26 February 2011

Lessons From Wisconsin

Governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker’s, vicious attacks on public sector labour unions are apparently dividing public opinion in the state, and further hardening the polarized divisions (no, not a snide reference to the state’s weather) that serve the private interests of major Tea Party backers. That this entire episode is a cynical, political manipulation that has no intention of serving the authentic and legitimate interests of the people of Wisconsin has recently come to light.

Before I continue, I need to state a disclaimer: I am anti-union in any reasonable workplace. I am also anti-management in any reasonable workplace. Both traditional labour unions and traditional command-and-control, legitimated management (with its associated privilege) are obsolescent artefacts of a prior era, in my opinion.

Now, with that out of the way let me state a truism:
Management create the unions they deserve;
Unions create the management they deserve.
Oppressive, dysfunctional workplaces that are held together by the letter of the collective agreement are always predicated on the ideation of a privileged management keeping unionized workers at bay, rather than a more contemporary ideal of collaborative engagement amongst all members of a workplace, creating a multi-valence incentive for workers to have more skin in the game than merely their pay cheque. One of the most salient, and little noticed, observations that came out of the recent bailout of the auto companies was the realization by union leaders that they now had to take on some of the reality responsibilities formerly delegated upwards to management, and they didn't like it. Why not? Creating such a holistic engagement with the organization compromised union leaders’ ability to make demands solely for the benefit of one privileged class – the unionized workers – over other classes, namely, all of the organization’s other constituencies. This realization illustrates a key point: to create engaged and committed workers, and interested (notably not self-interested) management, all of the organization’s constituent parties must equally and equitably participate in creating a truly collaborative environment, based on commonly constructed and emergent values, and a shared sense of the organization’s tactility.

What’s happening now in Wisconsin is a travesty. A privileged class takes out their supposed fiscal frustration on an underclass, falsely blaming the underclass for structural failings that the privileged themselves created. In response, the underclass is forced to protest, looking like a mob while the elites can claim the so-called high road of supposed fiscal responsibility. What is happening reinforces the apparent necessity for militant, union-vs-management confrontations, widens the gap between privileged and marginalized, polarizes the population, and necessarily increases the level of dysfunction and malicious compliance among organizations. Governor Scott Walker is wrong! wrong! wrong! and not because unions are de facto good, bad, or indifferent. He is wrong because, in the name of fiscal prudence, he is destroying the fabric of organizational effectiveness for the people of Wisconsin through an artificially forced polarization of issues, and his unwillingness to be reasonable himself in favour of cynical, partisan political ends that serve only the American oligarchy.

Although it may be easy to gratuitously criticize unions for their contributions to dysfunctional workplaces, I formed my opinions concerning the obsolescence of unions in reasonable, contemporary workplaces based on my research and writing on Valence Theory. I will admit that my visceral response to union dysfunction was informed during my graduate work, when I was forced to participate in a single-voice union whose radical politics were partially funded by my earned income. This was in a “workplace” that, in fact, was an academic environment in which the “employer” comprised our professors and academic supervisors, our “wage” was our university-provided graduate stipend, and our “benefits” were those afforded to all graduate students, irrespective of whether they had a union “job” or not. What the union sought to do was divide the students, seeking privilege for one class of students – those whom the union represented – while giving a big F! YOU to another. (Many graduate students at OISE were excluded from certain extended health benefits for years because the union provided benefits to its members who consistently blocked the referendum that would extend benefits to all students.)

In other words, a case of a privileged elite keeping everyone else down for their own benefit. Sound familiar? Unions and management are essentially mirror images of each other in almost every workplace. Reflect on this observation when considering closer to home (in my case, Toronto) issues such as eliminating city worker unions through service outsourcing, or how Bob Kinnear and his Amalgamated Transit Union 113 with its texting, sleeping, and sometimes downright hostile operators (not all of them – there are many fine and conscientious TTC operators) are a Frankenstein-like creation of TTC management, commissioners, and Toronto City Hall.

Unions are essential when the workplace would otherwise deal unfairly and inappropriately with the people who constitute them. Management who might want to eliminate unions can effectively and successfully accomplish this laudable goal by ceding their own power and authentically engaging all workers in participatory management and leadership practices.

15 February 2011

Leaderless, Not really. Emergent Leadership, Yes. Complex, Referent Leadership, (In)definitely!

Tunisia’s uprising and Egypt’s revolution, as well as the growing public unrest and heroic demonstrations elsewhere in the generally totalitarian-ruled Middle East, are often described as leaderless. Unlike, say, the Russian Revolution that helped define geopolitics in the modern era, there are no equivalents to Bolsheviks in Tunis, Cairo, Tehran, or Sana’a (Yemen); no Lenin or Trotsky out in front of the people spurring a disaffected proletariat to rise up against a privileged bourgeoisie. Contemporary technology that enables a UCaPP world has been both overly credited and debunked as a causal factor. Nonetheless, the use of so-called social media has loomed large in both the collective imaginations of the Western public and the conventional massmedia as a key influencer in what appears to be the characteristic attribute of contemporary revolutionary movements—that they seem to be without leaders.

University of Maryland sociology professor, Zeynep Tufekci, has a stellar analysis of the sociological factors of network-enabled revolutions, and why they don’t stay leaderless for long; it’s well worth the read. In particular, she describes two common behaviours of collections of people – human nature, you might call it – of how some individuals emerge to acquire leadership positions (preferential attachment), and how these individuals, once comfortably ensconced in their privileged leadership position, do almost anything they can to retain their privilege (the Iron Law of Oligarchy): Basically, take an organization. Any organization. Stir a bit. Wait. Not too long. Watch a group of insiders emerge and vigorously defend their turf, and almost always succeed. Example one could be Western democracies.

A very similar phenomenon occurs in start-up companies that initially grow “organically” (by which I mean something very specific). There is an overarching feeling of shared vision, shared sensibilities, shared values, and shared volition to action. It is this shared-ness that provides the impetus for both a start-up organization to achieve its requisite critical mass to sustain its critical first few years, and for a revolution to achieve its requisite critical mass of popular support to sustain its first dictatorship overthrow. In an organizational context, I describe this shared-ness or collectiveness as ba, specifically, organization-ba:
As the ba-form relationships become more pervasive throughout an organization, and interact with more complexity among the members, a greater sense of collaborative community, with common sensibility, appreciation of context, and volition to action develops. This unity and coherence I describe as “organization-ba,” a pervasive, encompassing basho [metaphysical “place”] that is a crucial, if not determining, emergent property of UCaPP organizations. The connection to Adler and Heckscher’s description of collaborative community becomes clear if organization-ba is construed as Weber’s suggested “value rationality.” In this, an environment of organization-ba becomes the enabling cause that yields “contribution to the collective purpose, and contributions to the success of others” (Adler & Heckscher, 2006, p. 39)*.

Referent leadership emergent from amidst organization-ba is a beautiful thing. I argue that referent leadership is significantly stronger (that is, more influential, persistent, and motivational to the membership) than legitimated leadership could ever be—think Gandhi, Mandela, or King, for example. Nonetheless, there is the matter of oligarchy’s iron law to which Tufekci refers. Indeed, I observed this occurring in near real time in one of my research participant organizations. It occurs to me, however, that the so-called iron law is one of those sociological artefacts of a prior (i.e., pre-UCaPP) cultural epoch that became well-entrenched in modernity. Like the epochal changes that preceded our time, rusting away of this iron law will take some not-insignificant time—some three centuries by my estimation.  

But it is possible with deliberation and energy!

Although, realistically, there is a snowball’s-chance-in-the-Sahara that some sort of privileged, oligarchic leadership will not emerge in Egypt, transformation of traditional organizations towards emergent referent leadership, and the continuity of a start-up organization’s “special sauce” is indeed quite possible. Just as Weber’s iron cage of bureaucracy can be undone by his notion of Wertrationalit├Ąt, sociology’s iron law of oligarchy can potentially be undone through organization-ba in the complex environment of an organization conceptualized in Valence Theory.

One more thing: We are now in the 167th year of the (roughly) 300-year transition from the prior cultural epoch – McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy – to a fully UCaPP-realized world. A very few organizations are taking on increasing aspects of organization-ba to successfully become more-UCaPP organizations. Others are struggling to retain many of the UCaPP characteristics that originally made them great. Over the next fifty or so years, I fully expect the majority of organizations to become more UCaPP than BAH, as a generation of adults that never didn’t know the effects of massive interconnectivity take up their respective roles among workplaces around the world. Within the next century, I fully expect that there will be a popular political uprising against the oligarchic oppressions of traditional, Western democracy that will yield the very first instance of political governance based on complex, continually emergent, referent leadership. And that will truly be a beautiful thing indeed.

10 February 2011

What makes a Social Entrepreneur?

William Marre describes the differences between business entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs. What occurs to me in listening to his passionate description is that, fundamentally, the differences in entrepreneurial approaches are consistent with the differences between BAH and UCaPP. Business entrepreneurs focus on developing and executing a deterministic plan, one that they will control and drive, guided by extrinsic evaluations and quantitative measurements. Social entrepreneurs, on the other hand, appreciate and harness the power of complexity, realizing that sustainable success in the contemporary world is often a matter of emergence and organic (read literally as living) growth. He expresses it like this:
It's a very sophisticated trial and error approach. You try a lot of things and discard what isn't working. You head for the green lights and the open doors. And you amplify what is working. And you're persistent over a long period of time.

You have to be passionate.
You have to be committed.
You have to be flexible.
You have to be very aware of what is working and what isn't.
And it has to be really worth it to you.

Most of all, they're unafraid to do something right now.
You can feel his passion and commitment as he speaks.



(Thanks, Raza Moghal!)

07 February 2011

Governing by Design

Seed Magazine has a thought-provoking article on the application of design principles to governance, as part of their "global reset" series. One paragraph in particular caught my eye concerning the "radical thinking, creative solutions, and collaborative action" required to address the complex and often intractable problems that face both the world at large, and organizations in transformation. I offer it as a challenge to UCaPP leaders to truly incorporate these practices, outlined in the Seed article, into their day-to-day business:
This design approach would be:
  • transparent (complex problems require simple, clear, and honest solutions);
  • inspiring (successful solutions will move people by satisfying their needs, giving meaning to their lives, and raising their hopes and expectations);
  • transformational (exceptional problems demand exceptional solutions that may be radical and even disruptive);
  • participatory (effective solutions will be collaborative, inclusive, and developed with the people who will use them);
  • contextual (no solution should be developed or delivered in isolation but should instead recognize the social, physical, and information systems it is part of);
  • and sustainable (every solution needs to be robust, responsible, and designed with regard to its long-term impact on the environment and society).
A useful guide for a leader's periodic self-reflection and check-in, to be sure!