change the system, not the leader

Plus ça change, plus c’est pareil

It’s interesting to watch the shenanigans in Washington DC with Silicon Valley’s latest ‘crisis’ over privacy and the manipulation of the democratic process. The ‘great man’ is answering for the actions of his company in front of the world’s cameras. But the great man theory of leadership is outdated, just as the divine right of kings was two centuries ago. Silicon Valley, in spite of all the hype, is based on the same outdated organizational models of leadership and management as the companies they are putting out of business. As Christian Madsbjerg wrote in his book Sensemaking: “In a ‘Silicon Valley’ state of mind, sense making has never been more lacking or more urgently needed.”

We don’t need better leaders. We need organizations and structures that let all people cooperate and collaborate to get work done. Positional leadership is a master-servant, parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee relationship. It puts too much power in the hands of individuals and blocks human networks from realizing their potential. Even punishing the person in charge will change little. Changing leaders will not change the system from which they emerged.

Depending on one person to always be the leader will only dumb-down the entire network. In the network era, leadership is helping the network make better decisions. This starts by creating more human organizational structures, ones that enable self-governance. Leadership is an emergent property of a network in balance.

Perpetual Beta

In Adapting to Perpetual Beta I concluded that leadership in networks is exercised through reputation, not positional authority. Having influence in multiple networks, not just the organization, makes a leader even more effective. The ability to span networks becomes important as organizational lifespans decrease and worker mobility increases. To remain connected to the changes in their networks, good leaders are curious and promote experimentation, but do not need to control it. Leadership in networks is helping the network make better decisions, and this requires a focus on the best organizational design to meet the changing situations. Strong networks, combined with temporary and negotiated hierarchies to get work done, become the simple building blocks for an organization in a state of perpetual beta.

Let people do work worth doing, the tools to do it, and recognition of a job well done. In a transparent, diverse, and open organization, management can then get out of the way. This is how organizations can remain relevant in the network era.

The great work of our time is to design, build, and test new organizational models that reflect democratic values and can function in an interconnected world. Leadership today is more of an architectural task, or one of setting up the right systems. This is not being done in Silicon Valley or any of the tech sectors around the world. They are merely the Robber Barons of the 21st century.

Network Era Management

In 1911, F. Winslow Taylor wrote his Principles of Scientific Management, which still inform too many organizations today. Just look at all the compliance requirements of what to wear to work, how to work, and even what to say about work.

“It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.”

I have proposed the Principle of Networked Management:

It is only through innovative and contextual methods, the self-selection of the most appropriate tools and work conditions, and willing cooperation that more creative work can be fostered. The duty of being transparent in our work and sharing our knowledge rests with all workers, especially management.

1. innovative & contextual methods = in the network era work and jobs cannot be standardized, which means first getting rid of job descriptions and individual performance appraisals and shifting to simpler ways in order to organize for complexity.

2. self-selection of tools = moving away from standardized enterprise tools toward an open platform in which workers, many of which are part-time or contracted, can use their own tools in order to be knowledge artisans.

3. willing cooperation = lessening the emphasis on teamwork and collaboration and encouraging wider cooperation.

4. duty of being transparent = shifting from ‘need to know’ to ‘need to share’ especially for those with leadership responsibilities, who must understand that in the network era, management is a role, not a career. Transparency is probably the biggest challenge for organizations today, and it can start with salary transparency.

5. sharing our knowledge = changing the environment so that sharing one’s knowledge does not put that person in a weaker organizational position. An effective knowledge worker is an engaged individual with the freedom to act. Rewarding the organization (network) is better than rewarding the individual, but only if people feel empowered and can be actively engaged in decision-making. Intrinsic, not extrinsic, motivation is necessary for complex and creative work.

Leadership & Learning

Those in leadership positions today must focus on learning.

Help the Network Make Better Decisions

Managers should see themselves as servant leaders. Managers must actively listen, continuously question the changing work context, help to see patterns and make sense of them, and then suggest new practices and build consensus with networked workers.

Improve Insights

Too often, management only focuses on reducing errors, but it is insight that drives innovation. Leaders must loosen the filters through which information and knowledge pass in the organization and increase the organizational willpower to act on these insights.

Provide Learning Experiences

Managers and supervisors may be vital for workers’ performance improvement, but only if they provide opportunities for experiential learning with constructive feedback, new projects, and new skills.

Focus on the Why of Work

Current compensation systems ignore the data on human motivation. Extrinsic rewards only work for simple physical tasks and increased monetary rewards can actually be detrimental to performance, especially with knowledge work. The keys to motivation at work are for each person to have a sense of Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness, according to self-determination theory. This is a network management responsibility.

Be Knowledge Managers

Leaders need to practice and encourage personal knowledge mastery throughout the network.

Be an Example

Social networks shine a spotlight on dysfunctional managers. Cooperative behaviours require an example and that example must come from those in leadership positions. While there may be a role for good managers in networks, there likely will not be much of a future for bosses.

The Network Era Shift

As we shift into a network era, existing institutions and markets are inadequate to deal with a connected world. New models need to be developed. We can learn much from what have been described as feminine characteristics of leadership. In the near future our organizations may likely become more networked and feminine. In this future companies, countries, and societies with a gender power balance will probably outpace patriarchal ones because innovation requires diversity. Innovation is not so much about having ideas as it is about making connections. But we cannot connect the dots if we are only paying attention to half of them (namely, men).

Human systems thrive on variety and diversity. Gender bias thwarts diversity. The network era workplace requires collaboration and cooperation because complex problems cannot be solved alone. Tacit knowledge flows in networks through social learning. In order to develop the necessary emergent practices to deal with complexity we therefore need to cultivate the diversity and autonomy of each worker. We also must foster richer and deeper connections which can be built through meaningful conversations. Gender bias, as well as other biases, blocks these connections and the resulting knowledge flows.

Organizations based on diversity, learning, and trust will be better prepared to hack uncertainty and hedge risks. Leaders will emerge who have access to a wide range of ideas and opinions from which they can learn. They will influence through their reputation, not position, to make their networks and communities stronger. The best leaders are constant learners.

connecting social networks communities and teams


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