Risky projects need the “electricity” of heterarchies

The business people didn’t show up to the meeting. They’d been invited to come and talk with IT about the new BI project and in the same stroke help launch it.

This is one of the first stories I ever heard about BI. Though daddy of data modelers Steve Hoberman didn’t say what happened next, I can imagine: all the usual suspects in business were soon rounded up for a later attempt.

The usual suspects are almost always the ones with positional power, the ones with staffs and budgets. But an article in a recent strategy+business magazine says that sometimes—such as when creating a politically risky new system, such as in BI, where powerful people fear embarrassment—what matters most is trust. Yes, an old story, but for once there’s a prescription.

Trust and authority don’t always go together like horse and carriage. Imagine a do-nothing VP who won the job with her Wharton MBA but who’s bailed out every day by a competent, trusted manager. (The VP’s only known contribution: “Be proactive, not reactive.”) I saw it, and you’ve probably seen things like it.

Author Karen Stephenson writes, “An ambitious undertaking is almost guaranteed to fizzle if it relies on people whose chief qualification is a high place in the pecking order. Whenever change is on the agenda, the power of relationships trumps the power of position.”

Trouble is, the most trusted and well connected people often fly below the radar. How do you find them? Finding them was part of Stephenson’s job as she she helped set up a group of citizens in the then-demoralized Philadelphia. The city had suffered a “40-year slide into economic lethargy and political corruption.”

In stage one, she amasses a a list of nominations, a “snowball sample.” She looked for referrals. She asked members and former members of Leadership Philadelphia, a citizen group, questions like “who do you consider highly innovative?; who brings ideas about the ‘big picture’ to the table?”

In stage two, she boiled down that big list to find the best connectors. Ultimately, she came up with a set of “heterarchies.”

…high-trust connections among particular groups of three or more organizations. These groups did not share ownership or governance structures — sometimes public agencies, private companies, and nonprofit organizations were in the same heterarchy — but the people involved all felt they needed each other to get things done. Thus, instead of staying within the boundaries of their workplace hierarchies, these highly connected people kept closely in touch with one another and collaborated regularly.

By contrast, when agencies and sectors retreat to their organizational silos and do not work together, local inertia tends to take hold.

The beauty of a heterarchy is the way in which it enables people with diverse skills, knowledge, and working styles to operate without favoring one organization or culture over another. As a network that both requires and generates trust, a heterarchy operates like an invisible human utility. It puts forth a force of enormous power that, like electricity, can’t be observed with the naked eye.

She found just a one percent overlap between her chosen connectors and a local magazine’s list of “Philadelphia’s 100 Most Powerful People.”

Interestingly, when the usual suspects saw her final list, they bristled. “Who are these people? And why do you think they’re important?”

My next question: what happens when those with positional power mount an insurgency?

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