(written with Maury Peiperl, Ph.D.)
Management gurus tell us what leadership is...and isn't. Years of research have taken us from employee-driven quality control, to empowerment, to "followership." By "turning the pyramid upside down," many of these approaches encourage employees to do what they think is best to serve customers, improve processes and innovate. Beyond these, however, in the age of closer and closer connectedness we are seeing a new organizational phenomenon. We call it crowdsourcing leadership. Much like composer Eric Whitacre, who uses crowdsourcing to splice together individual singers' voices to create masterful choral works (albeit with digital technology), business leaders are increasingly asking employees to lend their voices--and talents--to the chorus of direction and leadership.
A few cases in point. Four years ago, the ailing Nokia Corp. hired Microsoft executive Stephen Elop, a Canadian, to turn around the company. Once the market leader, Nokia rested on its laurels and allowed rivals Blackberry, Apple, and Samsung to make significant inroads in the smartphone market. Elop could have issued a series of edicts and proclamations to assert his strategy and direction. Instead, humility and an inquisitive brand of intelligence led him to a different path. On his first day as CEO, Elop sent out an email to all Nokia employees asking them to respond to him individually with their answers to three questions: What do you think we need to change? What should we not miss? And What should stay the same? Elop explained, "people know what the problems are...only they haven't been asked [in the past]. You have to listen to [them]." He received thousands of responses...which were then analyzed by a team who presented the findings to all of Nokia including Elop. This collective input--a crowdsourced plan for the leadership of the company and its people--became Elop's plan. Is it working? In addition to the positive response from employees, who were suspicious at first (Nokia was not known for transparency), the market is slowly but steadily responding, with improved share prices and analysts' opinions. Elop offers "We're selling more phones this week than last week." (personal communication, March 5, 2013)
George Hu, COO of Salesforce.com, shared his leadership approach in the New York Times. He credited his rise from intern to COO in ten years not to solving problems his boss asked him to solve, but to solving the problems "they know they have but nobody is solving." He further explained, "When we have an important decision we need to make, we put a presentation on our social network and let people comment on it. Or people will post ideas and we use a liking system, just like on Facebook, so that the best ideas bubble up." (April 19, 2003, p. 17)
Just as in the better-known applications of crowdsourcing for funding (e.g., Kickstarter.com) and market research, crowdsourcing leadership is a process of connecting directly with a "crowd" of interested people and using their collective wisdom or opinions. It's open, it's fast, and if done well, it virtually eliminates hierarchical distance. It gives the leader near-immediate access to a diversity of viewpoints, values and experiences, and indeed to potential answers to the company's problems--though it is also likely to turn up more problems the leader may not have been aware of.
In the best case, the humility implied by asking such basic questions of everyone in the firm drives a recognition that the leader knows he or she doesn't know it all. The willingness to search for answers in a collectivity of others' ideas demonstrates an openness that can stand a leader in good stead, as long as it is seen as sincere and employees are willing to risk sharing new ideas as well as ones that are critical. Moreover, this approach facilitates implementation of the crowdsourced changes--because employees have a stake in seeing their ideas put into practice.
This may sound simple, but it's not easy to do. Research tells us that power really does insulate leaders from others--that power and perspective-taking are inversely related, and it takes very little time for a newly-appointed CEO to develop an inflated sense of his or her own "rightness" and become unwilling to consider divergent points of view from those lower in the hierarchy. It isn't just a question of power, it's also about the expectations of the leader, e.g., from the board, other senior stakeholders, or from hopeful employees who look to the new leader as the saviour--the one who can call the magic shots and save the company. Responding to such expectations with what could be seen as an abdication of decision making can be dangerous to a new leader's credibility.
Could crowdsourcing help your organization navigate current challenges or set a course in a previously unknown but profitable direction? There are four conditions for successfully crowdsourcing leadership:
1. Fit the culture. Popular as they are, democratic and empowering management philosophies are neither universally followed nor desirable. Asking employees' views on organizational strategy and direction in a paternalistic or strongly hierarchical culture may meet with resistance at best, and disbelief and mistrust of leadership at worst. Consider the culture--as well as previous organizational attempts--before adopting a crowdsourcing approach, and tailor it appropriately.
2. Manage expectations--down and up. Ask for employee input and demonstrate your sincerity by deciding and explaining how you will analyze what comes in, what information you will share and how, and how you will use the crowdsourced advice to make decisions...and keep your word! Leaders also need to understand and manage the expectations of the board for a deliberate and decisive plan of action. If you're under the gun to have answers and the board sees that you don't, you need to be able to frame your approach to boost their confidence/patience.
3. Stay humble and patient. Recent research suggests that leaders who demonstrate humility are considered by their followers to be especially credible. Similarly, leaders who are seen as curious and inquisitive have been shown to be more successful at spanning boundaries. But being open to ideas, and being patient with the process can be particularly difficult under pressure. Most leaders are more likely to hold tight to their decisions, even if early evidence suggests that perhaps the direction was wrong, whereas it seems easier (and quicker) to abandon an idea when it came from someone else. Recognize this tendency.
4. Let others own and celebrate success. If employees' ideas are working, leaders should give credit, or better still, allow employees to decide how to celebrate the success of their ideas. This feedback loop is essential, as it recognizes the outcomes, and sets the stage for future crowdsourcing.
While not without its challenges, crowdsourcing can help leaders revive an ailing organization, engage employees, and support a culture of continuous improvement...but only if they do so with sincerity, humility and patience.