Recently, standing in a coffee shop, I had a conversation with a university student who is studying product design. Our brief chat had a significant impact on me.
I asked her, “How did you come to study product design?”
As I listened to this young woman tell me about her high school experience, I became humbled by the maturity of her self-perception, her purpose and her vision of her future. She then said to me, “I see product design as a way to solve problems.”
Wow! It is rare that I meet people who at any age are so clear about their aims in life.
It is not that she has values that inform her life. It is more than her values are grounded in the practicality of a specific kind of work. She has a desire to make a difference by solving problems.
She will do so by designing products that make a difference in the world. In that simple response, she tells me what difference her life will make, and that she knows how to say yes, and when to say no, to the many opportunities that will come her way.
The irony of this story is that she may fulfill her desire to solve problems and never be known outside of the small circle of people with whom she works. Yet, this is a picture of the future of leadership.
Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak of the Brookings Institution in their book The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism speak about how power in society is shifting.
“The exercise of power is also not what it used to be. The ability to get things done has shifted from command-and-control systems to the collective efforts of civil society, government, and private institutions. It is vested in and affected by leaders and institutions that convert market and civic power into fiscal, financial, and political power.
In sum, power increasingly belongs to the problem solvers. And these problem solvers now congregate disproportionately at the local level …”
This perspective about emerging localism sees a shift of power from national to local institutions. By seeing this power shift as institutional, they miss what is happening on an individual and social level within organizations and communities.
Every organization or institution has within it a human community of workers, managers, executives, as well as, that invisible support force who come in after hours to clean the offices that everyone else uses during the day. Each one of these persons is the same. They are human beings with their own distinct talents, abilities, motivations, and desire for their work to have meaning.
If there has been a shift of power to the local, there is another shift of power taking place within those institutions. This shift resides in each member’s desire to take personal initiative to make a difference that matters.
I read it somewhere a long time ago that all workers are volunteers. They either choose to work for you or for someone else. My observation is that it forces organizations to change in two ways to accommodate this new reality.
It requires whoever is the senior leader of the organization to change their approach to leadership. If they maintain a command-from-above delegation style of leadership, then the people who do have a choice as to where they work – in my circle of colleagues, we call these people A-players – will go somewhere where they have greater freedom as to how they conduct themselves in their job.
It also requires a change in how the structure of the organization manages people. It is this change which is at the heart of the Circle of Impact model of leadership.
Let’s use the Circle of Impact to demonstrate how an organization can change from a place where people simply follow orders to where they are free to become problem solvers.
In this exercise, we want to change how the structure of the organization functions. We want people to take personal initiative to create impact. We want a leader-rich structure of problems solvers. That is the goal of this exercise.
First, we must establish clarity about what the impact of creating an organization of problem solvers would be like. This change is not an end in itself. The purpose is not to be an organization of problem solvers. Otherwise, we’d end up with people who create problems so they can solve them.
Instead, you have to direct that problem-solving energy towards a goal. What is the purpose of the organization? More importantly, how is that purpose reflected in the impact of the company upon its clients, its employees and its industry? Each one of those social contexts matters in understanding the impact of the organization.
What are the problems that we want workers to solve? How are those problems related to the impact of the company? The focus, therefore, is in adjusting the structure of the company so that problems can be solved at the point of their origin by those who are most immediately responsible for them. In addition, the culture of the organization changes where everyone understands that we are solving problems to achieve a specific impact as a company.
This kind of change impacts senior leadership in a particular way. Instead of the CEO or Executive Director being the chief delegator of work, they change to become the chief facilitator of the shared leadership of the organization.
Once we are clear about the purpose for impact and have a vision for the leadership of shared problem-solving, we look at the relational dimension of the company. From this perspective, management and supervision shifts from controlling people to empowering them.
These changes are both individual and collective. Yes, each individual becomes a leader of impact as a problem solver. Just as important, how people work together as problem solvers is where the impact of this change in structure is realized.
This means therefore that instead of saying, “We are changing the organization’s structure for you.” We see the problem isn’t the structure itself but rather the opportunity to create a social context of respect, trust, and mutuality within the organization. So, instead, we’d say, “Together we are going to change the organization’s structure with you.”
Every organization or institution is a human one. The more a human community of leaders of impact can be formed, the greater opportunities for solving problems and making a difference are presented to us.
As my conversation with the young university student ended, I wondered about what kind of company she’ll find which will let her be the problem solver that she desires to be. Would your company be prepared to welcome her, granting her the permission to become a solver of problems from her very first day? This is how our future is unfolding before us.