Why would a leader want to give away some of their power? And if they do so, what works in its place? Maybe there are some new technology solutions, and organising approaches that could be part of the solution.

I had an experience as a young leader that has influenced the way that I think about democracy and power. I was co-leading a national student organisation with another two people and we were preparing for a national conference. We had decided that rather than organise a number of speakers and sessions, as you normally do; that we would lead a process of discernment with the participants to work out what mattered to them, in the moment, and have discussions on those topics. We would use the power and knowledge in the group to learn from each other. A bit like what would now be called an Open Space Technology event – my anecdote is from almost 30 years ago and it was another 20 years before I went to such an open space event.

About 6 weeks before the conference was to happen I went on 2 weeks leave, and I returned to find that my colleagues had felt anxious about the proposed approach and had organised a traditional conference program. Whilst they still wanted to hand over the power to the participants at the conference they were anxious that we were creating a vacuum and that it wouldn’t work. Whilst I was disappointed at the time, I can see that we didn’t have the tools, language or thinking to come up with a viable alternative.

But there has been so much that has happened in the last 30 years. I’ve certainly come across a few ideas, some very recently, which give me hope that we can successfully create a greater experience of democracy in our organisations.

Making decisions, having authority, and using organisational power are inevitably part of leadership in an organisational setting. But I think that we need to keep learning and experimenting with new ways of letting the decisions that organisations make to sit broadly across the structures, and to involve people who they impact and who are invested in them being right.

I went to the Progress 2015 Conference in Melbourne, and one of the takeaway messages for me is that we need to act more like startups. One of the particular aspects was that we need to trial new things, we need to fail at things often, we can stop what doesn’t work, and that we aren’t pushing ourselves unless we are experiencing multiple failures. As part of this we also should be trialling things at a good enough level, and not trying to do perfect solution building and implementation. We can always improve on the trials that seem to be working.

An example is Loomio, which is a group decision making tool that can used in groups and organisations. It allows for a discussion on a topic, for individuals in the group to propose solutions, and for the interested people to vote on the solutions. There is a graphical view of the results which allows the group to keep iterating until they’re happy that the best solution has been found. I’m not sure how it will work, but I hear that some groups are giving it a go and finding it useful

Another example is Open Space Technology, which I was involved in a number of times at Ruah. Most Ruah people who attended Open Space events were very happy with them. But we didn’t use the approach very often, and there wasn’t a rationale as to when we would use the approach, and for what types of decisions.

At the time I was leaving Ruah there was an ongoing discussion about the best ways to involve people in decision making. There was a long way to go and the issue of power, who has it, who wants it, and how it is allocated is at the heart of the journey.

I know that we all make mistakes as we explore these areas of decision making, power and process. Hopefully we fail quickly, pick it up fast, and have a kit bag full of new ideas to try out.

Are you in an organisation grappling with these issues? Are you prepared to have some dialogue on what has worked, and maybe even better, what hasn’t worked?

get in touch!

A related podcast episode is here.