“Those doing the work are often the only ones who really understand the context. Leadership is helping build the structure and then protecting the space to do meaningful work.“ —Harold Jarche, work in 2018
Almost all organization leaders today wield positional power: the power of a boss to make decisions that affect others. This is unlikely to change soon. But the growth of the network era, where leaders and workers need to connect outside the workplace in order to stay up to date professionally and to be open to new and innovative ideas, is creating a shift away from traditional hierarchical power models.
“One major change as we enter the network era is that positional power (based on institutions and hierarchies) may no longer be required to have influence in a network society.” —Harold Jarche, the new networked norm
It’s increasingly possible to have influence these days without being anyone’s boss.
Influence but no authority
As a consultant in various fields for 36 years, this is a familiar world: one where I have influence with a client but less authority than a janitor. Clients are free to ignore my advice. Sometimes they do, but clearly I have useful influence that typically leads to significant change. (Otherwise I wouldn’t continue to be hired and — usually 😀 — appreciated.)
Today, far more people work in the gig economy, which has grown in large part because the network era has made it much easier to find and hire specialized services on a just-in-time basis. This development has caused significant disruptions. Two examples: less long-term job security and the weakened ability for workers to advocate for their concerns en masse. However, there’s a positive side.
The network era
The network era is making possible a shift towards decentralized influence and power, and away from the dysfunctional features of hierarchical societal and organizational structures that have led to much suffering and misery throughout human history. Today there’s no reason to pick either positional or network era power. We can create systems that incorporate the best features of both.
Here’s Harold Jarche again:
“…it is up to all of us to keep working on new structures and systems. This is perhaps the only great work to be done for the next few decades. We have the science and technology to address most of the world’s problems. What we lack are structures that enable transparency and action on behalf of humankind, and not the vested interests of the rich and powerful.” —Harold Jarche, chaos and order
This isn’t easy work. When consulting, one of my biggest meeting design challenges is to get boss buy-in. Typically middle management are enthusiastic and on board. But the most senior decision-maker will occasionally override everyone else in the organization. They make a poor design decision based on obsolete ideas about how people learn and lack of understanding of how good meeting design can transform communities.
The network era is here. Its effect on power relationships isn’t going away. To improve the relevance and effectiveness of social structures, organizations, and meetings, it’s crucial for leaders to understand and accept the potential and value of decentralized influence.
Ask attendees why they go to meetings and their top two responses are to learn and connect. Remember kids that ask a question, and when you answer it they say “why?”
“Why can’t we go outside?” “Because it’s raining.” “Why?” “Well, water’s coming out of the sky.” “Why?”
So be that annoying kid for a moment and ask: “Why do you want to learn and connect?”
If you play enough rounds of the why game, and ignore the unprofessional but possibly truthful answers — for example: “I’m hoping to get to know an attractive colleague better”; “My boss said I had to and I need a pay raise”; “It’s been too long since I ate fresh Maine lobster” — you will find that the core motivation to go to meetings is to change in some useful way. Change how you see things, and, most important, change how you do things: i.e. behavior change.
So now we’ve got that out of the way, let’s review what Harold Jarche, a veteran educator in the Canadian Armed Forces and now a leading consultant on workplace learning, has to say about the value of public speaking [emphasis added]:
“I do a fair bit of public speaking. But I doubt that much of it has changed anyone’s behaviour. I may have presented some new ideas and sparked some thinking. With a one-hour lecture, you cannot expect more. Yet a lot of our training programs consist of an expert presenting to ‘learners’. Do we really expect behaviour change from this? That would be rather wishful thinking. Learning is a process, not an event.”
“To learn a skill or get better at one you have to practice. Deliberate practice with constructive feedback is the key for long-term success.“
“I conduct face-to-face workshops as well as online ones. For my on-site sessions, usually 1/2 or a full day, I try to cover the basics and the key concepts. We do a few exercises to get people thinking differently. But I don’t expect significant changes in performance as a result of one day together.” —Harold Jarche, no time, no learning
Like Harold, after years of running meetings and workshops I’ve learned that the likelihood creating permanent valuable behavior change increases as a power of the time spent together. By “together” I don’t mean listening passively to an expert talk. I mean working together as a group to learn new skills and approaches and ways of thinking and practicing with constructive group and expert feedback.
We’ve all heard we should be doing these things to maximize the value of our valuable time together — but very, very few of today’s meetings involve even a smattering of facilitated deliberate practice with constructive feedback.
When you think of all the expensive time we continue to waste doing things we’ve been doing for hundreds of years which we now know don’t work — well, I think tragedy is an accurate description of what routinely passes as a “meeting”.
Change is hard. We now know that social production is the way to maximize learning that leads to significant, valuable, long-term change. At meetings, the instantiations of social production are facilitated workshops run by and/or with content experts. That’s what we should be doing.
Not lectures from experts. Stop wasting valuable time at meetings doing that!
There’s a better way to improve meetings than augmenting them with technology. As Finnish management consultant and polymath Esko Kilpi says:
“Human beings augmented by other human beings is more important than human beings augmented by technology” —Esko Kilpi, quoted by Harold Jarche
At face-to-face meetings, we can facilitate relevant connections and learning around participants’ shared just-in-time wants and needs. This is more effective than augmenting an individual’s learning via technology. We maximize learning when:
Participants first become aware, collectively and individually, of the room’s wants, needs, and available expertise and experience (i.e. “the smartest person in the room is the room” — David Weinberger, Too Big To Know);
We use meeting process that successfully matches participants’ needs and wants with the expertise and experience available; and
Time and space is available for the desired learning to take place.
And of course, this approach significantly improves the quantity and quality of relevant connections made by participants during an event.
So the smart choice is to invest in maximizing peer connection and learning. Do this via simple human process rather than elaborate event technology.
I’ve wasted time at many events trying to use apps to connect attendees in some useful way. Even when high-tech approaches use a simple web-browser interface, getting 100% participation is difficult due to technical barriers: all attendees must have a digital device readily available with no low batteries or spotty/slow internet access.
Well-facilitated human process has none of these problems. The value of having a facilitator who knows how to do this work far exceeds the cost (which may be zero once you have invested in training staff to fulfill this function).
When push comes to shove, modern events thrive in supportive, participatory environments. Attendees appreciate the ease of making connections they want and getting the learning they need from the expertise and experience of their peers. Once they’ve experienced what’s possible they rarely enjoy going back to the passive meetings that are still so common.
Yes, we can use technology to augment learning. But the majority of the high-tech event solutions marketed today are inferior and invariably more costly to implement than increasing learning and connection through radically improving what happens between people at our meetings.
Wirearchy? What’s that? Here’s organizational learning consultant Harold Jarche:
If you are convinced that your future workplace should look more like a Wirearchy, (a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on, knowledge, trust, credibility, a focus on results; enabled by interconnected people and technology) then the best thing you can do now is prepare.
Prepare yourself to be a continuous learner.
Prepare yourself and your team/department to work collaboratively.
Start narrating your work.
Become a knowledge curator and share widely.
Engage in professional social networks and communities of practice.
Model the behaviours you would like to see in others.
Furthermore, I believe our conferences should become wirearchies too: places where communication and learning is two-way, where presenters and attendees alike are continuous learners who work collaboratively during the event, and where we engage with our professional community rather than passively sit and listen. I work to model these behaviors—both at the events I organize and those I attend. We’ll all get a lot more out of our events when we practice wirearchy, not hierarchy. I encourage you to join me.