This post is fourth in a series of my Social Media Principles. The base post is 10 Social Media Principles.
4. Decentralization is freedom – Decentralized power structures spur creativity, growth, and innovation.
Note: Writing a short blog post on this is like writing a short blog post on why it’s hard to cure addiction. I will nonetheless give it a shot. This is a blog post. A blog post. It may appear utopian. An Bui has posted on this topic as well from a more network effects perspective.
Technology changes the rules of governance.
– Robert Wright in Nonzero
Centralized power structures do one thing: centralize power. Centralized power tends to:
Hoard Information: When power is centralized it is hoarded. Power, as we’ve discussed, most often takes the form of access to information. As power is hoarded, so is information.
Restrict Decision Making: Centralized power also centralizes decision making. As fewer and fewer people are empowered to make decisions, fewer and fewer people feel they have control over their lives. As this happens, freedom is curtailed.
Curtail Movement and Access: As we have less information and less ability to make decisions, we are more likely not to “stray”. People who benefit from centralized power are more comfortable when they know where those who are controlled are and what they are doing.
Invoke Fear and Complacency: When we are in a situation where we have acquiesced to centralized power, we tend to protect ourselves by not “rocking the boat”. In such a situation a “team player” is not a person who benefits the team – it is a person who does not harm the team. Teams and their members become risk averse, innovation is stifled. (And soon you have a automaker bailout).
Decentralized power does the opposite, it takes the decision making from the central authority (C-Level staff, managers, party leadership) and places it where it has the best chance of success.
Decentralization tends to:
Distribute Information: A decentralized organization can only work well if the information involved in running the organization is available to those who need it and when they need it. (c.f. Information wants to be free: Jim Benson, An Bui)
Empower Decision Making: People won’t care about the information if they can’t do something with it. A decentralized organization should empower all people in the organization to make decisions that are reasonable and they are capable of executing. When people have this ability they, not surprisingly, feel more in control of their lives. They also feel more respected by the organization.
Encourage Movement and Access: Movement and access are important for any human being. We incarcerate prisoners partially to keep them away from other people, but mostly because having our freedom of movement taken from us is actually that shocking. Yet businesses repeatedly limit people’s movements. Not just by making them beg for things like vacation, but by limiting whom they can actually talk to within their own companies.
A decentralized organization allows freedom of movement and access. It allows freedom of association. This enables groups to form based on the rapid completion of critical tasks. Ad hoc groups in a company can form spontaneously, efficiencies and satisfaction result.
Invoke Creativity and Growth: Decentralized organizations foster growth and creativity because the game of the organization ceases to be “how do I not get fired around here?” and becomes “how can I make things work better for my team?” The absence of fear and complacency is a very strong motivator.
Most companies today are run on a very top-down Soviet style model. Autocratic, inflexible, and personality driven. This type of system is what led to the automaker bailout and most business collapse. People at the companies who are actually responsible for success are disempowered from making decisions or creating growth.
Social Media has shown us that the decentralization of power and information have led to very rapid advances in productivity and a very different set of assumptions about personal empowerment. People coming into the workforce now become very disgruntled very quickly because they’ve grown up with social media. They are used to being able to build teams quickly, execute projects quickly, and to fail often (and inexpensively) in the service of ultimate success.
Warning and Caveat:
Does this mean that organizations should have no leadership, rules of governance, or structure? Certainly not. Having the tens of thousands of Microsoft employees do whatever, when ever and with whomever would be foolish. It would be bedlam.
In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky has a great chapter entitled “Fitting Our Tools into a Small World”. In it he makes one major distinction, which I’ve paraphrased:
In a hierarchic command and control organization, nodes are imposed and have coercive power. In decentralized networks, nodes are connectors and have cohesive or connective power. (Jim Benson’s paraphrasing)
Decentralized networks still have structure and power. But structure is still necessary. Structure still rests on nodes. The structure of a small group should not be mirrored after the structure of the entire organization. (see my post on why scaling agile is like scaling a cherry.)
The purpose of nodes in a decentralized organization is to strengthen and not limit information flow. Managers and leaders provide coherence to the organization. The decentralized world is not a leaderless world. It’s merely a much freer world.
Blogged at My House in Seattle, WA