Power and Control

In the introduction to Wave Rider, the book that (even just in preview form) inspired my post on Monday, Harrison Owen refers to a Great Power Indeed, the CEO of a household-name corporation, who (according to Owen’s summary, anyway) built a large, high-performing organization not by micromanaging or wielding power, but by realizing he had no control.

There are waves of change,  but there are also powerful tides of tradition … and one of the strongest of those, I think, is the belief in power and control.  If someone has an important-sounding title, a large office, and the other trappings we associate with positional power, surely, we think, That Someone must have a lot of control over things … right?  That’s not just the 20th-century factory-dream, either; it’s the kingdom dream and the empire dream through the ages.  Position, power, and control … they must go hand in hand!  That’s why good, well-meaning people (including a lot of friends of mine) seek positions among the Powers That Be.  “I can make a real difference,” Ms. Z told me two decades ago.  “You might think you can, but you can’t,” said Ms. E, who had all but finished a doctorate in educational administration. “I realized eventually that I didn’t want to spend my life on books, buses, and bad boys.

And that’s the thing about power and position, at least in a hierarchical organization where people seek them eagerly.  The more grand-sounding the position, the less real control or influence you have over what’s really happening, day to day, where the organization meets its customers.  Good, passionate, well-meaning people like Ms. Z go into those impressive-sounding positions to make some changes … and then they discover, all too quickly, how little change they can make.  “I’m hoping,” said Mr. N the other day, “that the New Power in This Particular Area will do away with That One Thing.  It was a really good idea ten years ago, but it’s turned into a thing that we just do because we do it.”  And, in the process, it ate up hours of the Now Former Power’s time every week. She’d developed the idea herself, had nurtured it through its beginnings, had seen it take on a life of its own and then, as such things do, reach the end of its usefulness.  But even though she brought it to birth, she had no power or control to give it a dignified burial.

That happens all the time, in organizations large and small.  Something shows up on the calendar because it “always” did, and there’s “too much to cover” and “not enough time” to question whether it serves any purpose.  There “had to” be an activity-period schedule on Wednesday; it was the first Wednesday of the month.  And then there “had to” be a return to advisory groups at the end of the day, since report cards “had to” be distributed.  And there “had to” be Spirit Week this week, and the Special Culminating Event “has to” happen on Friday … and yet Ms. X and Mr. Y are moaning frantically about instructional time and my test scores and, perhaps most tellingly of all, the “bad, lazy kids” who “don’t even do the Spirit Week activities right.”  Or

The details change, but that’s such a common pattern in hierarchical organizations.  Managing the over-full calendar, taming the email in-box, and surfing the constant flow of paperwork … somebody has to do that, but then That Somebody is too busy to look at the bigger picture.

A friend sent me a link to Menlo Innovations and its founder, Richard Sheridan, and to his book called Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love.  From skimming over the introduction last night, I can tell this is an important book for our continuing conversation.  Mr. Sheridan, it seems, had spent years working inside the system in a large, conventionally-organized software development company … doing good work, but hating the process and the structure.  So, eventually, he decided to build something different and better, something where joyful community rather than power and control would serve as the organizing principle.   And it seems people come from all over to their headquarters (in the lower level of a parking garage, of all places!) to see how that works.

That gives me hope for the future and the present.

The novice and intermediate branches of the Latin Family will be looking at “new things” today, things we previewed briefly on Wednesday as we finished our Minor Assessment presentations.  The odd, but important words decet and oportet are our focus in Tres Columnae Lectiō IX, while imperfect-tense verbs begin to appear regularly in Lectiō XXIII.  The upper-level group will finish their Minor Assessment presentations; those of us who finished yesterday will be reading parts of Book IV of the Aeneid, and all of us, over the next few weeks, will be exploring the themes of heroism and the conflict between personal desire and calling or duty.  It’s hard to think about those themes, of course, in a factory-setting … but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

As a busy day is about to begin, a day when themes of power and control will surely be important, I’m thinking about the intersections between the factory-approach to control and the self-organizing ways that a joyful learning community controls and manages itself.  I wonder what other new insights and discoveries this busy day will bring!

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Published in: on April 3, 2014 at 10:51 am  Leave a Comment  

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