Mary Parker Follett on Community, Creativity, and Control

Mary Parker Follett's perspective on the creative power of collaboration, how to effectively manage interdependence and diversity, and the nature of influence and authority in organizations that are more relational than hierarchical.

Follett, at her graduation from Radcliffe in 1898 (source: Wikipedia)

Mary Parker Follett was an early 20th century social worker who became one of the world's first management gurus. Her idea of organizations operating as networks of self-managing teams anticipated the work of other management pioneers like Elton Mayo, Rensis Likert and Douglas McGregor by several decades. The late Warren Bennis, one of the deans of the "Human Relations" movement, remarked in 2003 that “Just about everything written today about leadership and organizations comes from Mary Parker Follett's writings and lectures.”[1] Bennis’ observation remains true to this day. Follett’s 1918 writings about autonomy and team collaboration would fit nicely—and perhaps be considered avant-garde—in a new article about "agile at scale".

Follett was born in 1868 into a Quaker family in Quincy, just south of Boston, Mass. After a stint as a school teacher, Follett led a number of civic initiatives to support Boston’s growing immigrant population. Among her most notable achievements was the creation of a network of Social Centers—neighborhood groups that used public school buildings after hours to provide community members with education, enrichment, and recreational activities (a first in the US, and eventually emulated by other cities). By 1914, up to 7,000 people a week were coming to six centers Follet helped establish across town.[2]

Follett’s experience in community building shaped her thinking about people and organizations in two ways. First, she was impressed by the creative power that’s unleashed when a diverse group of individuals works through a shared problem. Follett witnessed this first hand when when she brought together education officials, philanthropists, social workers, and neighborhood representatives to discuss how to strengthen civic life in underprivileged Boston neighborhoods. The same was true when members of newly-established Social Centers collaborated to develop a variety of programs and activities for their local community.

Second, Follett understood that groups could be more than engines of creativity—they had the potential for self-management. Teams of volunteers in each Social Center were effectve at setting and managing budgets, evaluating the effectiveness of their services, and identifying improvement opportunities—all in the absence of top-down authority and a formal organization. Teams with shared purpose, mutual accountability and effective practices for participative decision-making, Follett realized, can be more effective and efficient than bureaucracy at solving problems that were hard to script.

Follett also considered self-governing groups as an important driver of personal development and a vibrant society. Since “the wish to govern one’s life is, of course, of the most fundamental feelings in every human being,” self-governance also facilitates “the growth of individuals and of the groups to which they belonged.” Increased employee participation in shaping the direction and work environment of the employer could strengthen a society's democratic foundations. She envisioned a model of democratic governance that relied more on group networks at the local level than centralized bureaucratic institutions:

“Group organization will create the new world we are now blindly feeling after, for creative force comes from the group, creative power is evolved through the activity of the group life."[3]

Follett's impact in local communities before World War I sparked the interest of progressive businesses leaders like Henry Dennison, owner of the Dennison Manufacturing Company based just outside of Boston. Dennison was keen to experiment with with more group-oriented and egalitarian ways of managing, and Follett was eager to collaborate. She was convinced that the ideas developed in the context of neighborhood organizing were relevant to large-scale organizations. After all, big companies can be conceived as networks of groups, and organizational performance is the product of relations between people within and across groups.

The Dennison relationship was the first of several collaborations Follett had with the world of business. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s Follett became a prominent management consultant and academic lecturer.

What makes Follett’s contribution even more remarkable was how deeply counter-cultural it was at the time. It emerged during the zenith of Scientific Management, at a time when the “Great Man” theory of leadership was broadly accepted (one could argue it's still is, but that's another story). At a time when work was being de-personalized, systematized, and heavily managed through a formal chain of command, Mary Parker Follett offered an radically different vision.

What follows is a 5-point summary of Follett's perspective on the creative power of collaboration, how to effectively manage interdependence and diversity, and the nature of influence and authority in organizations that are more relational than hierarchical. (While I'll touch briefly on some of Follett's ideas of leadership, I'll leave most of these to a future post, since there's so much to unpack there)

Follett was an amazingly eloquent writer, so I've included several direct quotes for your reading pleasure.

1. Treat relationships as the fundamental driver of organizational success

Follett argued that collective impact—working toward a common goal, solving shared problems—is a deeply a relational activity:

“Our contribution is of no value unless it is effectively related to the contributions of all the others concerned…The success of organization engineering depends on its treatment of the problem of participation, of functional relating. To draw out the capacities of all and then to fit these together is our problem."[4]

Productive relationships between people are relationships of reciprocity—they’re part of a “circular" process of action and reaction. An individual shapes the work of the team she’s part of, and at the same time the team shapes her. This facilitates the growth of both the individual as well as the group. Given this, all interactions have potential and need to be nurtured:

“A man advances towards completeness not by further aggregations to himself, but by further and further relating of self to other men… The spirit craves totality, this is the motor of social progress; the process of getting it is not by adding more and more to ourselves, but by offering more and more of ourselves. Not appropriation but contribution is the law of growth. What our special contribution is, it is for us to discover. More and more to release the potentialities of the individual means the more and more progressive organization of society if at the same time we are learning how to coordinate all the variations.”[5]

2. Turn diversity into interdependence through community

According to Follett, the inevitable differences among human beings should be embraced since they can lead to richer exchange and better solutions:

“Instead of shutting out what is different, we should welcome it because it is different and through its difference will make a richer content of life.”[6]

The key is to harmonize, not homogenize:

“The core of the social process is not likeness… but the harmonizing of differences.”[7]

It’s only through a process of co-creation, of association—in other words, of community, that we get geniune alignment:

Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, nor absorbed. Anarchy means unorganized, unrelated difference; coordinated, unified difference belongs to our ideal of a perfect social order. We don’t want to avoid our adversary but to ‘agree with him quickly’; we must, however, learn the technique of agreeing.”[8]

Critically, this alignment happens without the need of hierarchy:

"The study of community as process does away with hierarchy. There is no above and below. We cannot schematize men as space objects. The study of community as process will bring us, I believe, not to the over-individual mind, but to the inter-individual mind, an entirely different conception.”[9]

3. Manage interdependence through a process of “integration”

How does the process of community—of harmonization, or unification, come about? Follett argued that members of groups can combine different perspectives and coordinate multiple actions (achieving creativity and control) through integration:

“It seems to me that the first test of business administration, of industrial organization, should be whether you have a business with all parts so co-ordinated, so moving together in their closely knit and adjusting activities, so linking, interlocking, interrelating, that they make a working unit-that is, not a congeries of separate pieces, but I have called a functional whole or integrative unity.”[10]

“The creative power of the individual appears not when one dominates others, but when all unite in a working whole. We see this same process in studying the group. It is the essential life process. The most familiar example of integrating as the social process is when two or three people meet to decide on some course of action, and separate with a purpose, a will, which was not possessed by anyone when he came to the meeting but is the result of the interweaving of all.”[11]

Practically speaking,how do groups achieve integration? Follett's writing points at four key steps:

  1. Have open dialogue in which everyone participates and lays out their point of view on a particular matter;
  2. The dialogue itself may remove some of the differences, as the exposure to different points of view may prompt people to change their mind or rethink their assumptions;
  3. If differences remain, these are recognized explicitly and treated as a shared problem in the group;
  4. Members work together to find solutions that are “win win.” For instance, by making concessions on points that are essential for one party but inconsequential to others, or combining individual expertise and knowledge to reframe the problem and develop creative solutions that meet the group’s needs.

Follett was a pragmatist, and understood that not every exchange can result in a positive-sum game. Yet she argued that this should be the default mode for groups to resolve differences and coordinate activity, since it's the one with the greatest likelihood to generate geniune committment and alignment:

“One advantage of integration over compromise I have not yet mentioned. If we get only compromise, the conflict will come up again and again in some other form, for in compromise we give up part of our desire, and because we shall not be content to rest there, sometime we shall try to get the whole of our desire. Watch industrial controversy, watch international controversy, and see how often this occurs. Only integration really stabilizes. But by stabilization I do not mean anything stationary. Nothing ever stays put. I mean only that that particular conflict is settled and the next occurs on a higher level.”[12]

That is, it's critical for group members themselves to find solutions—those imposed from outside unlikely to work.

4. Make authority contingent on the ability to facilitate integration, on the basis of expertise in a specific situation

A team that is in community operates with a radically different conception of authority and power compared to a hierarchy. Authority and influnce is product of one's ability to help the group be fully integrated:

“For authority, genuine authority, is the outcome of our common life. It does not come from separating people, from dividing them into two classes, those who command and those who obey. It comes from the intermingling of all, of my work fitting into yours and yours into mine, and from that intermingling of forces a power being created which will control those forces. Authority is a self-generating process. To learn more of that process, the process of control, is what we all think the world today most needs."[13]

Follett famously made the distinction between power with, not power over. Power-with is generated when all individuals “powers”—expertise, knowledge, skills—are combined.

“So far as my observation has gone, it seems to me that whereas power usually means power‑over, the power of some person or group over some other person or group, it is possible to develop the conception of power‑with, a jointly developed power, a co‑active, not a coercive power. In store or factory I do not think the management should have power over the workmen, or the workmen over the management.”[14]

"Power-with" is a relational, ongoing process:

“If your business is so organized that you can influence a co-manager while he is influencing you; so organized that a worker has an opportunity of influencing you as you have of influencing him’ if there is an interactive influence going on all the time, power-with may be built-up.”[15]

Follett argued that authority and power aren’t necessarily the correlates of position. Instead, they're determined by knowledge, experience, and the ability to bring knowledge and experience to bear in the context of a group:

Authority should go with knowledge and experience, that is where obedience is due no matter whether it is up or down the line.”[16]

According to Follett, orders aren’t given and aren’t personal—the specific context in each situation will help a well-functioning team to make the right decision, taking into consideration all the relevant input and expertise from members of the team. Power should be contingent-a radical departure from the conventional wisdom of power being vested in positions:

“One person should not give orders to another person, but both should agree to take their orders from the situation...Our job is not how to get people to obey orders, but how to devise methods by which we can best discover the order integral to a particular situation. When that is found, the employee can issue it to the employer, as well as employer to employee. This often happens easily and naturally. My cook or my stenographer points out the law of the situation, and I, if I recognize it as such, accept it, even although it may reverse some ‘order’ I have given.” [17]

5. Use shared purpose as an "invisible leader”

The last element is a short one, but critical. Another reason why collective effort can be productive in the absence of top-down direction and supervision is because it's guided by common purpose.

“The best executives put this common purpose clearly before their group. While leadership depends on depth of conviction and the power coming there from, there must also be the ability to share that conviction with others, the ability to make purpose articulate. And then that common purpose becomes the leader. And I believe that we are coming more and more to act, whatever our theories, on our faith in the power of this invisible leader. Loyalty to following The Invisible Leader gives us the strongest possible bond of union, establishes a sympathy which is not a sentimental but a dynamic sympathy.”[18]

To Mary Parker Follett, effective work is deeply relational. It depends on fusing together diverse skills and perspectives. It doesn't try to minimize interdependence, but rather integrate it. It bestows influence and authority to those who can maiximize collective impact at any given time, irrespective of roles and credentials. It generates committment and control through a shared purpose, as opposed to supervision.

These attributes aptly describe how value and meaning are created in the 21st century workplace. It's truly amazing that Follett was putting them into practice at the dawn of the 20th.

It's also thrilling to see a direct line between Follett's ideas and the management philosophy and practices of the post-bureuacratic vanguard we feature in Humanocracy. She would not be at all surprised by success of organizatons like Nucor, Buurtzorg, and Morning Star.

Follett's message deserves to be heard, now more than ever. I hope you'll join me in spreading it.

  1. Warren Bennis, “Thoughts on ‘The Essentials of Leadership,” in Pauline Graham, Mary Parker Follett: The Prophet of Management, Boston MA: Harvard Business Press, 2003, p. 144. ↩︎

  2. Sebastien Damart, How Mary P. Follett’s ideas on management have emerged, Journal of Management History Vol. 19 No. 4, 2013 pp. 459-473. ↩︎

  3. Mary Parker Follett, The New State: Group Organization, The solution of Popular Government, New York Longmans, Green and Co., 1918, p. 3 ↩︎

  4. Elliot M. Fox and Lyndall Urwick, eds., Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett, London: Pitman, 1973, p. 194. ↩︎

  5. Follett, The New State, pp. 65-66. ↩︎

  6. Follett, The New State, p. 40. ↩︎

  7. Follett, The New State, p. 34. ↩︎

  8. Follett, The New State, p. 39. ↩︎

  9. Follett, “Community is a Process,” The Philosophical Review, Vol. 28, No. 6 (Nov., 1919), p. 582-583. ↩︎

  10. Fox and Urwick, p. 71. ↩︎

  11. Follett, "Community is a Process, p. 576. ↩︎

  12. Fox and Urwick, p. 35 ↩︎

  13. Lyndall Urwick, ed. Freedom & Co-ordination: Lectures in Business Organization, London: Management Publications Trust Ltd., 1949, p, 46. ↩︎

  14. Fox and Urwick, p. 101. ↩︎

  15. Fox and Urwick, p. 104. ↩︎

  16. Pauline Graham, ed, Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of Management, Washington, DC: Beard Books, 2003, p. 108. ↩︎

  17. Fox and Urwick, p. 58. ↩︎

  18. Urwick, p., 55. ↩︎