Monday, October 31, 2016

The Distributed Periphery

I was flipping through the pages of a favorite book this week and came across the following quote:

The trick is to ... recognize that the power to achieve great things lies more in the work of the distributed periphery than in the inner workings of the center.

It's one of those leadership lessons that I need to remind myself of more often. Truly great organizations don't cluster leadership only in their inner circle; they distribute leadership throughout their entire system. This allows any piece of the organization, especially those pieces on the periphery, to make decisions, to take action, and to more immediately satisfy the needs of the organization's stakeholders.

But in reflecting anew on this quote, I came to realize that there is bias in its very phraseology. Although the term "distributed periphery" has a certain poetry to it, it betrays the inclusive spirit the quote is trying to convey. Different parts of an organization have different tasks to perform and responsibilities to uphold, and, frequently, organizations will perpetuate a set of hierarchies among those responsibilities; but it is only through the prism of those hierarchies can it be said that one part of the organization is the center and another part is the periphery.

In essence, that's what an organization will look like if you view it from the inside through its organization chart.

But if you ask an external stakeholder--a customer--what each part of the organization looks like, they are likely to offer a very different perspective. From that view, what you may call the distributed periphery may very well be the only part of the organization they touch. The only part that matters.

So the quote is not only a refreshing call to redouble your work of better distributing leadership and decision-making throughout your organization, it is also pointed reminder to view your organization the way your customers do. Not from the inside out, but from the outside in.

I think I'll start flipping through old books more often.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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