Hi. Just one last note on this RSS feed before switching over to the new website (and RSS feed). To continue getting my posts, you’ll need to visit http://alchemyofchange.net/and re-subscribe to the RSS feed.

Again, sorry for the inconvenience.

Hi. Just one last note on this RSS feed before switching over to the new website (and RSS feed). To continue getting my posts, you’ll need to visit http://alchemyofchange.net/and re-subscribe to the RSS feed.

Again, sorry for the inconvenience.

Hi. I’ve made some adjustments to Alchemy of Change that, I’m sorry to say, mean that you need to re-subscribe to its RSS feed. Please head to Alchemy of Change to re-add the feed. Sorry for the inconvenience.

“Networks  are voluntary connections between autonomous peers.”

Connected AutonomyOrganizations are autonomous when they have final say over their own future. People are autonomous when they have final say over their lives. I might be autonomous at home but not at work, by the way, just as I’m free to decide who I vote for in an election or what movie to watch this weekend but not to decide whether to merge my organization with another one. That latter type of decision is checked by an organizational reporting structure, so I’m not acting autonomously when I make it. Similarly, a division of a corporation isn’t autonomous because final say on important matters sits outside, in the parent corporation.

What does this have to do with networks? Hang on, we’re getting there – but first a word about relationships that are voluntary. As an employee, the connection I have with my organization is not voluntary – it’s part of an institutional hierarchy just like the corporate division that reports to its parent. These relationships are power relationships – institutional power relationships, to be specific. They’re not voluntary, and they’re usually backed up by the force of law through things like employment contracts and corporate bylaws.

Networks are an alternative organizational structure to hierarchies; not necessarily better, just different. You join them voluntarily and they connect you, not to a reporting structure, but to peers. Networks connect peers in ways that help them safely and voluntarily shed a little bit of their autonomy – just enough to be able to get work done together.

To illustrate, let’s talk about a partnership, a simple form of network that connects just two entities. True partnerships are between equals. When two people decide to marry or move in together, the resulting partnership is voluntary and between equals. When two firms decide the advantages of ongoing collaboration outweigh the costs of coordination, the resulting partnership is voluntary and between peers.

In true partnerships, the relationship between partners is definitely not a reporting relationship where one controls the other. It’s much more complicated and nuanced than that – just ask anyone whose been married or in a significant relationship for any real length of time. The same is true for partnerships between two independent companies.

It’s also important to note that if a third party were to force the collaboration, the connection between ‘partners’ wouldn’t be voluntary and they wouldn’t really be acting autonomously. In networks, there is no external controlling force. It’s not only the individual members of the network that are autonomous; the network itself is also autonomous.

Why is autonomy so important to networks? Because, as we’ll see in future posts, they run on a different set of principles than organizational hierarchies. Networks collapse when we use the wrong operating manual to run them. Networks aren’t the answer to everything. Many situations really are best solved by organizational hierarchy. Lots of good stuff has been written about working with hierarchies. You’ll find it in the “management and leadership” section of your favorite bookstore. In comparison, less has been written about networks, so that’s the focus here.

Understanding that organizations voluntarily give up a little bit of their autonomy in order to work together is a critical first step in understanding how networks function. How that happens and what that means is were things get a little more interesting…

Those of you who know me personally know that in April of this year I stepped down as executive director of my much beloved Groundwire. Those of you who know me well also know this was a very tough decision, and that I did it largely to be able to find time to write.

In 2004, I wrote a piece called “Movement as Network” which captured the imagination of a number of people in the social change community. Over the intervening years, I’ve wanted to follow up on many of the ideas that grew out of that work and my experiences at Groundwire. That is what I will be doing here at the Alchemy of Change blog.

What can you expect to find in this blog? Well, networks play a big role in how I see the world and I think a lot about organizations and how they engage people in their work. Democracy, innovation and sustainability are also key themes that you’ll find woven into much of what I write.

I’ll be trying to write in a modular format with lots of links to related posts so that after a few months there will be a nice little kernel of interconnected ideas for others to use in their work with organizations and networks.  Beyond that, I don’t know exactly where this will go.

Turning to writing has been a big step for me. This morning, while at a gathering for my son’s school a man asked me what I do for a living. After a few moments hesitation, I told him “I write. I am a writer.”

So, I guess I better get to it.

The Wall Street Journal just ran an interesting piece called The Power Trip that essentially says ‘nice’ people often rise to power in organizations – and are then corrupted by their position. Contrary to what Machiavelli espoused, it turns out that in today’s society people with good empathy and interpersonal skills often rise to the top.

“People give authority to people that they genuinely like.”

The more troubling part of the article, however, is what tends to happen to these same people when put in positions of power. In short, they lose empathy and their ability to make complex decisions – two of the key attributes that put them in power in the first place.

For those of you who’ve been in positions of authority before, you may recognize some of what this article outlines from your own personal experience.

Loss of empathy? Yeah, you might have experienced it as having to make a ‘tough call’ that really hurt someone who worked for you. It’s about watching out for the bottom line, or putting the mission above people – and sometimes it’s totally necessary. But often as boss it’s easy to put the task ahead of the relationship in an effort to eke out short-term goals. You often find the worst flavor of this behavior accompanied by some equivalent of  “nothing personal; it’s just business.”

Loss of decision clarity? For some bosses, there’s an enormous pressure to have all the answers. Over time and with added authority, we find ourselves valuing being decisive over making the right decision. Often, we end up getting our ego attached to our decisions in the process. On the plus side, we simplify and streamline our decision making processes to deal with the increased flow of decisions. The best bosses do this with a graceful mix of intuition and decentralized decision making authority. In short, they learn how to trust their people. Hiring great people is critical to success here.

The article talks about where unchecked power can lead. Lord Acton beat the authors to the punch in 1887 when he noted that:

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Not sure I agree. I’ve met some really good leaders in my life.

What I do agree with, however, is the punchline of this article. Transparency is the key to curbing the corruption that often comes with power.  Transparency is one of the fundamental forces for good in society and something worth injecting in all our institutions.

Finally got around to writing up my thoughts on the engagement pyramid, posted on the Groundwire website. There’s a lot more nuance here, which I hope to write about later. At least it’s a start for now.