Archive for May, 2010

[2b2k] YouTube leadership

I had dinner last night with a couple of people writing a report on the future of leadership for a Very Large Company. I argued once again against the importance of leadership, at least in its traditional sense. I believe less and less that there is some masterable set of skills that constitute leadership, especially as the organization gets larger. Further, I think it’s almost always useful to replace the question “What skills does a leader need?” with “How should the group be organized to best achieve its goals?” Sometimes the answer to that latter question will be, “It needs as strong leader,” but more often the traditional tasks of leadership will be distributed among members of the group, or will become a property of the group itself. (For example, in a collaborative or emergent group, decision-making is a property of the group.) (Tony Burgess of Company Command mentions this line of thought in an article at the Harvard Business Review site. In a hallway of mirrors, he mentions my interviewing him for an article of mine that HBR is considering running.)

Last night, I gave the usual examples of Web leadership: Linux, Wikipedia, and Open Source more generally. These projects would not have been possible in a traditional leader-led organization. But, in addition to looking at large-scale collaborative projects as case studies of Web leadership, suppose we look at what we’re replacing traditional institutions with. YouTube is replacing traditional broadcast TV — not removing broadcast, but eating into its TV-watching share — and file sharing is doing the same to the recording industry. Yet these epochal changes were accomplished without traditional leaders. And these are not merely illustrative examples. Most Web users don’t have any experience of contributing to Linux, Wikipedia, or Open Source projects, but we do routinely encounter YouTube and music sharing. Most Web users therefore have direct experience of the power, success, and utility of leaderless change and leaderless institutions. In fact, anyone using the Web has that experience, because the Web only succeeded because it is leaderless. That experience of organizing without organizations (a la Shirky), leaderlessly, is defining the upcoming workforce (as the young love to be referred to as).

There are still domains and circumstances in which leadership matters. But we are losing — have lost — the assumption that groups require leaders to accomplish their mission. Increasingly, the need for a strong leader is a sign of a defect in the group structure.

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[2b2k] Scoping diversity

In chapter 4 I need to bring the book back down to earth for the reader. The previous chapter left the reader thinking that there’s no bottom to the worldwide disagreements the worldwide web is making apparent. There’s too much difference. So, I’m beginning Chapter 4 with some rules of thumb for scoping diversity — that is, getting the right amount that a group can work together and make itself smarter, as opposed to either falling into groupthink or falling apart because people just disagree too fundamentally. I seem to have four heuristics, although, as always with such sets, that there are four and not three or fifteen is more arbitrary than any of us would like to believe.

1. Get the right type of diversity. I make heavy use of Scott Page’s The Difference here. What counts is a diversity of ways of thinking and skills, not races or ages (unless race or age are markers for the relevant differences). (BTW, Scott and I have the same editor.)

2. Have just enough in common. In order for people to even carry on a conversation, they have to have almost everything in common, starting with a shared language. It’s important to get the amount of variance just right.

3. Just right? That doesn’t help at all! But there is no fixed amount. That’s why the third rule of thumb is: Use human moderators both to find the commonality in overheated differences, but also to add differences when the conversation becomes complacent.

4. Fork it! Forking is a powerful tool.

If you have other rules of thumb for getting the right amount of diversity into a group or a conversation, please let me know.

By the way, I do realize that three of the four pare down what we deal with, which is what I said was the old way of dealing with knowledge, not the new way. I plan on facing that issue in the second section of the chapter.

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[2b2k] What’s it all about?

At FOO East, at a small session, I gave a brief re-cap of what “Too Big to Know” is supposed to be about, and asked for help, particularly with the chapter I’m about to start writing (on “difference”), and with an upcoming chapter on how we make decisions. The “difference” chapter deals with the question the prior chapter — a history of facts — leaves the reader with: If we no longer (at least in many fields) have the comfortof thinking thatt what we know of the world rests on a bedrock of facts, then what do we about the, um, fact that we don’t collectively agree about anything?

The discussion was quite helpful about those two chapters, especially the one on decisions. I may blog about that later, but something quite disturbing happened during the hour-long discussion. About three-quarters of the way in, someone (let’s call him Seth because that’s not his name), said, kindly, “I understand what this book is about, but with your other books I knew why they mattered. I’m not getting why this one does.”

The problem is that Seth is just about my ideal reader. He even liked my other books. So, if I can’t explain to him face to face why 2b2k matters, then I have a problem.

Now, maybe I just did a lousy job in my overview. And, actually, I did. I got snared by some abstract points I happen to find interesting. Plus, since it was an overview, I didn’t go through the examples in the various chapters, which made the book sound more theoretical than it is. But Seth’s problem is real and worrisome.

His comment bothers me particularly because I worry that I am peculiarly hung up about knowledge. I think we’re undergoing a revolution in knowledge, but most of the world doesn’t think about it in those terms, and most of the world has been making the transition in a pragmatic and effective way anyway. This is one reason why the topic of expertise is better for the book than the topic of knowledge, although the book has slipped its leash and now seems to be chasing knowledge through the underbrush. People know that the role of experts and expertise matters.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. For now I’m going to leave chapter 3 — the history of facts chapter that’s actually about removing the hope of hitting bedrock in our arguments — as is (especially since I just finished a draft of it three days ago). I’m going to make sure that the next chapter, on the inevitability of difference and disagreement, gets pulled back toward pragmatic questions. Inevitably, in that chapter I’m going to talk about the assumptions that underlie our belief that since diversity is good for decisions, radical diversity is even better. Some of that will be theoreticalish. But I will be sure to stress practical considerations, especially how to scope difference, i.e., how much diversity of opinion is good and when does too much diversity get in the way of progress towards accepted goals. (Scott Page’s “The Difference” is useful here.) I hope also to talk about homophily, serendipity, and curiosity (= demand-side serendipity).

Addressing Seth’s question makes the chapter on decisions especially important, because decisions are where the questions of knowledge come to a head. Difference, diversity, blah blah blah, but now does this affect me at the moment when I have to say yes or no?

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