'Power-Over' Strategies And How Reporting Can Backfire

A problematic aspect of being a change agent is the lack of proven, frequently discussed techniques for making change happen. For example, in the API space there’s no end to people putting forth “best practices”. But getting teams to agree which practices are best, let alone adopt them? That advice is much harder to come by.

Several years ago, I briefly touched on some approaches I was trying as head of an API Center of Excellence. In that role, one of my responsibilities was to improve API quality and practice throughout the organization. However, like so many change agents, I didn’t have formal authority over the people who needed to change their practices. With hindsight, I want to share my experience with one influence approach, intriguingly called Kingpins and the Fishbowl.

I read about kingpins and fishbowls in the book Blue Ocean Strategy. The book is mostly about finding new markets (the “blue ocean”) for product dominance. However, the latter third included practical advice for getting people engaged in something new; something that any change maker deals with.

The first part of the strategy is to identify the key individuals, or “kingpins”. These people are not just impacted by the change you’re proposing but have the authority to act on it. In a D1 organization, these could be, but are not limited to, executives with hierarchal power. The high-flyer with the ear of leader (but without formal authority) is also a candidate.

With the kingpins identified, the next step is creating the fishbowl. The fishbowl is a means by which the kingpins’ performance (or those they are responsible for) is easily compared and contrasted. This review may manifest as an internal dashboard or regular report to executives. Colloquially, people might also know this approach as “naming and shaming”. APIMetrics does this publicly. A lot.

The kingpins and fishbowls technique sounds plausible: identify those that have authority to make the designed change, put them in a dashboard showing how deficient they are compared to their peers, watch those trend lines change for the positive! As I said in my introduction of the topic:

“In my experience, executives didn’t get to where they are without being a tad competitive. Publishing results and easing comparative analysis creates a natural driver for action; each of the leaders want to be number one among their peers.”

The approach is not without merit. I did see some success in limited areas. However, looking back, any success was vastly dwarfed by the antagonistic relationships caused by such reporting. To understand why it is crucial to discuss Mary Parker Follet’s concepts of power-over and power-with.

Mary Parker Follet was a contemporary of Frederick Taylor, the “father” of management theory. But while Taylor believed “the boss knows best”, Mary’s ideas on power and authority were very different. She defined power-over as a situation where one person has power over another person. This manifests as dominance and coercion. One side vies for power over another, at best trying to influence the other to concede its position.

A kingpin may not oppose the idea of API design improvement. However, design may differ in their priority compared to someone, like the Center of Excellence head, whose sole job is design improvement. Kingpins have no shortage of things vying for their time and energy. Those people create systems for triaging what is worth entertaining and what threatens those limited resources to remain successful.

A metric originating from outside their preview, attempting to coerce their priorities list and consume oxygen will not be enthusiastically embraced. While they may not frame it in terms of a “power-over” play, they will resent the attempt all the same and treat the effort with suspicion, if not as a threat. Having sat in those conversations, I can confirm that there are better ways of spending one’s time.

Put in a similar position today, I would instead attempt what Follet referred to as power-with. Power-with is collaborative, establishing common ground from which both sides identify and discuss important desires. She called these discussions integration:

From the power of collective wisdom website discussing Follet:

“She [Follet] understood that true leaders do not command obedience through force or manipulation but rather by giving expression to external realities and the interior aspirations of others.”

I talked about the priority mismatch. What I should have done is better understood the constraints and challenges these leaders faced. Rather than assuming that design quality improvement is job #1, I should learn their actual stack ranking and then integrate how better design could deliver on that. I should have had regular, ongoing conversations, independent of whatever reporting cadence existed, to co-evolve the agendas and make us partners in each others’ success. The metrics needed to be in service of our ends, not their activities being a means to achieving mine.

The Kingpin in the Fishbowl technique may seem like change is only a dashboard away. However, based on my experience, it is an example of power-over rather than power-with. Before attempting to coerce an influential leader’s priorities, carefully consider how that message may antagonize rather than compliment. If possible, pursue a power-with strategy instead.