Tom Critchlow

Navigating the Webs of Power as an outsider

power potholes

While all of the above references the idea of culture - in truth every individual inside an organization has their own view of the culture. And each individual’s view is often dictated by their relation to power structures. Who are they subservient to? Which individuals have an outsized impact on the culture and which are relatively neutral? Understanding the personal culture of the CEO can be as powerful as understanding the whole organization’s culture.

When I start a new client project I start sketching a simple org chart of boxes and lines. It’s the best you can work with on day zero but org charts are too simplistic. As Venkatesh says about org charts:

“A good deal of the process is about imposing anxiety-alleviating platonic structural beauty.”


The org chart of boxes and lines maps reporting structures (kind of) but little else. The org chart only tells us about the topology of the organization, i.e. what are the connections? It tells us nothing of the topography, i.e. the lay of the land. The messy distortions.

The real org chart mental model of the organization is much more like this:

This from a fascinating analysis by Carta into influence inside their organization

This network-model showing a small number of highly connected nodes maps well to the lived experience of working inside a messy organization. Knowledge work environments are almost exclusively highly networked and stream-ified places now.

But again - these networks and nodes and actors only tell you so much about power. Relational power dynamics are everything and as much as you’re understanding culture inside an organization you need to understand the flows of power.

In the early days of a client engagement - watch and listen closely and as soon as someone says or does something that doesn’t make sense. When something that usually or rationally would lead to X but instead leads to Y you’re usually missing a hidden undercurrent of power.

Notice turns of phrase, rejected ideas or a statement that turned the room to silence. These mis-steps are power potholes in the consultant’s path. Notice them, write them down, meditate on them and try and ask yourself: what power structures exist here to explain this anomaly?

So start on day zero with a crude org chart. In the first week convert your org chart into a network graph and as fast as you can (usually in the first few weeks) augment this network map with the key power players.

This blog is written by Tom Critchlow, an independent strategy consultant living and working in Brooklyn, NY. If you like what you read please leave a comment below in disqus or sign up for my Tinyletter.