Technology has changed our capacity for just about everything, but the deeper truth is that our culture is changing as well—including our behaviors and expectations as leaders and our purpose in work. Those who have figured out how to channel all this energy and appetite have access to a “new power” that can be used in new and extraordinary ways.
That’s the message of New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World—And How to Make it Work for You by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, which describes how participatory experiences are multiplying and affecting every part of our lives. The book speaks to a cultural undercurrent that challenges how modern organizations approach employee engagement, high-performing teams, cross-functionality and innovation.
Heimans and Timms lay out the differences between old power and new power:
Old power works like a currency. It’s held by a few. Once gained, it is jealously guarded, and the powerful have a substantial store of it to spend. It is closed, inaccessible and leader-driven. It downloads and it captures. (p. 2)
Old Power Values
- Formal (representative) governance, managerialism, institutionalism
- Competition, exclusivity, resource consolidation
- Confidentiality, discretion, separation between private and public spheres
- Expertise, professionalism, specialization
- Long-term affiliation and loyalty, less overall participation.
New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads and distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it. (p. 2)
New Power Values
- Informal (networked) governance, opt-in decision-making, self-organization
- Collaboration, crowd wisdom, sharing, open sourced
- Radical transparency
- Maker culture, do-it-ourselves ethic
- Short-term conditional affiliation, more overall participation
A Clash of Cultures
The “old power” mentality is so built into our organizational DNA that most can’t see any other way to manage other than through their established lines of authority (i.e., telling people what to do, delegating tasks, evaluating performance).
Whether it’s because they are unwilling to release this control over others or they’re not aware of another system of operation, they cling to these old power structures, which create a major blind spot.
The result is a clash caused by applying old-power solutions to new-power problems. Consequently, those problems don’t get solved because leaders can’t understand the root cause and effect. And even when corporations like GE champion “‘a radical shift in everyday working behavior’ toward collaboration,” they still cling to old-power solutions, such as restructuring, which only create more chaos throughout the organization.
Millennials have brought this visibility to the forefront, revealing major challenges in organizational effectiveness. Many simply won’t tolerate old power norms of command-and-control and leave when they’re not satisfied.
Consider the endless streams of content about motivating and engaging the millennial generation. Having grown up in this new power world, they understand it intuitively. When they enter old power organizations, they have difficulty reconciling the two models.
Alternatives are abundant, and even when compensation is substantially less, they’ll opt for the opportunity to have a greater impact, wear more hats, and receive the best mentorship.
So it’s not that we need to better understand millennials to foster boost engagement, but rather, we need to recognize that we’re following an outdated method of organizational operations based on old power values, which fail to harness new power’s undercurrent
Harnessing New Power in the Horizontal
Everything that occurs in an organization actually happens in the horizontal dimension (and not the vertical, where lines of authority are drawn). The horizontal realm captures how the organization fulfills its mission. It’s the entire process of how products and services get to market, and everything in between that makes that happen. This continuous flow requires cross-functional collaboration, innovation, and relationship-building to remain competitive.
In the horizontal dimension, you’ve left the world of old power and moved into a sphere where people need to collaborate because of far fewer authority-based relationships. Therefore, people (largely driven by millennials) have started figuring out how to collaborate on their own, which in turn cracks and corrupts old power systems.
Therefore, harnessing this new power does not happen by changing around who reports to whom, who has control or power over others, or where people are located within various spans of control.
Leadership Skills to Harness New Power
Harnessing new power requires reframing the concept of leadership because it’s no longer based on authority, but on how people are working together and treating each other. Because a leader’s value has traditionally been measured by her span of control and number of direct reports, organizations are struggling to reconcile existing leadership metrics with a new power model.
The old model of collecting input and informing subordinates of the decision simply won’t work anymore. New power structures demand that leaders let go of their positional power and develop skills that bolster collaboration, facilitation, mentorship, and partnership.
Ultimately, leaders who have developed the most influential relationships will be the ones that succeed.
The shift toward purpose-driven organizations and servant leaders is driving organizations to be more participatory. Some are forced to change because of crisis. Others are forward-thinking enough to know that this culture of success will make them more competitive.
Combining Old and New Power
New power structures aren’t a free-for-all, though. According to the authors, “it’s worth noting that while norms around collaboration and ‘sharing’ are now all the rage in our business and culture, that doesn’t mean they always produce better outcomes.”
All desired behaviors require boundaries, rules and parameters that establish structures for meaningful participation, and there’s no one-size-fits-all. Therefore, identifying the right balance of old and new power values is the key to harnessing this new power (or not).
The book presents a “New Power Compass,” a matrix that identifies combinations of old and new power models with old and new power values:
- Co-Opters (g., Facebook, Uber). Organizations with new power models that seem to live by old power values
- Castles (e.g., Apple, United Way, IRS, NSA). Organizations with old power models and values
- Crowds (e.g., Linkedin, AirBnB, Wikipedia). New power models that are highly decentralized and lack an organizational owner or traditional leaders
- Cheerleaders (e.g., The Guardian, Unilever, Patagonia). Organizations with old power models that embrace new power values
The following questions can help organizations identify where they currently fall on the above map—and provide insight into where they should operate:
- What is your state of being when they come into a team or customer/supplier relationship?
- Are you trying to control or constantly seeking win-win partnerships?
- Are you approaching leadership from a place of old power where one has a higher position and therefore is going to tell another what to do? Or are you approaching it from a new power perspective, where the goal is to collectively accomplish goals and to determine how to do so effectively and efficiently?
- How do we relate to each other in a way that supports participation from everyone in the most collaborative fashion?
New Power Is (Probably) Inevitable
Our basic human instinct is to cooperate, seek out solutions to complex problems, share ideas and build on them. The rise of new power is not only consistent with those instincts, but it’s also “shifting people’s norms and beliefs about how the world should work and where they fit in.” Old power values are often inconsistent with that, especially exerting power and control over others.
Fear is a motivator, but it also paralyzes collaboration, co-operation and co-creation, which is counterproductive in a knowledge-based workforce. Sixty-plus-year-old mindsets are hard to change, but it’s not impossible—it starts with recognizing that control is only an illusion and that we can only truly control ourselves.
Harnessing new power requires leadership to evolve their skills to emphasize facilitation, coaching and mentorship, and collaboration around resource allocation. Wielding this power effectively also calls for prioritization, which removes roadblocks and frees people to create around an established (and realistic) set of organizational priorities.
It’s not that old power values don’t have a place in a new power world. But leaders need to figure out where old power supports the current, instead of damming it up.