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Extremely Powerful Organizations

New Work and Agile always seem to imply that you need to mellow. It pitches the evil organizational hierarchy against the inventive, social human individual. Like it’s a matter of picking a position on a scale between despotic hierarchy and an egalitarian self-managed organization.

Given the abundance of oppresive hierarchies and bad bosses – attested by the fact that only about 12-15% of people declare themselves truely engaged at work the give people more say in organisations is very understandable. But it is wrong in a critical aspect.

Agile and New Work seems to imply to transfer power from managers to the people, through more participation, empowerment, more transparency and devolution of decision making to individuals and groups. Like power is a zero-sum game: Either managers have it or coworkers have it.

Here comes the snag:

Power is not a zero-sum game. Just transferring it from managers to people might make coworkers more powerful, to ease the weight of oppression from their shoulders, but might not change anything about the power of the organization. #liberatedcompany

More self-management is certainly better for the creativity, engagement, learning, experimentation and growth of people but it has its own defects: Indecisiveness, political behaviors, lack of strategic behavior of the overall organization, diffusion of organizational focus.

A simple transfer of power from the hierarchy to the people doesn’t help much. It just trades one set of limitations for another. Granted, these are other limitations, which might be helpful for some organizations, seeking, for example more creativity and willing to sacrifice focus. However, organizations can do better, much better.

What if it is possible to increase the power of an organization while simultaneously increasing the power of the people? Welcome to the Liberated Company. #liberatedcompany

Let me explain. The power of an organization is the higher, the more it is able to focus all its resources, behaviors, processes, systems on its targets and re-focus them with lightning speed to market or strategic needs. This is a bit like having a Steven Jobs at the helm, who used Apples resources by laser focus and strategic foresight. However, a powerful organization is more than about having a powerful leader, it’s about having extremely powerful bureaucratic processes at work, in all or most parts of the organization: Logistics, HR, Sales, Purchasing, Manufacturing, Finance etc.

The other, largely independent dimension is the power of the people. It is the higher, the more people are able to express themselves, are able and willing to speak up freely, are able to experiment and pick their work according to their intrinsic drives.

Where most people go wrong is to think that powerful organizations invariably suppress people. While there are despotic organizations, where fear is the dominant feeling inundating the organization, there are other organizations that have extremely able, powerful organizations and at the same time are a place where people can freely flourish, in all the many ways they chose to.

Healthy companies only exist in a narrow corridor, that allow for both, a powerful organization and powerful co-workers at any level.

Extremely powerful organizations are always struggling to keep in the narrow corridor. If they increase the power of the organization too much, for example by tolerating despotic managers or overbearing bureaucracies, people will retreat into their inner self’s and go into survival mode. Any increase in organizational power needs to be flanked by an increase in power by the people. Two examples might help to understand this concept.

Take the introduction of new work processes. It is no secret that work processes, however brilliantly designed, are likely to fail if people at work level do not feel the need for them. To push processes on people will just lead to people circumventing them. People don’t like change – they dislike being changed.

Or think about a company deciding to pivot to a new strategic direction. Many companies arrange “change programs to roll-out a new strategy to get buy in of people”. Like a recruiting officer skimming the streets of London to enroll new army recruits in the Victorian Age. Companies engaging with people after all important decisions have been made, will likely end up with outward compliance and inward apathy or resignation.

The fact is: Organizations can only be truly powerful, if they have both: Powerful, bureaucratic institutions delivering great services to customers and employees efficiently AND powerful coworkers, who have a real say in the company, are highly motivated to speak up and communicate their true attentions. #liberatedcompany

On the other hands, if organizations increase the power of people too much, neglecting the focusing capabilities of the organizational bureaucracy, they end up with a social collective of people that engage in all kinds of political behaviors, which are not necessarily helpful for a company’s mission.

It is a matter of balance. The corridor in the middle is where what I call Liberated Companies exist. Hugely successful companies like Haier, world’s leading manufacturer of household appliances, Bridgewater, world’s most succcessful hedgefund or Buurtzorg, a trailblazing care company – just to name a few.

Liberated Companies manage to turn on the power of their central institutions while simultaneously enable coworkers to flourish. #liberatedcompany

Don’t mellow. Turn up the power!


There is more to Liberated Companies, they:

  • strive to put themselves on the trajectory of technology
  • use more self-managed and networked structures
  • are build around a central theme
  • evolve their work designs to create ever better versions of itself
  • manage to turn on the power of their central business functions while enabling people to flourish

A liberated company is conscious of its own work designs, the implications that these have on human behavior, human growth, and economic results. #liberatedcompany

Interested? If you like to learn more, sign-up for “Liberated Company”. You will receive regular updates my upcoming book about configuring progressive organizations.

And: Spread the word, if you like the concepts here or on www.liberated.company.

P.S. My book “Liberated Companies Flourishing Organizations in the Digital Age” will launch by end of November.

Sources

  • The Gallup Studies of Global Employee Engagement
  • Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (2019) The Narrow Corridor
  • Amy Edmondson (2018) The Fearless Organization