The Structure of Power

Kenneth Boulding, in his brilliant book Principles of Economic Policy , describes the connection between power, choice, and possibility:

[P]ower is measured by the area within which choice is possible. If you have no choice, you have no power. Power, in other words, is measured by all the things you could do if you desired.

Boulding goes on to describe possibility boundaries, boundaries that mark the limits of our choices. We are free to choose our position within our possibility boundaries. Outside the boundary are all of the positions that we cannot reach, whatever our choices.

We can sort our possibilities along various dimensions of possibility. For example, at any moment we each have a physical possibility boundary. There are places I could go in the next hour if I so chose. There are places I could not go regardless of my choice.

We each, at any moment, have an economic possibility boundary. Given my current financial resources, there are things I could buy and things I could not buy.

There are many such dimensions of possibility, and we could refine these two into a richer set of categories if we wished. However many dimensions we might use to analyze our range of possibilities, our choices are bounded.

At any moment, our total field of possibility is the intersection of the possibilities along all dimensions. I may have enough money to buy an antique mahogany desk at an auction that starts in three minutes in Ponca City, Oklahoma, but if I can't get to Ponca City in time, I can't bid. I may be able to attend an auction for a multi-million dollar mansion here in Sacramento, but if I don't have the money, I can't bid. My possibilities for bidding at these auctions are limited by both my physical possibility boundary and my economic possibility boundary.

An implication I see in this "possibility boundary" model is that we increase our power by expanding our field of possibility. We expand the field of possibility by pushing back the boundaries along one or more dimensions. And we push back the boundaries by acquiring resources—money, skills, knowledge, clarity of purpose, permits, tools, reputation, friendships, Miles Davis CDs, and so on.

We can acquire resources in three ways. First, we can create resources, such as when we create new knowledge by learning from our experience. Second, we can exchange our resources for others that give us greater possibility for creating value, such as when we pay money for an airplane ticket, or sell an airplane ticket for money. Third, we can integrate our existing resources into forms that offer greater possibility, such as when Elisabeth Hendrickson and I recently teamed up to combine her testing expertise with my facilitation skills to lead a workshop about how Agile software development affects testers and test managers.

I think that possibility alone doesn't give the full measure of power. I see another factor: the wisdom of our choices. We can increase our power by increasing our discernment about where we choose to be within our field of possibility.

Boulding addresses this, partially, by introducing the dimension of psychological possibility: the set of positions that we are willing to choose. The psychological possibility boundaries that we create for ourselves are often the boundaries that most constrain us. If I refuse to fly on an airplane, I can't reach Ponca City in six hours, much less three minutes. If I were willing to fly, my possibilities would increase.

From all of this, I'm refining my model of The Structure of Power . Here's the skeleton:

  • We derive our power from the possibilities available to us and the wisdom of our choices.
  • We increase our possibilities by increasing our resources.
  • We increase our resources by creating new resources, by exchanging less powerful resources for more powerful ones, or by integrating our existing resources into more powerful forms.

I have a great deal more to say about power. Later.

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