I met Eugene at least five years ago when he was working at Blue Oxen, a social consultancy, and we’ve remain aware of each other’s work without ever actually working together. So I am remedying that in this minimal way, with an interview.
About Eugene Kim
Eugene hates the idea of putting people into boxes, which is good, because we can’t put him in one. he has worked as a writer and an editor, a researcher and an analyst, and a programmer and a manager. In 2002, he decided to bring all of these skills and interests to bear on his true passion: collaboration for social good.
He believes that groups are smarter than individuals and that tools should serve people, not the other way around. When Eugene speaks, people listen. Sometimes he shares an insight, more often he raises an essential question, always he helps groups get clear.
Stowe Boyd: I read your recent post, The Real Importance of Networks: Understanding Power. You wrote, ‘Networks are special because they are a lens that help us better understand power.’ And your presentation is that organizations exist to make the latent power of the people in the organization greater than linear.
Organizational structure is a shortcut. The problem is that shortcuts don’t always prove to be a good idea. - Eugene Kim
Eugene Kim: That’s the theory behind organizational structure at least. Ideally, in any group, you want the right hierarchies to emerge. For example, if I’m out in the woods with no food or water, I want to defer to the person in the group who has the best survival skills. And, if it turns out that that person proves time and again to be the best suited for making decisions, it makes sense to give that person some kind of formal authority — perhaps in the form of a leadership title — so that you’re not having to figure out the best person for every situation.
In other words, organizational structure is a shortcut. The problem is that shortcuts don’t always prove to be a good idea. The group promotes the person who was good at surviving in the forest into some kind of leadership role, but suddenly, you’re not in the forest anymore, you’re in New York City. Is that person still right for that role? And if not, how do you get the right person into that job?
Max Weber said that all organizational forms are destined to become more and more bureaucratic. Structure begets rigidity. A network-oriented mindset helps you fight that rigidity. In today’s world, that’s not only desirable, it’s necessary.
SB: You make the power relationship seem like a meritocratic decision of the group. And the legitimacy of a business elite has to be based on productivity, at face value. However, there is a great deal of oligarchic control in organizations, where those who are founders, owners, or more senior are in charge, but the conventional rationale for them having leadership roles is less about performance justifying their positions than the naturalness of hierarchy and people’s desire to be told what to do. I constantly encounter people that say things like ‘There we will always have hiearchy’ without actually trying to prove it.
EK: Most people’s experiences with organizations are with a certain kind of hierarchy, and so when it comes to creating our organizations, the natural thing to do is to default to what you already know, even if those experiences are wretched. It’s habit, and it’s human.
Max Weber said that all organizational forms are destined to become more and more bureaucratic. Structure begets rigidity. A network-oriented mindset helps you fight that rigidity. In today’s world, that’s not only desirable, it’s necessary. - Eugene Kim
I was always curious about why Wikipedia is so bureaucratic under the surface. Again, Weber says that it’s inevitable for all groups, but it didn’t make sense to me with Wikipedia. This is a community of people who live and breathe networks and self-organization, and who frankly are a bit counter-culture.
When I led the Wikimedia strategy process in 2010, I made it a side project to try to figure this out. After talking with a lot of folks, I came up with the following hypothesis. Most people who edit Wikipedia are in their teens and 20s. Many of them have only had experience being in one kind of institution — schools. When the community started experiencing the challenges of scale, they naturally dug into their own experiences for the solution rather than starting with base principles. Voila! Bureaucracy!
Starting from base principles is really hard. It requires a tremendous amount of discipline and a comfort level with uncertainty. But if you truly care about creating high-performance groups — and not everyone does — it’s necessary.
SB: I have said for years, ‘I am made greater by the sum of my connections and so are my connections’. A slightly different take on your formulation about the purpose of organizations is that each individual opts to connect to others to have the opportunity to cooperate with them, and through those networks advance their personal agenda. So, this power may be accumulation of the personal aspirations of the individuals, rather than a property of the disembodied organization.
EK: Wow, we’re really getting into some deep philosophical stuff here! I don’t know what the purpose of organizations are. I’ve already cited Max Weber, so I’m starting to get out of my comfort zone.
Here’s what I believe. I believe that individuals want to feel alive in everything that they do. Most of us do not feel alive. Self-help is a $11 billion industry, on par with the movie industry. We spend at least half of our waking lives at work, mostly in organizations. Most people feel like zombies while they’re at work. That’s not a good thing.
When you feel connected to other people, you feel alive. When you feel like you’re part of something bigger that makes you yourself feel bigger, stronger, more powerful, you feel alive.
When you’re not able to bring your whole self to work, when you’re part of something that’s constantly getting in your way rather than making you more powerful, that’s when you start to feel like a zombie. That’s the cost of rigidity.
SB: I completely agree with that sentiment. I once said,
Whatever else social business comes to be, it has to be based on how people operate when they feel most free, most creative, most engaged, and most needed. We have to build a way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done.
Whatever else, social business must be that.
In each Socialogy interview, the third questions relates to the concept that we are not applying the newest findings from science in the business setting, like cognitive science, anthropology, or neuroeconomics. What fields do you think are most relevant — and underutilized — in business?
Whatever else social business comes to be, it has to be based on how people operate when they feel most free, most creative, most engaged, and most needed. We have to build a way of working where the people doing the work matter as much as the work being done. - Stowe Boyd
EK: Sports, music — fields where we have clear models of high-performance groups. Business has long found sports to be a kindred spirit, yet two of the most important aspects of sports (and music) have yet to see widespread adoption in the business world. I’m talking about coaching and practice.
All of the top teams and the top athletes in the world have coaches. Same goes for musicians. What’s the percentage in the business world?
And how about practice? I know you’ll appreciate this, because of your background in martial arts. In sports and in music, you spend 90 percent of your time practicing and maybe 10 percent of your time performing. In business, the numbers are reversed. We pay lip service to the importance of certain fundamentals, like listening, but how often do we practice those things intentionally in safe spaces with feedback? You can practice listening — musicians do this constantly.
SB: Yes, I agree about high performance, but in areas outside of sports and martial arts a high performers share the characteristic of creating loose connections with lots of potential cooperators. And then when some new threat or opportunity comes along they rapidly compose networks and pull them into an ad hoc advisory or working group to figure out what to do. I guess that’s a kind of practice, too.
Eugene, thanks for your time.
EK: Not only is it a practice, it’s something that can be practiced. Why must we wait for high-stakes situations and then try to do these things cold, especially if those things feel unnatural? We need to be creating more safe opportunities to practice these so that it doesn’t feel so uncomfortable when the stakes are high.
In many ways, the Internet has been that space. I believe we’re experiencing a shift right now, because the first generation to grow up with widespread connectivity is now part of the workforce, and they’ve had many years to practice this kind of behavior. This is a good thing.
Stowe, thanks for having me! Always enjoy our conversations!
This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.