The Sum Of Us

Last week we looked at how to create a vocabulary is the way to ignite the energy within your organization. Today we take this a step forward by stating the case that the smartest ‘guys’ aren’t in the room that the best ideas come from the most people.

Where do great ideas come from? The traditional answer is the stuff of entrepreneurial folklore, the creation myth of the creative process. Big ideas come from big thinkers: the eccentric genius, the inspired founder, the visionary CEO. Business history is filled with heroic tales of breakthroughs fueled by unique imagination and individual determination. Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone. Henry Ford and the assembly line. Edward Land and instant photography. Walt Disney and the magic of Disneyland.

There’s an expression in open-source circles: “Many eyes make bugs shallow.”Translation: the more smart people you can persuade to look at a software glitch, the more likely it is to get fixed. The same goes for leadership in general. Many eyes, all trained on a specific market or a well-defined business problem, will invariably find opportunities that elude the gaze of a few honchos at the top. Why settle for being the smartest guy in the room when it’s so clear, in so many different settings, that nobody is as smart as everybody? 

If you agree, that originality has become the essence of strategy—that a disruptive point of view combined with authentic values is what separates fast-growing industry leaders from companies stuck in the middle of the pack—then it becomes urgent for you, as an entrepreneur or an executive, to unearth and identify the new ideas and points of view that can shape the future of your business. But that doesn’t mean you have to do it yourself. Just because you’re in charge doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers. One of the defining responsibilities of a 21st-century leader is to attract the best ideas from the most people, wherever those people might be.

Linux, of course, is the ultimate emblem of this new logic of leadership and innovation—the radically grassroots, come-one-come-all alternative to the smartest-guy-in-the-room model. By now, the basic outlines of the Linux story are familiar to almost every programmer in the world, and the software itself is firmly established in the mainstream of the computer industry. Back in 1991, Linus Torvalds, a graduate student at the University of Helsinki, was inspired to create a new computer operating system styled on the long-established Unix language. (Linus plus Unix equals Linux.) One of his first steps was to announce his plan to the world—and to invite anyone and everyone to help. Over time, this call for collaboration galvanized a volunteer army of programmers, who organized themselves into groups, made their code-writing contributions transparent for everyone else to see, fixed bugs, added features, debated revisions—and together, working in a decentralized, peer-to-peer community, built an open-source operating system that now ranks, along with Microsoft, as Google’s most strategic challenger. 

But Linux is about more than the future of computer systems. It is a metaphor for the future of innovation itself. The world is teeming with smart, skilled, passionate people who are eager to demonstrate how much they know and how good they are—people who just might contribute anything from a killer idea to a whole collection of small innovations that will set you apart from the competition. These people don’t have to work for you in order to work with you. But you do have to invite them into your organization and persuade them to give you their best effort. Proctor & Gamble did not invent Swiffer by confining the project within it’s own silos. Swiffer was born because P&G had the courage to challenge the ‘world’ to help solve the problem at hand.

J. C. Herz, a leading authority in computer games (and an adviser to the Pentagon on how gaming technologies influence military strategy), sees the open-source, phenomenon at work in her field. In an eye-opening white paper called “Harnessing the Hive,” she documents what happens when skilled enthusiasts literally take their favorite games into their own hands, modify and improve what happens, and share their innovations with fellow players—a phenomenon she calls “massively networked innovation.”

Herz points out that the popularity (and immense profitability) of The Sims, one of the most beloved and successful computer games ever, relies heavily on the contributions of rank-and-file enthusiasts who craft (and share) props, characters, and buildings to populate the virtual world. She estimates that more than 90 percent of the content of The Sims has been produced by the players themselves rather than by Maxis, the company (owned by industry juggernaut Electronic Arts) that sells the game. One of them, my now 17-year-old daughter Alannah who admitted to me during the week that she had been playing pre teen. By providing programming tools and encouraging players to create and swap content, Maxis turned its consumer base into a volunteer product development department—and enhanced its leadership position in a brutally competitive market. 

The top-down model of innovation can’t possibly compete with the global brainpower of this distributed community, Herz argues. The new creed of creativity, she believes, is: let a thousand flowers bloom, so long as they sprout in our garden. Companies can’t ignore “the collective intelligence of the network—the fact that a million people will always be smarter than twenty people.” 

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