I want to begin this section with the understanding that models, rubrics, frameworks and systems are not ends in themselves. They are attempts to organize ideas and patterns in a way that is easy for others to recognize. I use the word recognize because, if there is any legitimacy to a framework, it must be born out of the recognition of patterns that are repeated enough to be reliable and predictable in determining the way forward.
If there is one idea or truth that resurfaces (that is a repeating pattern) in organizational life, it’s that people need to feel like they matter. This is clearly a pattern because this desire has emerged time and again through the ages on all scales, from massive democracy movements to the ongoing efforts of workers to be treated respectfully and compensated adequately in the workplace.
But, there is a deeper aspect to the need to feel like we matter. We want to feel like we are contributing to the community, workplace or project. We want our specific skills, talents and insights to be valued and utilized. We want to have a sense of agency in the work we are doing.
That is, we want to be architects.
I am intentionally using the word “we” because, the need to matter is universal to all human beings, including CEOs, program directors, managers, school principals, and elected representatives. But, those who have formal authority in a community already have the opportunity to experience this sense of value and agency, and it’s up to them to ensure that this need is both acknowledged and addressed for members of the community at large.
But why would they? Sure, it seems to be the nice thing to do, making sure that your people feel like they matter. But, beyond the niceness of valuing your people, how does this support your mission? How does valuing your people help to further develop your community?
The simple answer is that valuing your people would lead you to create opportunities for them to assert their competence, which in turn, would lead your organization towards a better chance of successfully fulfilling your mission. This is because those closest to the action are more likely to have a better understanding of what is needed in various situations and projects, and will increase their loyalty to your project and company, if they are invited to participate as architects rather than just instruments of service delivery. If you want to be successful, increase your bottom line, reach important mission goals, and to create a sustainable, healthy culture, you need to build a culture of architects.
Building a culture of architects is a major support for developing a strong organization. In my experience, at least three features are clearly visible when this support has been well-established in a community:
1. Creating structures for participation
2. Encouraging open communication
3. Sharing responsibility
This feature is pretty straightforward. An organization that is serious about its mission will not only invite participation in decision-making on all levels, but will actively work to ensure that such participation occurs. This can happen in a variety of ways, including weekly meetings, collaborative online documents, and democratized media threads.
The key is to create regular structures for participative decision making which guarantee that this is “the way we do business here.” However, meetings are only useful when there is a commitment to allowing all topics to be discussed (for more on this, please visit A Positive Language Environment.)
2. Encouraging open communication
Whether during meetings or through written communication, the communication should be open as often as possible. This would engender trust among members of the community. By encouraging open communication, those with formal authority in an organization can make it easy for people to surface difficult issues.
In the absence of this important feature, misunderstandings may arise all to frequently, simply because people won’t know who is speaking to whom or what is being said. Not only can this undermine the mutual trust that is necessary for a healthy community, but it can also be a lost opportunity for exchanging ideas and coming up with innovative solutions (for more on this topic, please visit the section on Genuine Cooperation).
3. Sharing responsibility
Sharing responsibility is not an easy thing to do. Especially if a leader with formal authority in a workplace or community is particularly gifted, purposeful and driven. It is even more difficult for those who are less people-oriented and more focused on advancing their own careers. This is a subject for another time, but I mention it here to clarify that very few of the ideas presented in this essay will be of interest to narcissistic managers or leaders with agendas that are not in alignment with the mission of an organization. The whole point of supporting the mission of your organization rests on the assumption that you indeed care about that mission.
That said, most leadership studies have pointed out that the best leaders grow other leaders. The best leaders do everything in their power to build the leadership up in others. They can be seen actively transferring authority -and, yes, power!- to others. The best leaders know that the organization rises and falls not so much on the glamour, know-how and power of charismatic individuals but on sustainable mission-driven values and skills that are passed on to others.
By sharing (or distributing) the leadership, we are sharing responsibility. Most, if not all, individuals in a community would welcome the added responsibility that comes with sharing in the leadership. To put it simply, it feels good to exercise all of our strengths and skills for the benefit of the organization’s mission, and nothing fits the bill more than being asked to take up leadership responsibilities. In this kind of culture, there is a real sense that the whole enterprise matters and belongs to everyone in the community.
This can have an amazing impact on motivation and purpose. It shouldn’t be hard to see how this can benefit the mission.
Building a culture of architects has three visible features: creating structures for participation, encouraging open communication and sharing responsibility. These are larger organizational structures, movements and attitudes that govern the way decisions are made. Without them we abandon an organization’s politics to seek its own path, which is not likely to serve the good of all.
Yet the commitment to serving the good of all is itself an attitude -one that is shaped by the organization’s mission, physical space and conversational norms.
We now turn to the support of designing the kind of environment in which the decision-making and relationships are optimal.