power play

The strongmen are afoot across the globe. US president Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Recep Erdoğan and China's Xi Jinping are flexing their power. And don't forget North Korea’s deal-making “little rocket man” Kim Jong-un. But we are also witnessing the new power of the #MeToo movement and US students leading the community push for gun control.

 Jeremy Heimans, Australian head of New York activist campaign builder Purpose.org, talks about the tussle between “old power” and “new power” — where the winner is not automatically assured. Heimans, co-author of New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World and How to Make It Work for You, says old power works like a currency held by a few; once gained, it is jealously guarded, closed and leader-driven. New power operates like a current — it is open, participatory and peer-driven — and is most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it, but to channel it.  

Organisations need to understand the different forces at work if they are to adapt their organisations for changing community demands. They need to know how to channel bottom-up, consensus-driven new power, as opposed to replicating top-down old power, reflected in the likes of Trump and Putin.

“These new-power currents are coming at companies. You need to learn a new set of skills to deal with that,” says Heimans. Whether you are a big company, government or a healthcare NFP or SME, Heimans says you have to take people’s participation seriously and not just pay lip service to it. This will reshape how boards think about strategy, risk and governance.

According to Heimans, new power cannot ignore the hard economic realities and material issues such as income inequality and social dislocation, which lead to disaffection and the election of old power leaders. Conversely, movements like the Parkland students campaigning on gun control brilliantly deploy new power, but will need to cultivate existing power establishments to have any chance of success (or risk their own Arab Spring).

Among the case studies of organisations channelling new power are Lego, NASA, Reddit, and the TED Talks empire. One example of a new-power model that has thrived is Buurtzorg. Dutch nurses created a decentralised network that put the power in the hands of small, self-directed teams. It has more than 10,000 nurses in the Netherlands, operating in 850 teams, serving more than 70,000 patients. It puts human beings front and centre and uses technology to enable better peer coordination, but it doesn’t lead with it.

Who’s winning the tussle? It’s not a forgone conclusion, says Heimans. “Companies have a choice. [They] can seek to exploit or extract from these new-power dynamics or can create meaningful relationships with the people around [them].”

He says big companies such as Lego are finding ways to share value with the owners of the models. After a deficit scare in the early 2000s, Lego appointed a new CEO and returned to its traditional values and products. It invested in a YouTube channel screening user-generated content, with more than five million subscribers. The Danish company’s stated mission — “to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow” — is as much about education and creativity as selling plastic bricks.

“I don’t see profits going away as a driver in business," says Heimans, “but value creation needs to be rethought.” And platforms like Facebook and Uber must learn to share some of the pie. “It’s a structural risk because these power platforms are only as good as the people they keep onside.”

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