Open innovation and organisations do not thrive without leadership. But its leadership of a very different kind from organisations of old.
Leading a flock
Imagine you are organising your ten-year old son’s birthday party, the kind of boy for whom parents have started to become an embarrassment. How would you manage that task? Well if you brought in the people from McKinsey you would probably first do an exhaustive trawl to benchmark global best-practices in tenth birthday parties. You would get together all of the parents of the children attending the party for an away-day at which, with a facilitator, you would agree a vision statement and some learning goals for the party, which would be set out on a small card, given to every child on their arrival. It would be made clear that their performance against these goals would determine what kind of party bag they would leave with and how much food they get. The top performers would get bonus presents. Half way through the party everything would grind to a halt so that all the children and adults could engage in 360 degree discussions to recalibrate their goals for the remainder of the party. The party would not conclude without a knowledge management team coming in to debrief everyone and make sure lessons learned were downloaded.
There is a reason McKinsey restructures corporations and does not throw children’s parties. As Dave Snowden, the knowledge management advising puts it: children’s parties are complex, self-organising affairs. They are at their best when they are boisterous, slightly unruly and on the edge of being out of control. A child’s party that is under control is dull. One that spins out of control will end in tears. Parties work best when they take on a life of their own, without ever becoming chaotic. The rules for throwing a good child’s party are quite simple. To start with you have to set the tone, by establishing a clear and simple purpose: we are here to celebrate a birthday. That says everything people need to know about how they should behave and what is about to happen: bring a present, dress up, be prepared to have a good time. Setting the tone gives people a huge amount of information not just about what they should be ready to do, but how: it motivates as well as informs. Then you have to provide some attractors, to attract the flock of children towards activities that will engage them: an entertainer or a game, something they can all get involved with. You also have to set some boundaries so people also know where not to go and what not to do: do not go into the parent’s bedroom, do not push your sister in the pond. Those boundaries need to set with care. If they are drawn too close then the children will cross them too often and so call on your authority too much, eventually overstretching it. As all parents know, the more you intervene the more demand for intervention you create. Once you have sorted out one argument, another hand shoots up asking for assistance. Intervene rarely; encourage people to sort out their disputes among themselves and make up; withdraw fast. The more parents there are trying to keep order the more chaos there will be. Timing is also critical. A party that goes on too long is exhausting. Too short and it is frustrating. Being realistic about how long it will take is vital. If you can keep to those simple rules then you have a chance to enjoy the final one: stand back an enjoy. Children’s parties are at their best when the children self-organise and play among themselves. What children enjoy most about parties is playing with one another: there are no consumers in a good party and no value chain delivering pleasure to them. The children are participants. They are what make the party enjoyable.
Parties examples of our everyday capacity for self-organisation, where the parents provide the platform, some rules and some tools, to encourage mass participation. No two parties are ever the same. They run best with a few simple rules. The same is true for all efforts at mass innovation that combine a large number of participants in a complex project. In future we should try to run organisations more in the way that we throw parties. But that will require some very significant changes to the way organisations are led. Good managers are often the enemies of innovation. They stifle it, control it or seek to dominate it. They are often bad at providing a simple, compelling sense of purpose that people need to engage their imaginations. Traditional organisations are often poor at creating attractors: they hope to encourage people to innovate by putting too much emphasis on money at the expense of recognition and quality of working life. Many large organisations, especially in the public sector, are bad at confining themselves to setting only a few simple rules, preferring instead complex and detailed rules that ensnare potential innovators. Often impatient leaders overestimate what can be done in the short-run when they seek to drive change but underestimate how much can be changed in the long run, once the momentum for change builds up. As we move from closed to more open and interactive models of innovation, so we will need a parallel shift in management and leadership. It will not happen without an enormous, often uncomfortable struggle. The people with the most to lose from new, looser forms of self-organising are the people at the top of traditional organisations: professionals, leaders and managers. They will not change without a fight.