By Ellen McGirt
Updated: April 5, 2018 12:41 PM ET

If the world seems increasingly wild and unfamiliar, you’re not alone. Hashtags, hate speech, and social movements ignite without warning, companies (like Uber) and candidates (like Obama and Trump) ascend from nowhere, and every day we are confronted with more evidence that technology is enabling both the best and worst human impulses.

A new book aims to explain all this and more. In New Power: How Power Works In Our Hyperconnected World – And How To Make It Work for You, authors Jeremy Heimans, the CEO of Purpose, a strategy consultancy, and Henry Timms, the executive director of 92nd Street Y, poured years of research, analysis, and their own experiences into a book that describes the shift in how power now operates in the world and what it means for all of us.

From their introduction:

New power models are enabled by the activity of the crowd – without whom these models are just empty vessels. In contrast, old power models are enabled by what people or organizations own, know or control that nobody else does – once old power models lose that, they lose their advantage. Old power models ask of us only that we comply (pay your taxes, do your homework) or consume. New power models demand and allow for more: that we share ideas (as on YouTube) create new content or assets (as on Etsy), even shape a community (think of the sprawling digital movements resisting the Trump presidency.)

But rather than parrot the now familiar tech-topia talking points of “democratization” and prosperity through connectivity, the authors offer both context and practical advice that one can use to succeed in a tech-enabled world that’s profoundly imperfect but ever-present. (Head to Chapter Four for their analysis of how Reddit went off the rails. It’s a must-read.)

I recently caught up with Timms to talk a bit more about how new power thinking might be useful to raceAhead readers, particularly the significant subset of you who either work for smaller organizations, are facing headwinds with your diversity work, or are “the only one” at your firm or in your current assignment.

Timms says that you may not be as alone or as powerless as you think. Look beyond formal diversity initiatives, he says. “I think the one thing we’re seeing which is very promising is the creation of less formal but still very effective networks inside of companies,” he says. “They move sideways, from peer to peer, and work in such a way that it strengthens everyone in the network.” For very small enterprises, these “networks” may even jump the borders to peers in other companies. Why not? “But the really interesting question is, who starts the informal network?”

Outside events are often the catalyst, and Timms offered two examples. The first was the bootleg video clip of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson speaking candidly about race at a gathering of the company’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) in 2016. Stephenson talked about the moment he discovered his highly accomplished black friend had endured a lifetime of racial discrimination, threats, and actual violence. “I was really ashamed that this was new information for me about Chris,” he said. “How could I not understand the very core that informed his world-view was about race?”

Timms and Heimans found that the video, which wasn’t intended to be publicly shared, inspired an informal internal network of people who were ignited by its message and drawn to capitalize on it. “It was very interesting,” he said. “We’ve seen that begin to shift internal norms.”

A more dramatic example is the #NeverAgain movement. The thing that’s made it effective, at least so far, is the extraordinary organizational skills that its founders exhibited from the start, communication-savvy “super-participants” who knew how to make a platform that was responsive to supporters. But none of this is magic or necessarily generational, he notes. “What we’re seeing now is that people can make the change they need to make, and increase collaboration in a sideways fashion,” he says. And, “if you master these new power skills, you can feel less isolated.”

This is the irony of new power activity that often relies on platforms which operate on old power business models. “There are clearly problems with platforms we’re using to connect; they offer great promise and peril,” he says. It’s something to think about as Mark Zuckerberg, who increasingly seems like an old power figure, heads to Congress next week. Solving the issues might need to become a new power quest. “There is a growing political consciousness around the danger of platforms like Facebook and how much power we’re actually giving away in the name of ‘participation.’”

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