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Chapter 10 part 2

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Attraction not Propulsion Edit

Innovators are pulled towards interesting challenges, they gather around intriguing questions and opportunities. That is what leaders of open source communities – the likes of Linus Torvalds, Sydney Brenner, and Jimmy Wales – do so well. They attract collaborators to interesting questions, orchestrate creative conversations around those questions, help set the framework in which people make decisions themselves about which ideas are best. Open leaders tend to come from the communities they lead. Their position is established through merit. They embody the values of the organisation in what they have done and how they behave. They do not make too many decisions, nor set the direction in detail but they do propagate the values that guide the community forward.

It is like the difference between propulsion and attraction. Most traditional senior managers think they are in the propulsion business: it is their job to propel their organisation on, drive it forward. Senior managers arrive at their offices early in the morning, ready to pick up the organisation as if it were a rock and throw it forward, to get it from A to B. But instead imagine your task is to get a bird from point A to point B. If you have spent too much time with McKinsey & Co you will know the solution is to strap up the bird’s wings, attach a rock to the bottom and throw it. The bird is likely to die in the process and has been robbed of all birdlike properties but at least it gets to its destination. Now imagine your task is to get a flock of birds from point A to point B. That flock includes you staff, customers, suppliers, shareholders, partners, even some of your competitors. You do not have enough hands and rocks to propel them all. The only way to get them to point B is to attract them by putting out bird-seed and water at point B. Standard approaches to management rely on shock and propulsion. Innovation thrives when flocks of creative people – inside and outside and organisations – are attracted to an exciting goal or opportunity. That is how Linux, eBay, Wikipedia and Brenner’s worm project got going: a swarm of innovators was attracted to an interesting question posed by people who in time became leaders of a community. Closed leaders mainly propel. Open leaders mainly attract: they create the conditions for creative self-organisation by articulating compelling goals and unlock the capacity of others to reach those goals. As Jimmy Wales explains leadership of Wikipedia is not just invested in him, although he plays a role as quasi-monarch. Leadership, accountability and power are distributed throughout the community through a mixture of different ways for people to take decisions and justify them: anarchy, democracy, meritocracy and aristocracy. We-think organisations would not succeed without leadership, but it is leadership of a completely different style from the stereotypical, charismatic ceo. Or put it another way if it’s a choice between Jack Welch and Jimmy Wales, give me Jimmy Wales everytime.

Traditional closed organisations bred generations of closed leaders. Leadership was a job for special people, who worked in special places: the executive offices, with their attached dining rooms, restrooms and lounges. Leadership was something people did at the top of an organisation, because they had special qualities, skills and information. Leaders made the decisions that counted: they gave permission and approval. They made sure resources were “aligned” behind corporate priorities, by creating the right incentives or issuing instructions. If you did not know what to do next in a traditional organisation the best idea was to ask someone in authority for guidance. That is what leaders did: decisions went up for approval, instructions and permissions filtered down.

The organisational upheavals of the last twenty years have put enormous pressure on this closed model of leadership. Organisations and leaders need to be more alert, agile and nimble. Networked organisations cannot be self-contained. They can be affected by events in far-flung financial markets and economies. Developed societies are becoming more democratic, with a growing stress on individual rights and choice. People increasingly see their careers as an expression of their identity, something they want to control rather than something the company defines. Traditional sources of authority are more likely to be questioned, less-likely to be followed meekly. Leaders in all walks of life operate in a far more open environment, with constant scrutiny from the media, regulators and their own employees. Leaders cannot control the conversations that take place about their organisations and their own performance. Followers are not voiceless. Their support cannot be taken for granted, it needs to be renewed, time and again.

Closed leadership is too slow because too many decisions have to be passed upwards for approval to an often homogenous elite. Command and control may impart drive to an organisation for a while, perhaps during a crisis, but over the long run it undermines motivation and initiative. It is increasingly difficult for organisations to maintain a sense of order and stability through a hierarchy drawn on an organisational chart. The closed model of leadership, like the closed model of pipeline innovation, is increasingly outmoded in a era of mass creativity and participation. Traditional managerial leadership is often at odds with innovation. Good managers often say they want innovation but actually they hate it.

Innovation invariably starts with ignorance, someone asking a stupid question. Michael Dell asked as stupid question about the computer industry: “Why do we have to sell computers through shops? Why not sell them over the phone, or online, make them just-in-time and ship them direct.” Yet asking stupid questions makes you look naïve and being a manager means being in control, having the answers. Admitting ignorance looks like weakness. But unless you are prepared to admit to ignorance – you do not know the answer to an interesting question - it is very difficult to get innovation going. Innovation often requires unlearning: a critical reassessment of the past. It is very difficult to create the space to do new things, unless you can clear away the undergrowth of old habits, and ways of thinking. That means looking hard at the past and working out what needs to be retained and what can be consigned to the dustbin. Senior managers have more invested in the past than anyone else in an organisation: the past is what got them promoted to where they are today. Asking senior managers to unlearn old habits is like asking them to recant what made them successful.

Innovation comes from diversity and dissonance: interacting with people who not only think differently from you but may well contest your view of the world. How many managers appoint people who are going to disagree with them and make life uncomfortable by constantly questioning assumptions? It is much more likely that senior managers will appoint people who share their vision, think like them, reinforce the way they see the world. Criticism and failure has to become routine, not something that people feel blamed for or afraid of. Yet few senior managers talk openly about their failures. If it is impossible to talk about failure then it’s impossible to learn and so impossible to innovate, and if senior managers are not prepared to set the tone, by talking about their failures, then how can other people in the rest of the organisation summon up the courage to do so? Closed leadership encouraged conformity; innovation requires diversity. It is very difficult to have ideas unless you see the world from different vantage points. Yet most managers spend their days at their desk, in their office, at the seat of power. Innovation is impossible without spare capacity. If all parts of a corporate machine are finely honed to do their job, to fit perfectly with the other parts of the organisation and no more, then there will be no room for innovation. Innovation requires some spare time, in which people can fiddle, imagine, try out new things. Good managers abhor spare capacity. Driven by performance targets they like organisations to be lean and focussed.

Many innovations start in the margins of a business, yet most managers are not interested in embryonic markets because they are too small and too risky. They want sure-fire investments in large, mainstream markets, where incremental innovations targeted at consumers the company already knows, have a high probability of paying off. Senior managers sitting atop large companies think big. But that is a real problem if innovation starts small. Most of all creativity needs inspiration: leaders who set the tone. Yet senior managers are mainly concerned with market share, margins, costs and profits. They talk the language of numbers when people want values and goals embedded in simple stories which sum up what they are trying to achieve.


Effective leaders, these days, have to be open in several respects. Organisations have to be more open to the world beyond them, their suppliers and partners, but also to ideas that comes from beyond their walls. They will have to be more open in the way they work, providing greater transparency for shareholders, regulators, stakeholders and the public. Routes to leadership will have to become open to a wider range of people. In the past leadership positions have largely been closed to women and ethnic minorities. Most important for innovation, leaders will have to be open to challenge and question: they will have to be curious and inquisitive. They cannot afford to be intellectually closed. They will have to be accessible to the people they lead, visible and part of the conversation at work, rather than cut off in the executive suite. Leadership will not longer be the preserve of the people at the top of the organisation: it needs to be exercised in large and small way by many people at all levels. If innovation is going to come from all over the organisation, then so too will leadership.

This desire for more open styles leadership is not confined to a handful of trendy, Californian companies, employing creative types. In 2003 I was asked by a leading consulting firm to write a report on the views of emerging young corporate leaders in Korean, Brazil, Germany, the UK and the US. Their message was remarkably consistent. Heroic top down leadership did not work anymore: it was too clumsy and too slow; people were no longer willing to be told what to do and potential leaders were no longer willing to sacrifice everything else in their life, including their families, for their jobs. As one young Brazilian executive in her early thirties put it: “There used to be big delays in decision making in big companies, with the hierarchy. Nowadays you have to follow the market, so you have to change much faster.” Her German counterpart described the shift in these terms: “Once upon a time those above were nodded to and up there someone sat all alone and decided and left their mark. Now the competencies are distributed on all level, not equally, but at least so that one can more quickly decide. The trend is away from the authoritative style of management in which one person decided and others carried out. The emphasis now is more on team work.”

The shift from more closed to more open and democratic forms of leadership will not happen without a struggle, however. That struggle is going on from politics to business as new generations of leaders, with new values and styles, attempt to fashion more open approaches to leadership in fields used to older, closed models.

Effective leaders, these days, have to be open in several respects. Organisations have to be more open to the world beyond them, their suppliers and partners, but also to ideas that comes from beyond their walls. They will have to be more open in the way they work, providing greater transparency for shareholders, regulators, stakeholders and the public. Routes to leadership will have to become open to a wider range of people. In the past leadership positions have largely been closed to women and ethnic minorities. Most important for innovation, leaders will have to be open to challenge and question: they will have to be curious and inquisitive. They cannot afford to be intellectually closed. They will have to be accessible to the people they lead, visible and part of the conversation at work, rather than cut off in the executive suite. Leadership will not longer be the preserve of the people at the top of the organisation: it needs to be exercised in large and small way by many people at all levels. If innovation is going to come from all over the organisation, then so too will leadership.

This desire for more open styles leadership is not confined to a handful of trendy, Californian companies, employing creative types. In 2003 I was asked by a leading consulting firm to write a report on the views of emerging young corporate leaders in Korean, Brazil, Germany, the UK and the US. Their message was remarkably consistent. Heroic top down leadership did not work anymore: it was too clumsy and too slow; people were no longer willing to be told what to do and potential leaders were no longer willing to sacrifice everything else in their life, including their families, for their jobs. As one young Brazilian executive in her early thirties put it: “There used to be big delays in decision making in big companies, with the hierarchy. Nowadays you have to follow the market, so you have to change much faster.” Her German counterpart described the shift in these terms: “Once upon a time those above were nodded to and up there someone sat all alone and decided and left their mark. Now the competencies are distributed on all level, not equally, but at least so that one can more quickly decide. The trend is away from the authoritative style of management in which one person decided and others carried out. The emphasis now is more on team work.”

The shift from more closed to more open and democratic forms of leadership will not happen without a struggle, however. That struggle is going on from politics to business as new generations of leaders, with new values and styles, attempt to fashion more open approaches to leadership in fields used to older, closed models.


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