Two years ago I created a simple role-play card game called Game of Structure. After trying it out a couple of times it has been sitting idle, and what fun is that? So now I am making it available with this post.
The game is Creative Commons Attribution 4.0, so you may use it freely as long as you honor it’s origin. If there is enough interest I may go ahead and create a physical card deck based on this game.
What type of game is this?
The idea is to offer an experience of how a single hierarchy of fixed power roles can generate some common patterns of stuck attention, conversation and challenge that we frequently see in organizations. Often we spend a lot of time managing those conversations without seeing that some of them may emerge just from the power structure itself as a design choice. If we can experience that this may be the case we can talk about it and consider redesigning those structures rather than having to fix these challenges directly.
This game helps you see and experience some of the load of this extra complexity. Have fun!
Disclaimer – The game is fun as it is but I invite you to be a little careful when drawing conclusions from it – there may be some fallacies and traps! If you want to dive down this perhaps sensitive and deeper rabbit hole, read on through the second part of this blog post.
Power itself and any hierarchy is the problem
You may conclude that power is bad and that it is inherently wrong for somebody to be more powerful than somebody else. Accepting power would then be acknowledging this inequality as legitimate. The problem with this as I see it is that it misrepresents the source of power.
Personal power emerges from your skills, abilities, experiences, trustworthyness, reputation, self-awareness, personal influence in relation to your desires and needs, etc. Relative power between two human beings emerge from the dynamic relationship of these personal aspects. Context matters in that dynamic. You could say there is a natural shared interplay of powerfulness. This is something that is part of the human experience and won’t go away just because you want it to.
It is also a very human and positive thing to develop yourself, your relationships, your abilities and reduce your personal needs. When you do your personal power grows, formal or not.
As an alternative perspective, think of it this way. If power is bad then being powerless must be virtue. However, the powerless can not impact things that are important and clearly this is not desireable if you value creating good outcomes. Rejecting power itself therefore becomes a path to disowning responsibility for good outcomes.
Formalizing power is the problem
You may conclude that the formal part of the formal hierarchy is the problem. Let’s reduce this formality by reducing the number of levels in the hierarchy and make power as informal as possible, to feature the dynamic aspects of power. This is often the everyday practical approach in many “flat” organizations.
One of the main problems with designing for primarily informal power is that power tends to go underground into a social elite and you lose accountability. What you then get is an organization with transparency around a lot of things but in fact low transparency on how power is actually used. You can’t see who is actually calling the shots and if those shots are what is best for the organization.
It is true and an important point that large power distances inhibit collaboration and co-creation, but you need to deal with that by for example developing people and balancing access rather than over-compensating by outlawing formal power.
For those who want to read more about some of these fallacies and more I recommend this timeless article on the subject – The Tyrrany of Structurelessness (1970), by Jo Freeman.
My take – fixed power roles as identities worn by fixed persons is limiting organizations
Fixed power roles can work well and get you far, but I sense there is a glass ceiling that we are starting to feel.
I believe power needs to be openly and formally accessible, so that accountability can follow. But not as a once-and-for-all fixed role that one person has all the time. That is too rigid given the complexity and change that we operate in today. It also accounts very poorly for the fact that it is always a minority that first realizes that something has to change, but that minority is often not formally powerful. This creates tension where the person formally wearing the fixed role needs to be accountable for something that person does not see or is not capable of driving.
The resulting situation becomes one where the relationship of actual natural power and the formal, but idealistic, power expectations are reversed. This can be naturally felt by the body-mind subconsiously, which causes the tension. This pattern can scale and become part of the everyday organizational feel.
This is one reason that I believe that in complex environments fixed power roles are too much of a constraint to self-organization, necessary change and an authentic human experience. To me this is true not just in value-adding teams but in all organizational life including strategic governance where increasingly more people are needed to make sense.
And one single hierarchy is not enough. A single hierarchy – by design – aggregates multiple aspects of what is happening and what is needed into one narrow place – which increasingly in today’s organizations becomes a real bottleneck where too often power gets stuck. And to cope with this overburden at a human level, big decisions need to be made based on the level of mental abstractions and oversimplification.
In reality, all we can ever “see” at the system level is our local perspective based on how we participate. This puts real limits on the quality of single hierarchy governance.
At a design level I believe fixed power roles just don’t measure up as a solution to the problems we are beginning to see. Some example issues include that they are not context sensitive, they restrict the individual wearing the role, do not honor the dynamic human aspects of power interplay and struggle to enable concurrent dynamic change.
The world is a many to many network today. For the future of work I believe formal power needs access to the same level of connectivity and distribution.
Design ideas for the future
I believe we need a power model that accepts our multi-dimensional and dynamic concurrently hierarchial world, is formal but still very fluid, so we can build organizations that are formally governed in distributed and concurrently autonomous ways also on the “inside” (if there even is an inside).
I believe the solution may be to factor power formally coupled to the local organizational intent. I say primariliy to intent because organizations in general have an agentic bias in their purpose. So as a design problem, how can we make power formally accessible and claimable to “wield” by different people at different times given different contexts, in service of an agreed upon intent?
One way is to couple power with “totems” or “tokens” that are local to the work/intent. These could be claimed by ritual and used by individuals based on agreed upon protocols for that ritual (designed interaction). A similar approach can be to couple power with the physical or virtual world through locations as local hosts of specific work/intent. You would then participate locally at that location to wield power based on local protocols.
For situations where your surroundings are of key importance you would export a part of the need to make decisions to the larger strategic whole, and participate to wield formal power at that level in similar ways. By exporting only what you can’t make sense of to act on with power locally you avoid constitutional constraints where the larger whole limits the local, as constitutional constratints tend to both restrict potential and inhibit local accountability.
I think something like this could be a resilient way to scale such distributed – but formally powerful – organizational life.
If successful, this would lower the threshold significantly for different people to step in and out of formal power based on the need to do so and based on the level of trust given from their peers creating a much more powerful organizational model. It would also increase authenticity of participation, individually and collectively allowing people to thrive in organizations at the human level.
Wow, if you read all to this end of all this I hope you got something out of it. I realize this post is kind of long and may be a mouthful!
So help me out and let me hear what you think. I want to learn more about this too.