The conventional practice when leading change is to push the direction down from the top down. After all, hierarchical structures are designed to require direction that is pushed down from leadership to the employees.

This was once a reasonable strategy – before computers were introduced. Once we invited technology into our organizations and distributed computers to every employee desktop we created a new parallel structure. Although it was still within the established hierarchy this new paradigm looks and operates much more like a collaborative network. And within that network, change happens much more horizontally through the process of attraction.

Emails, texting, social media, document sharing, ecommerce – these all have one thing in common. Much like nature, these channels all operate like a network – not a hierarchy. Today people connect horizontally – not vertically – and often with zero regard for typical chains of command. We see this when technology networks start crossing physical boundaries – typically through social media – including those that might be closed countries trying to control their borders and their people. Nothing hierarchical can completely control these connections. Nature is so efficient it doesn’t even TRY to do anything this way.

Shifting the rules of change by understanding networks vs. hierarchy

When we’re trying to initiate change we need to pay attention to the network subcultures in our organizations as they operate very differently from hierarchical functions. In fact, they operate by a completely different set of rules:

  • Within a hierarchy keeping your head down and maintaining separation provides some degree of freedom. In a network, your value is measured by your connections.
  • In a hierarchy autonomy helps you. Within networks autonomy hurts you.
  • When we think like a hierarchy, we look for the lever that can shift the system. Networks don’t have a single point of influence (independent variable), they have many mutually shaping relationships that shape the dynamics of the system. In a network there are no more independent variables.
  • Hierarchies stall when emotions are introduced. Emotions and information flow through networks.
  • Hierarchies move faster with force but collaboration within a network will stop when it is pushed. Networks can be influenced, but they require time to adjust to direction changes. In a nutshell, networks resist force.

When change is desired, the best strategy for influencing a network is to nudge then wait to see if the network shifts directions.

Another effective strategy for influencing a network is to attract people in the network to the idea instead of using urgency to push an agenda. Here’s where we can learn a lot from nature.

What can plants teach us about attracting people to change?

Plants have many ways to attract pollinators to their blossoms in order to spread their seeds and nectar. They vary in shape, color, fragrance. Each different shape, color, or fragrance combination attracts different pollinators to the plant.

Now compare that to our human ability to attract our staff to ideas and change. Instead of relying on positional power, a flowering plant would teach us that we need to expand our attraction strategies to generate active engagement and cooperation. Furthermore, those strategies need to be adapted to the rich diversity of personalities, interests, and predispositions of our staff.

Attraction is not a universal activity. Instead it is shaped so the receiver will be receptive to the strategy. For example, flat flower makes it easy for a pollinator to land, a drooping flower works for birds that can hover, sweet scents attract some but repel others. A leader who wants to strengthen their capacity to attract their staff into active cooperation and engagement needs to build a reservoir of strategies that match the wide variety of team members they need to influence.

The next time you think about pushing a change down from the top ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I working in a network or a hierarchy environment?
  • Do I need active engagement to accomplish this work?
  • If so, how can I use attraction instead of push to get things done?