Management and messiness

[Cross posted at FASTforward blog]

I’ve been mulling over Clay Shirky‘s remarks yesterday at FASTforward09. The bookends to his talk hint at some key challenges to managers contemplating their entry into the world of social media and Enterprise 2.0. Clay’s opening five word summary of Enterprise 2.0 is simply “group action just got easier.” While he shared a number of excellent stories and lessons, it was his closing discussion of how Amazon added social elements to its existing pages that I want to focus on.

By Clay’s count there are some 16 different social elements that are today part of the typical product page on Amazon. Each of these elements became part of the page as the outcome of an individual experiment. Amazon’s approach is to make it easy, and organizationally safe, to run experiments quickly and cheaply. While there is a technological component to making this experimentation cost-effective, it is the management and cultural aspects that are critical to success.

What Clay is calling attention to is the value to be found in encouraging the fundamental messiness and disorder of invention and discovery. Unfortunately, managers generally don’t become managers because they are fond of disorder. Even managers who have long ago abandoned the caricatures of command and control models are likely to find guiding this kind of innovation a source of discomfort. But it is discomfort that is essential to encouraging the sort of retail level innovation made possible in the technology environment that is emerging.

Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling once observed that “the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.” That’s the mechanism at work at Amazon and with Enterprise 2.0 innovation in general. What Clay skipped over in his remarks was a look at the number of ideas that were tried and never made the cut at Amazon. This is unfortunate because it can encourage executives to ignore the “lots of ideas” prerequisite to “good ideas.” Amazon’s approach is sometimes portrayed as lowering the cost of failure. More appropriately, it is about lowering the costs of all experiments. While the technology environment is one factor in lowering the cost of experimenting, there are also managerial and cultural costs to manage. For example, if you insist on wrapping too much methodology and project management overhead around experimenting that will discourage ideas and fewer ideas implies fewer good ideas.

This is not a suggestion that there is nothing to manage. Instead, it’s about seeking just enough control. It’s also about becoming comfortable with trusting your people and the process of experimentation and learning.

 

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