How Are The Currencies of Power Changing?

After almost 40 years working in organizations of all shapes and sizes, first as an employee and then as a consultant, I’ve witnessed first hand how much of an influence the distribution of power can have for joy at work. More recently, I can see how the distribution of power can shape my value and impact as an Agile coach.

What do I mean by “power”?

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition that best captures my meaning is the “possession of control, authority, or influence over others”.

How was this power granted or accumulated in the past? I can think of several ways.

  • Birthright
  • Position
  • Network
  • Resources
  • Opportunity
  • Ability
  • Experience
  • Information
  • Mindshare
  • Heart-share

Imagine for a moment that each of these ways to garner power represents a currency that could be used to control or influence others. Each with a value that fluctuates according to scarcity and demand.

What has happened to the value of these power currencies over time? A timeline punctuated by periods of great technological upheaval and change.

In prehistoric times, resources like fire and your network of clan or tribe members gave you power. The power to survive and ward off predators was top of mind.

During the Middle Ages, your birthright and position in society gave you power. Silver spoons were scarce. Those who were born with one in their mouths ruled the day.

During the Industrial Age, opportunity, ability and experience were added to the power mix. Anyone possessing those power currencies thrived independent of birthright or class. Those who didn’t resigned themselves to towing the line of conformity. The rise of Taylorism and Scientific Management rallied the value of positional authority and control above most of the other power currencies.

During the early part of the Information Age, information did not flow easily. It existed in hard copy documents or in MIS (Management Information Systems) and it trickled slowly topdown, curated at the discretion of management. Maybe that’s why the term Management Information Systems was used? Management seemed to be the information gatekeeper. Information was power. Those who had the information, held it close to their vests, hoarding it and the power that went along with it. Using it to curry favour and maintain power.

As information became democratized with the introduction of personal computers and the internet, information digitally flowed everywhere to everyone. The antiquated MIS term was replaced with IT (Information Technology) perhaps signalling the emancipation of information from management. With the advent of social media, information alone was no longer power as it became a commodity. We all had information. So much information a simple Google and mouse click a way. We’ve become overwhelmed with discerning what to believe and what not to believe. The value of information as a power currency has fallen. Now, it’s more about what each of us can do with that information to generate novel insights and ideas that gather power in the form of mindshare and heart-share. Measured in social metrics such as “# of Followers” and “# of Likes”, mindshare and heart-share have become the most valued and strongest power currencies of the day. Those power currencies have levelled the playing field for everyone. No matter if you’re young or old, rich or poor. We can all wield power.

As agile practitioners, how have the values of these power currencies in organizations impacted our agility efforts?

I have observed a number of impacts both negative and positive.

  • Position within the organizational hierarchy remains strong as a power currency. However, it’s a double-edge sword. Along one edge are those who continue to subscribe to Taylorist thinking taking all the joy out of work for most people. Along the other edge are those who don’t think twice about giving away control to those doing the work. Unfortunately, the former is still the majority hampering efforts to create truly autonomous, cross functional teams.
  • Networks, especially the informal networks that reside at the water cooler, in the corridors and in the white space of organization charts are especially valuable. Often giving credence to the phrase “It’s not what you know but rather who you know” that gets things done. Networks are agile-friendly as they enable and promote collaboration.
  • Ability, capabilities and skills are slowly winning against the rigidity of job titles. The almost universal acceptance of cross-functional teams has supported this. Agile team members are beginning to leave their HR job titles at the team room door.
  • Most large organizations I’ve worked with, still tightly manage the transparency and flow of information. However, agile team members are starting to push the envelope by questioning the lack of transparency. They argue they need the visibility so that they can deliver value.
  • People who have adopted an agile or growth mindset have also raised the value of both the mindset and heart-set power currencies. An agile mindset have given them implicit power to always challenge the status quo. They’re all in – mind, heart and soul.

Which power currencies will prevail in a post pandemic and post Agile world?

I’m excited to see.

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