I can’t count the number of times I have heard leaders in all types of organizations state that they need to develop a vision or solve a problem before they involve their staff or community, and then disseminate it and get “buy-in” from the rank and file after they’ve crafted something awesome. “They have other work to do, and this will just stress them out,” is one excuse. Or, “they don’t have a broad enough view of what is going on to make a meaningful contribution.” Or, “it takes too much time, and costs too much!” These are short-sighted views that will inevitably result in it taking more time down the road to align vision and action, gain people’s commitment and build their motivation to engage, or really solve the problem they had failed to solve in the first place.
People misunderstand participation. On reason is that we have bad metaphors for how people work together. “Buy-in” and “ownership” have really very little to do with how people think of themselves in relation to the work they do. To believe that you are going to get “buy-in” down the road once you’ve crafted a great idea assumes that the people who work for you don’t have their own ideas, or that yours are inevitably better than theirs, and that your job is to “sell” your great idea to them. Sure, they may like your idea, but if they have not been involved and had a chance to engage in conversation about the topic along the way, the likelihood that they will really understand it and that it will be meaningful and motivational to them is low. Another bad metaphor is the “top-down, bottom-up” image of organizations we seem to be stuck in. We seem to believe that some ideas should flow “top-down” and some information should flow “bottom-up,” but the reality is information is exchanged, meaning is made, and engagement and commitment are generated, in interactions at the intersection of identity, information, and relationships, as Meg Wheatley describes it. That occurs in the “space” of participation, which we either cultivate or resist, though it will happen anyway if we resist, and the results may not be what we hoped for. When we are talking about organizational vision, as Peter Senge has pointed out, shared vision is created by leaders recognizing and guiding the coalescing of individual passions about the work into visions that drive their engagement and their motivation. Leaders can champion this coalescing, but cannot very effectively legislate, command, or disseminate it. Vision is an emergent process that leaders can support by recognizing that emergence and building enrollment and commitment from that coalescing.
Another reason is that we assume that technical experts are better at solving problems than the people who are doing the actual work. Those experts can then train the workers to apply their solutions to the work. There are so many bad assumptions built into this way of framing problem solving and work that it would take days to explore them all. Many of them are left over from early views of work on assembly lines pushed by Taylor and others in the scientific management literature. But central to this approach is the failure to understand both the people nature of work (work is done by people working together) and the capacity of those doing it to be reflective and see possibilities that experts removed from the actual processes might not see (they are not merely unskilled laborers with no thoughts, nor machines). So those closest to the work see how they work together and what they do that accomplishes the work, and can be very creative in exploring ways to improve both the social and the technical sides of the work. Of course, it is possible that those closest to the work can get into binds due to unexamined collective assumptions and beliefs, group think, but that just suggests the need to expand participation beyond small homogeneous groups, and that gets at the need for examining the boundaries of participation, and the need for networks of innovators. But those are topics for future blogs…
A valuing of participation also implies a different notion of how we know things, both epistemologically and methodologically. We have many old ideas about what an organization “knows” and how that knowledge is stockpiled and used to drive the work of the organization left over from Modernism. Most of those have to do with there being one right answer, often a technical one, and one objective and generalizable foundational knowledge base that is inert and drives the work and the structure of the work we do. That worked for the early assembly line, because it was based on fixed designs and quality control. When changes were needed, experts had already developed the new ideas and the assembly line was modified to accommodate them. A slow and stable process. But we are not living in a world where slow and stable will cut it anymore. And the one perfect, objective idea that is always true turns out to be somewhat of a myth anyway.
It turns out that we will gain more and better ideas through gathering the varied experiences and perspectives of as many people as we can and creating a space for their interactions that is a little wild and wooly, but also respectful. Etienne Wenger, the creator of the term “communities of practice,” describes how organizational members with a shared sense of purpose create communities that focus on their shared practice and take group responsibility to “steward” their knowledge toward higher levels of the practices of that organization. They also apprentice newer members into the community and support their development and participation. This is participation at its most organic, and potentially most powerful. Beyond “buy-in” and “ownership,” beyond “top-down” and “bottom-up,” even beyond “authorship,” true participation implies a distributed yet collective sense of agency. That agency can be powerful, efficient, effective, and even transformational.