and the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. In both of those contexts, however, there is always a direct return-path available for priority feedback to the duty-manager, the admiral or whoever, from any point in the hierarchy, without needing to be passed from step to step in the tree – hence providing the fastest means of distributing instructions, and the fastest means of collating the results. And considerable emphasis is placed on treating everyone as equals, despite their different roles: for example, on the aircraft-carrier, despite the rigid system of military ranks, the admiral and the cook’s assistant alike may find themselves assigned to a ‘foreign object detection’ detail, slowly walking side by side down the length of the flight-deck in search for loose bolts and bits of wire that could puncture an aircraft tyre.
So if anyone asks whether a hierarchy, or a democracy, or a ‘flat’ consensus-type model, or a self-organised work-team, or whatever, is the best structure, the answer’s “Yes”: it all depends on the context. In one large research organisation I know, for example, the main structure is a hierarchy; the divisions operate by consensus; most tasks within those divisions are handled by self-directed work-teams; but some of the support-groups, with their production-type roles, operate locally with a hierarchy again, because it provides them with an efficient structure with a clear chain of responsibility. This issue of structure-selection is dealt with in more detail in the ‘toolkit’: for here, though, one of the main determinants in choosing an appropriate structure is whether the type of work is static – in other words, is a continuing process, such as bookkeeping or a production line – or dynamic – such as a project with distinct stages. Where the work is static, the best structure depends on the nature of the work,and will rarely change; but where the work is dynamic, the structure will usually need to change as the work progress – and the work-leader change with it.
One of the more interesting guidelines for identifying dynamic structures is the classic Chinese five-phase model. In the original model, the labels for the five successive phases in the project life-cycle are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water; in a business environment, it probably makes more sense to use the respective labels from Group Dynamics theory – Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Mourning – though we could also describe them as project-inception, analysis, design, implementation (or production) and test. Different personalities are best suited as leaders for each different stage – which means that in many cases no one person should lead the project for the entire of its lifetime.
In the Forming phase, by definition, the group has no structure: it’s an amorphous collection of individuals, gathered together by someone who acts as the leader. The Storming phase is not only where the project’s work is identified, but also where the team’s own interpersonal relationships are established: the natural conflicts, both of ideas and personalities, mean that this phase is often best led by a facilitator who is an ‘outsider’ to the group itself. The Norming phase is where methods to put the project’s agreed ideas into practice are defined: the leadership role here is primarily that of a mentor and guide. In the Performing phase, the project goes into production: it’s here that the classic hierarchical structure is most likely to be useful. And in the Mourning phase – typified by the US Army’s ‘After-Action Reviews’ – there’s a detailed assessment of lessons learned, of what went right as much as what went wrong: the leader here is again most likely to be an external facilitator, supporting the same team-leader as in the Norming phase.
Leadership of any kind involves additional responsibilities – especially in the difficult but necessary Storming phase. And all personal responsibilities, almost by definition, involve personal challenges – which, despite the delusions of power-over and power-under, cannot be resolved by attempting to export them to others. Responsibility is also ‘response-ability’: and whether we like it or not, our own ability to choose appropriate responses – and others’ ability, too – will necessarily vary over time, according to the context of the work, personal response to stress at work and elsewhere, and many other factors. In designing work-structures, it’s essential that we take into account the natural variations of that response-ability, in everyone. And it’s worth reiterating that power is the ability to do work, not to avoid it: so despite the delusions of ‘power’, there’s no point in taking on any role unless you want to do the work – in every sense – that goes with it!
It’s also worth reiterating that power isn’t just the ability to do work: it’s the ability to work, learn and play – and to maintain a dynamic balance between all three. So despite all that so often goes so wrong, it’s essential that work-relationships – the social aspect of work – are also perceived as part of play, and that play is a valid and necessary part of productive work. There’s a great deal of truth in one of Ben & Jerry’s early slogans, “If it’s not fun, why do it?” – although, as one of their executives cynically commented somewhat later, the result may sometimes be little more than that “we put the ‘fun’ back into dysfunctional”! Yet wherever a functional balance of work, play and learn supports a sense of personal purpose in the work, it creates personal satisfaction – literally, ‘enough-making’ – which, in turn, invariably results in high personal productivity, and a win/win for everyone involved. So relationships between individuals, and between those individuals and the organisation, do matter: which is why relationship-management is necessarily fundamental to every organisation.