The Previous Item
I had always wanted to write a book that helps everyone understand design. It was on my bucket list for a very long time. When I was an editor in a publishing house, I wondered why there are no such books (which is not true, of course).
By the time I was confident enough to actually start planning for it, Scott Berkun had announced his project, which turned out to be the brilliant How Design Makes the World. I would have done a much worse job. Box checked.
So what’s the next item on my bucket list? Along came some great thoughts and conversations, specifically, Peter Merholz’s post and Scott Berkun’s. Both hit right where I have been thinking for a long time.
The Thing Which Shall Not Be Named
The next item on my bucket list is “power.”
Most of us intuitively know what it is, just like we intuitively know what design is. However, knowing is not the same as understanding. The former is about what, the latter informs how.
Our frustrations in organizations large and small surely have many sources (design being one?). But perhaps the numbest of all is felt by people who are hopeful enough to persist, but who are paralyzed by their inability to act.
The conventional perception of a “large org” is that of one filled with idiots, lazy bones, and greedy executives. That’s a myth propagated by a villain mindset, which says bad intentions lead to people doing bad things.
Contrary to what many choose to believe, large orgs are full of intelligent, passionate, and hopeful people who are struggling. And in more cases than we’d like to imagine, it’s good people with good intentions end up doing bad things.
Bestselling business/management books like to attribute those problems to culture, leadership, and everything in between. However, few of them mention power in any meaningful sense. It’s as if power dynamics doesn’t matter.
Of course it does. In organizations, especially large ones, any conversation is friendly and constructive until the word “power” is mentioned. So what’s so significant about power? Power is in everything we do in any organization.
Power matters a lot in just about any organization. I believe part of the issue is that, the majority of people in large orgs — working-level employees and grudging middle management — know what power is about, but don’t necessarily understand it.
That’s my damning statement: most of us, myself included, know enough about “power” to react in tactical ways, but don’t understand it enough to address it in strategic ways, make informed decisions, and to take action accordingly.
We often say that, in a large org of bureaucracy we learn to “play the political game.” But to really play a game, chess for example, we not only need to know the rules, but also need to understand it enough to create strategies.
If you’re in a large org, frustrated by your management’s inability to push for change, or by your own inability to take action: what strategy do you have in mind to move forward and deal with the power dynamics? Where do you go from here?
Form Follows Function, Power Follows Right
That’s the question we are only able to attempt answer when we gain deep understanding of the concept, incarnation, and phenomenon of power in organizations. Unfortunately, Machiavellian chicken soup on the bookshelf doesn’t cut it.
Until practiced, all talks about empowerment are merely linguistic illusions, which is a polite way of saying “paying lip service.” Many of us know one or two executives who maneuver like magicians, one trick after another, with applauses.
We like (or hate) to talk about empowerment, empowering people, empowering employees, among many proverbial keynote speeches and leadership updates. But we know better. We know it’s all empty talk without addressing power.
Why is that? Because power goes hand-in-hand with rights. It doesn’t matter what your boss say about empowering you, because at the end of the day, you only need to know four things to do any piece of work given to you:
First, do you have the right to suggest? Second, do you have the right to resolve conflict? Third, do you have the right to intervene? And fourth, do you have the right to decide? Those are the rights that shape the power structure.
Six types of power emerge from those four basic rights: participatory power, consultatory power, legal power, bureaucratic power, managerial power, and executive power. Where do your frustrations point to?
What types of power are in your way? And what are on your side? Those are the questions you need to attempt answer if you want to push for change and make a difference in an organization filled with people acting out those powers.
The notion of power is significant to all of us also because of another familiar one: corruption. But, you might interrupt: aren’t you saying good people with good intentions end up doing bad things?
I was inspired by Lawrence Lessig’s books on the notion of “institutional corruption.” Although his context is specifically more about the United States and government, I’ve definitely seen and heard about similar things going on elsewhere. So what about it?
Basically, there are at least two types of corruption. The first is “a corruption by individuals. It involves an individual crossing a moral or legal line. It is corruption only if the individual knows he is crossing a moral or legal line. It is doing wrong.”
So, “[i]f corruption can predicate of an individual (‘Cunningham is corrupt.’), it can predicate of an institution, too (‘Parliament is corrupt.’).” It is this second type of corruption that matches what I said previously about good people:
“A corrupt institution is not just an institution with a bunch of corrupt individuals. Indeed, whether an institution is corrupt or not is not directly tied to the corruption of individuals with it. An institution could be corrupt even if no individual within it was corrupt. And an institution could be not corrupt even if it is filled with corrupt individuals. The two ideas are distinct, and it just a confusion to try to reduce the one to the other.”Lessig, Lawrence. Republic, Lost: Version 2.0. Grand Central Publishing.
In fact, it shouldn’t surprise us at all that, more often than not, instead of a bunch of villains doing bad things, it’s actually a bunch of good people with good intentions end up doing bad things.
A specific form of institutional corruption is “dependence corruption.” Dependence corruption is about confidence, which is a critical element of any democracy. Who we vote to represent us in a democratic government partly depends on the confidence we have in the candidate.
Confidence, like democracy, is also about feeling:
“Referendums and elections are always about human feelings, not about human rationality. If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights—or perhaps any voting rights at all.”Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Some dependencies, potential or factual, erode our confidence in either the organization or the powerful people who are in charge of it. Or both.
Imagine I am a senior executive in a large org, and imagine my next obvious career option lies largely in the salivating consulting industry. I can easily imagine myself being a senior executive in a famous consulting firm. Consulting firms love top executives like me and my connections and knowledge.
Let’s also assume that my org does lots of business with those aforementioned big consulting firms. Here’s the question: how confident would you be about the impartiality of my decision-making, when you know my career options depend on pleasing (or at least not offending) any of those big consulting firms?
That indirect dependency may erode your confidence in me. What if I knew what’s best for the org, but I really don’t want to piss off that consulting firm I’m eyeing to land a role in later? How could you tell I’m being impartial in my decision-making?
In most large orgs, there are many instances of such “dependence” corruption alive and hidden in plain sight. As the old saying goes, “it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Likewise, it is difficult to get someone to put the interest of the org over his own, when the latter depends on pleasing or at least not offending other orgs or people who, in turn, put their own interest over his org.
Power as Taboo
Eventually it all comes back to what Scott Berkun, Perter Merholz, and many others often say: communications, relationships, education, persuasion, and commitment.
Well, how about power? As Scott Berkun puts it in How Design Makes the World:
What makes good or bad design happen anywhere depends on who has the most power.Berkun, Scott. How Design Makes the World . Berkun Media LLC.
Often there’s more than one person in power, and it’s their capacity to collaborate that defines what’s possible.
People in power often prioritize their own interests, which means good design to them is that which helps them protect their power. The concerns of the people who will deal with the consequences […] are secondary at best.
…the limitations of an organization’s politics are expressed in the design of the things they produce.
Communications, relationships, education, persuasion are only as good as how much we understand and engage politics, and essentially, power. Yet, it seems that, more often than not, nobody wants to talk about power in organizations.
An Accessible Book for Understanding Power
I have a dream that one day on the bookshelf there’s a book that helps everyone understand power, and especially power in organizations.
There are generally two types of books on the shelf: chicken soup books that sell unproven, unscientific recipes for political tactics (example: The 48 Laws of Power), and pedagogical/academic literatures that expect you to read full-time over a long period of time (I dare you to read Power and Organizations or The SAGE Handbook of Power).
Both types of books are barriers to helping the rest of us understand power.
So here’s the next item on my bucket list: a concise and accessible book that helps everyone understand power.
Who knows, maybe one day Scott Berkun would decide to write such one, and he’d probably do a far better job than I could ever do. Until then, I’m working on it.
 Lessig, Lawrence. Republic, Lost: Version 2.0. Grand Central Publishing.
 Berkun, Scott. How Design Makes the World . Berkun Media LLC.