What’s more important? People or structures?

If you look at any great change, in your organization, in history, and you ask people to describe who this happened, most likely you will get one of these two stories:

Story 1.

It’s all about the people: There was this inspired leader, or evil man, or group of passionate individuals, or conspirators, or clever people, who came up with this grand idea who made all of this happen. If you wanted it to happen again, you would have to find the right people again and that’s the only way it would work. This would be an inspirational story (or a gruesome one, if the leader was an evil one) about the power of one but it would also leave you a bit at a loss in the question of how you learn from this for another similar situation.

Story 2.

It’s all about the structure: The time was right, there was a new law, technical invention, financial incentive, change in weather pattern, means of transportation, political system and all of a sudden, people (like sheep) had no choice but to change how they were doing things, it only made sense. The story sounds logical and convincing, enchantingly simple. It holds the promise that, if you want to replicate it, you just have to change the structure in the same way and everything will fall into place.

But have you ever wondered: Which one, now, is the true story? How come the same event can be told in these very different ways? Or do you hear the stories and it’s very easy for you to decide which one is a true account of what happened? If you know exactly which one is the true story, that might make you feel very clever. But beware, being very sure of something is often not a sign of high intelligence but rather of strong bias. You will get much closer to the truth if you don’t just enjoy this feeling of “I’m so clever” but rather explore your bias a bit further and see what other people (with other biases) have to say. The fact that both, the people and the structure story sound so convincing to so many people, can either mean: Half of the people are clever (obviously, the ones who share my view), the other half is stupid. Or it means: Both stories are true. If you combine thinking about people and structures you will gain a far deeper insight into what actually happened. And you double your options for changing the world. Because depending on what your levers are, you can work on both, putting the right people in place, connecting and enthusing them AND changing the structures in which they operate.

When we draw Net-Maps and discuss them, we often jump between talking about individual agency and talking about structure. The network connections (e.g. flows of money, hierarchy, friendships, conflict) tell you a lot about the structure and by mapping out the whole system you can get some insights about incentives and patterns that you would’t see by just talking about inspirational leadership. But when we discuss how influential individual actors are (influence towers) and explore what their goals and specific connections in the network are, and how they use them, we often talk very concretely about the way that individuals lead, disturb, interact, build trust, follow a vision etc. Bringing groups who work together around the table to discuss people and structures can have amazing effects. Because typically group members would either lean toward story 1  or story 2. Opening up to the idea that both stories are true and valuable can bring teams closer together and help them develop far more powerful strategies.

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