The Illusion of Control

It is easy to believe that we run programs from Baltimore. That is what we do, right? But it’s a fallacy, maybe a sort of optical illusion, a trick of perspective. When I sit in my office in Baltimore, looking out over a busy American street, hearing the hum of dozens of other staff in the office working hard, making decisions and writing Important Documents, the illusion of control is pretty strong.

But in other offices in Abuja and Blantyre and elsewhere staff look out over busy streets that look quite different from my own. Whether they feel it or not, true control rests with them there. The weight of a program is with the beneficiaries, the place where (eventually) strategies and plans turn into women and men interacting with each other in clinics, on street corners, and over dinner tables (or under the sheets). When I see the work this way I envision an enormous web of relationships, information, and influence that is nowhere near as tidy as an organizational chart with a person – nominally “in control” – at the top. Controlling that web – particularly from across oceans, continents, and cultures – is a fool’s errand. We can’t control that web, no matter how hard we try, and in any case control risks substituting our judgement for someone else’s, and in this cross-culture business that is a risky thing to do.

So if not control, what? Do we just push paper and let our country-based programs go their own way? No. The alternative to control, maybe its antidote, is influence. The goal isn’t to control that vast web of relationships and information, but to make sure that your opinions, judgements, knowledge, and beliefs influence how the web functions – and to allow that web to influence you, too.

Certainly you could think of things like required policies and systems as tools that give us control. But they don’t, really. People who want to can skirt policies, fake systems. They may do that for nefarious reasons, or they may do that because the policies and systems make no sense to them and they have deadlines and goals and targets to meet. In the first case, nefarious motives, control wouldn’t help. People trying to cheat programs should be fired, not influenced or controlled. In the second case, someone (or a whole office) who isn’t following policies and systems, more control, more policies, more systems, probably won’t help unless they come with a dose of helpful influence – the sharing of motivations, challenges, and information that will help people understand what you are asking them to do and why. Influence, usually, is in the why.

The good thing about influence is that anyone can develop it, even when you are low on the hierarchy. Control generally flows down, and it is exclusive – if I control something, by definition you cannot. But I can influence you, and you can influence me, regardless of our organizational positions. I trust that interplay of influence to result in good decisions much more than I trust the infallibility of a person “in control.”

People who have heard me make declarative statements about what we can or can’t do with our programs may say I’m being disingenuous here. That’s probably fair. It’s true that those of us who supervise others have outsized influence, and so we should use it carefully. That I have more power doesn’t make me more right. When I sit in a meeting and say, “we are going to pull that strategy back and rewrite it,” I hope I am voicing confidence in my ability to influence the folks who care most about that strategy, not my ability to control them. I sometimes fail to influence people the way I’d like, I must admit, and products have gone out carrying the weight of my doubt. I can live with that because I know that an insistence on control may have resulted in even greater mistakes.

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