When we started decentralising TACSI, nobody was really prepared for what it would mean to redistribute power.
Of all the challenges of the journey, it’s the one we struggled with the most at the start, and the one which continues to trip us up most frequently.
This is because redistributing power pushes against some deeply held personal beliefs, for absolutely everyone. Eliminating the power structure of a hierarchy also removes the invisible support, certainty and sense of identity it provides. It gets right to the heart of how people see themselves, their values and their contribution to the world. This means that, in order to really challenge those power structures, everyone in your organisation will also need to embark on a difficult inward journey of self-reflection.
This inward journey isn’t incidental to the greater change (or ‘outward’ journey) your organisation is making. In many ways, it is the change – your business is your people, and it won’t work differently unless you all do too. That’s why the inward journey is the thing that distinguishes real, self-sustaining, functional change from superficial change. Implementing new systems and structures won’t by itself build a networked organisation, or unlock the potential in your people. Only cultural change can do that. Truly redistributing power means that everyone has to completely reassess not only their role at work, but also who they are at work. It involves unlearning a lifetime of perceptions about power and trust, what ‘work’ is and the identity it gives us. It’s incredibly challenging for everyone.
It also has to start with you.
There are going to be moments when you will, as leaders in your organisation, fall back on the system you’re trying to change. It’s natural to want to stay in control and solve problems (or apportion responsibility) when the hardest challenges hit, because that’s ‘your job’. No matter how humble or ego-free you believe you are, you’ll come up against a thorny problem and want to reassert your own power within the traditional hierarchy.
But if you’re really going to redistribute power, you need to start with your own. You’ll need to be open to a level of vulnerability and exposure you’ve probably never known. You’ll have to unlearn a lot of the things which are central to the way you work, while everyone else is doing the same. It will sometimes feel like you’re in free-fall. What will it actually look like when you’re all playing a role in finance and shaping organisational strategy? Are you prepared for your colleagues to witness you in genuine personal distress because things are going wrong and you have no idea what to do? Are you prepared in turn to support their struggle and the range of uncomfortable behaviours it brings? No amount of reading can give you the answers – it’s something you’ll have to work out together.
Trying to direct the change from the outside will also stop you from identifying the cultural weaknesses holding you back. At a very low point in our journey, it was very clear that we were having trouble with trust and vulnerability. Communication was breaking down and we lacked the collective sense of safety to be honest about the ways we were thinking and feeling. We couldn’t yet trust how our colleagues and the broader TACSI system would respond. So, we went back to the start and worked with a coach to develop better psychological safety at work, and many of the techniques we learned now inform our everyday practice.
Part of the beauty of this process is that it pushes people to look at what they have to contribute in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Finding out who they are without the hierarchy allows people to leverage so much more of themselves. The professional and personal skills that never fit within a prescribed ‘job’ function become available to them, and to your organisation.
If we could do it over, we would emphasise this journey to self-mastery in all of our people, much earlier. For anyone considering decentralising their organisation, it’s something we would recommend preparing for and prioritising from the outset. The organisational journey can’t happen without the personal journey, and sometimes it’s hard to say which is which.
Interviews with Carolyn Curtis, CEO and Euan Black, Organisational Development Lead. Writing and editing by Cam Sullivan.