Power: Who should have it, when?

Power is one of society’s most precious commodities. As the problems we face get bigger and more urgent, Who should have power, when?

Implicit answers to this question are already shaping the post-COVID world. But let’s also face the question directly.

“Does your power float?” It’s an important, urgent, brave question to ask of our own organizations, communities and society.

Is your power fixed or floating?

Let me spark your own thinking with a couple conversation-starters.

Which picture better describes how power tends to work in your context?

Model A: Power is fixed. Any time you want to locate power, look to the hierarchy.

Model B: Power is floating. If you want to locate power, to know where to look it helps to know how much information we’ve accumulated about the situation and whether we’re in exploration mode or execution mode right now. At t=0, when information is low, power is widely distributed. We’re experimenting. Exploring. Trying new things. Discovering the dynamics. At t=1, we’re ready to reset broad policies that’ll help everyone do better. Beyond t=1, people need power returned to them to implement those policies in whatever way best suits their context.

A lot of power is distributed by Model A (fixed). Power is stuck-in-place, in part because Model B (floating) struggles with a lot of big frictions: trust, alignment, information flows.

But the real world IS dynamic. So what happens when a fixed power model is forced upon a dynamic situation?

The pandemic gave all of us firsthand experiences with that mismatch.

Add your experience here.

I’d love to hear your experience. My own, sharpest firsthand experiences came while fighting in the PPE procurement wars, this same time last year. (Feels like a lot longer time ago…)

At t=0 (say, January 2020), information was zero. Every day of inaction meant months of additional pain and sorrow down the road. So society’s best strategy for protective equipment was, in hindsight, to empower every person to act according to a good general principle — e.g., “something is better than nothing.”

In practice, decision power stayed stubbornly fixed at the top (with rare exceptions). At least that was my experience, working with several state-level efforts to gear up their procurement supply chains. As time passed and the most effective protections became known, good procurement decisions really did belong “at the top.” But in the meantime, society suffered a devastating deadweight loss — economists’ lingo for unnecessary death, misery and disruption. This is how I picture what I saw:

A missing conversation.

As part of building a smarter post-pandemic society, we need to have this conversation about power and whether it floats enough for a dynamic world. Unless we challenge Model A, too many people are still going to hold it up and make bad decisions about who should make decisions when.

That’s my fear.

What sparked this conversation for me was a heavyweight report on the future of government that came out in Canada last week: The Role of Government and the Division of Powers: Federalism in the Context of a Pandemic.

(Policy geek that I am, you know I was going to read that report cover-to-cover.)

Right upfront, in Paragraph One, the authors (a partnership of six of the most influential policy shops in the country) highlighted:

“It is striking that Canadians’ views on the role of government – and on how the different governments in the federation work together – generally have not changed that much since the onset of the pandemic. Notably, most Canadians continue to be comfortable with the decentralized nature of the federation."

They found this result “striking.” And by their logic, it is surprising. The biggest challenges to public welfare are now national and global in scope. So surely those levels of the hierarchy need more power to meet them.

Is that logic sound? Or is that logic dangerously static?

Does your power float? It’s an unsettling question in the best possible way, and a high-impact conversation that’s missing right now.

So think about starting it in your own power contexts.