Source: Harvard Business Review
by Marina Gorbis 11:00 AM April 22, 2013
We live in a world in which amplified individuals — people empowered by technologies and the collective intelligence of their social networks — can do things that previously only a large organization could. Indeed, they can do some things that no organization could do before. For better and worse, this is the world in which weekend software hackers can disrupt large software firms, and rapidly orchestrated social movements can bring down governments.
Amplified individuals include artists, musicians, community organizers, and techies working alongside nontechies. For a glimpse of how their talents are “amplified,” visit, for example, BioCurious — a well equipped biology lab in the San Francisco Bay area that is actually a former garage full of apparatus bought on the cheap on eBay. Most of us think of biotech as the province of multinational pharmaceutical corporations and well-funded ventures, but the founders of BioCurious believe (as they say in their mission statement) “that innovations in biology should be accessible, affordable, and open to everyone.” The most capable synthetic biologists in the BioCurious community work not only on their own pet projects; they also help others learn to do so by offering classes in subjects like Molecular Biology, Bioinformatics, and Bioprinting. Unlike in traditional university settings, the classes are open to anyone; you don’t need to fulfill requirements or take a long list of prerequisites in order to attend. All you have to bring to the class is interest and curiosity.
To use a term I introduced in an earlier piece, people like these are engaged in “socialstructing” — that is, bypassing established institutions and processes for building new things, and instead working to create what they find missing in the world by communicating the need to their social networks, mobilizing whatever resources they have at their disposal, and pursuing solutions collaboratively. Amplified individuals are an especially formidable force because the hard work they do is work they choose for themselves, and it is the focus of the strongest of their talents.
This is the kind of amplification that plays out daily at the Tech Shop, where people are pioneering new manufacturing models. Hanging around there, you might come up with an idea for a product, then quickly prototype it at Tech Shop with advice and support from the larger community. You could get funding on Kickstarter, then manufacture it through a flexible network of small-scale producers in China and elsewhere around the world. Voila! No large-scale manufacturing facility required. A small group of individuals, amplified with connections to each other and access to resources previously available only to large organizations, can create at scales they could previously only dream of.
Given that energized innovators like these are disrupting many existing products, and the business models behind them, you can feel threatened by them. Or you can learn from them and work to turn your own organization into a collection of amplified individuals. The latter is the path we’ve chosen at the Institute for the Future (IFTF). Based on what we’ve learned so far, I can offer a few tips for other organizations hoping to amplify their workers’ talents and energy for greater innovation capacity and impact:
Change how you measure performance. The value you seek from employees, and should recognize and reward, can’t be measured only by focusing on their internal contributions. It also depends on their connections to and their standing in external communities that are important to your organization. At IFTF, several of our staff members run organizations of their own or contribute actively to other networks’ efforts. These activities contribute to our organization’s impact and increase the range of views and ideas we encounter. This is why we encourage our staff to expand and create their own external idea and knowledge networks.
Design the organization to support individual initiative, not control employees’ actions. We proudly show people our unusual organizational chart (more a constellation of project networks than a linear hierarchy) because it casts IFTF as a platform on which project teams and other work structures can self-organize, tackle issues, and solve problems. “The value of self-organizing structures is that they can act quickly, responsively, and creatively from the edges,” we explain in our vision statement. “The guiding concepts in this view of leadership are openness, self-election, continuous prototyping, robust platforms, and low coordination costs. Leadership skills focus on community building, consensus building, mediation, commitment, and humility.”
Socialize your underused assets. Under the traditional logic of management, it would make sense to jealously guard the use of any productive assets a firm has invested in. But in reality, nearly every organization has a surplus of resources of one type or another. Some have an abundance of physical space, others have equipment and tools that are rarely used, and still others have talent that is not fully engaged. A few years ago my colleagues and I decided that we could donate our surfeit of conference space to be used on weekends and some evenings by various communities whose work we want to encourage. We now regularly open this space to meetups, hack days, science bar days, and other informal gatherings of people with similar interests (science, biology, coding, 3D printing, and such). In the process we learn from these external innovators, extend our network, and engender a lot of goodwill. Think of the resources you have in abundance and how you might “socialize” them to build your organization’s social capital and enrich the flow of ideas.
Stop to consider how these few managerial changes would support and extend an individual’s initiative in your organization, and you’ll soon start to think of other tactics as well. Undoubtedly the ideas you come up with will share the common theme of loosening traditional managerial reins. But don’t let that loss of control frighten you. By recognizing the power of amplification, you will be rewarded with more energized, empowered, and innovative workers, and be able to achieve a whole new level of reach and impact.