Organizations: Where’s the Power?

Yesterday, I talked about creating the general backbone of an organization. That much is usually good when the organization is just there as a backdrop, but it’s not going to be enough if people just want to influence it, let alone if they’re going to actually be involved in it. The next level of detail is based on where the power is located in an organization.

It might be in the leadership, particularly if the original founder is still there and still involved. Most people tend to look for it there, or look for a group that serves as the powers behind the throne for a figurehead leader. In general, The Guy In Charge may not always have direct power, but it’ll be at most two degrees of separation away from him.

Power is not always where you expect it, though. In an organization big enough to be compartmentalized, this adage is often embodied by the people who handle the flow of information. Anyone who’s dealt with the academic power structure, for instance, is probably quite aware that the contact you really want to cultivate is the department secretary; she knows where the bodies are buried, has a pretty good idea who’s where at any given time, and can generally either expedite or greatly delay a piece of paperwork without resorting to someone else’s assistance. Does your organization have one of these? If multiples, do they work together?

As people need food and water to live, organizations need resources to function. Is it any wonder, then, that being able to affect the flow of those resources to and within the company is its own kind of power? Someone on the outside who can cut the organization off from funding, markets, information or similar resources can practically dictate policy to the leadership unless they find another source elsewhere. On the other hand, an insider can use control over the distribution of materials within the organization to exert control over its internal segments, possibly bypassing the leader entirely.

Then there are the star performers—think the major players in sports teams and you have about the right idea. They’re very, very good at what they do, so good that if they were to leave they couldn’t be replaced. If they’re ambitious or have some other ax to grind, that gives them leverage; they threaten to leave, someone else comes in to placate them so they’ll stay, balance is restored, but the cycle begins again later when they find something else they want. On the other hand, they have to be careful; too much of that sort of behavior might make the problems with keeping them not worth the rewards.

Though small organizations generally have one or maybe two such power centers, the number is likely to increase the larger the organization gets, and big ones almost never have just one or two. If you’ve got multiples, though, you’ll want to think about how they rate relative to each other. A star might be able to lean heavily on the leadership, but be perpetually confounded by the secretaries; an outside resource controller can put the squeeze on an inside resource controller.

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