Gary Hamel on his Management Innovation Exchange website has written a fine post on empowering natural leaders, contrasting the power of the internet with the power of formal hierarchies. Along the way, he writes:
The Internet is flat, open and meretricious. Nevertheless, there are thousands of natural hierarchies online. Pick any subject, search the blogosphere, and you’ll uncover a hierarchy of influence—some blogs receive higher authority scores than others. Visit any online discussion group and you’ll find that a few frequent contributors have been ranked more highly than the rest. Or click the “most viewed” tab on a website that features user-generated content, and you’ll quickly discover who’s been blessed with creative genius and who hasn’t. While the barometer of respect may differ from site to site, the rankings are nearly always peer-based. Online, you have millions of critics but you don’t have a boss.
Competition is a core value for American business culture, and from one slant it seems that what is happening with the net is not a democratization of our organizations so much as a transmutation of this same value. I’ve been aware for a long time that high tech cultures are often highly competitive around ideas. I was told one day at a big software firm, for example, that “here, if you can’t defend it, you really don’t have a right to say it.” Which is to say there’s underlying belief that somehow the best ideas will prevail as the product of aggressive debate. Ah, if only it were so. Aggressive debate easily leads to mind games, undermining, comparison, and dismissal, techniques that in turn lead to dominance of factions and control of another kind. Not much different, really, from an old style hierarchy where the ideas that dominate are those with formal power, vertically expressed. The point is that competition can be just as easily expressed horizontally, through power of an informal nature. Just because it’s lateral does not make it less destructive to human community.
By the way, I’m not suggesting that throwing differing ideas on the table is a problem. I’m only suggesting that there’s a big difference between conversations in which winning and losing are going on, and conversations in which synergy is going on. And synergy — the creation of outcomes larger than the sum of the components — happens in a particular kind of relationship field. One where winning and losing actually have no place among the people, where the collaborative assumption and underlying tone are that differences aim us toward discovery. I chided Gary about the MIX site itself, offering a contest with big rewards on the best ways to build trust in organizations. A contest? And how will a contest work? And sure, enough, if you view the “management hacks” on the site in this competition, you’ll see plenty of threads where people are fundamentally knocking one another’s ideas, intellectually outmaneuvering one another, the same old male order of matched wits arguing, “Well, look, if you’d just listen to me, you’ll see my ideas are the answer, or at least better than yours.” Where’s the “Wow, how could we put these ideas together!?” Indeed, I would ask, where?
I am certainly myself not immune. I got sucked right into the contest, busy promoting my own ideas and work, hoping others would see the value of what I’m doing. What I see now is selfishness and self-promotion, more individualism and less thinking for myself or living my meanings, and I’m not sure I would enter again, particularly where the issue is trust. In this regard, I like Gary’s use of the word, meretricious for the internet.
Guadalupe / Sante Fe
I believe we will have to search our hearts to find any true “management innovation.” And we’ll have to use our brains in an entirely different way. In my comment on Gary’s post I wrote, “The world isn’t going to be saved simply by the most powerful individuals or their best ideas but by the power and the ideas that we have found together.” I believe that. It is all too easy to run after these opportunities to compete as if they are the hen that lays the golden eggs.
I find myself contemplating how pervasive the need is to step back and to find a very different way.