It's striking to see the differences in where power gathers in a distributed organization, compared to where that happens in a more traditional office setting.
When people come together in a physical space there is a lot of time and energy spent on appearance. The work isn't just about "what are we doing" but also "how do we look and how do people perceive us while we're doing what we do."
When people come together to work in a virtual/online space, the focus shifts.
In an office setting, I see power and influence gather around...
- The person with the newest, coolest and/or most expensive clothing
- The person with the larger corner office
- The person with the most assistants
- The person with the most impressive sounding title
- The person with the closest parking space
- The oldest, richest, whitest males
- The person who's allowed to create or interrupt meetings
- The person with the most impressive social and public-speaking skills
- The person who uses their power to get what they want
In a distributed organization, I see power and influence gather around...
- The person who produces output and solutions that exceed expectations
- The person who can connect deeply with colleagues over a distance
- The person who can effectively and concisely articulate their own views and ideas
- The person who helps their coworkers be the best versions of themselves
- The person generous with their understanding of how to navigate the organization's processes and culture
- The person who can give voice to unrecognized or unspoken truths
- The person who learns fastest from their mistakes
- The person who uses their power to empower others
It's of course not fair to generalize this way. There are healthy traditional organizations where appearances are not necessarily the basis for power. There are probably unhealthy distributed organizations where power centers around the appearance of lots of activity that produces few good outcomes. But my experience so far is that a distributed organizational structure inherently facilitates an experience of power, empowerment and leadership that is better for the people in it, and for the work they are doing together.
One delightful side effect of this phenomenon is that when you watch a distributed organization gather in person, they seem to have a head start on leaving behind some of the constraints of appearance and surface-level perceptions. People who may have otherwise spent a lot of time overcoming how their appearance did or didn't serve them well given cultural stereotypes and norms are instead more able to just continue being who they already are around their colleagues.
Where does power gather in the organizations you work with?
Photo by jlhopgood