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The New, New Manager: What Geeks Can Teach Us About Getting Stuff Done

Back in the days of yore (2001), when nearly all of my new media peers were losing their jobs, my company saw an opportunity to develop content around what we all sensed was a seismic shift in our way of thinking. The events of 9/11 scared the bejeezus out of all of us. We developed a seminar (that never got off the ground) called “Surviving and Thriving in the New Economy”. We must have known how to survive and thrive, after all, because we were still employed, right?

Back in the days of yore (2001), when nearly all of my new media peers were losing their jobs, my company saw an opportunity to develop content around what we all sensed was a seismic shift in our way of thinking. The events of 9/11 scared the bejeezus out of all of us. We developed a seminar (that never got off the ground) called “Surviving and Thriving in the New Economy”. We must have known how to survive and thrive, after all, because we were still employed, right? The irony in all of this was that during this time I’d never felt less competent or less able to manage the uncertaintly of that time. A better title for this seminar would have been, “How to keep your apartment in the new economy.”

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Professionally I had an identity crisis. Everything that I had believed about being an effective manager fell away. I once bragged to a report of mine that my job was to be the bug up his, err, backside–relentless, like a drill seargent in BCBG heels. I knew how motivated I was to get things done, so I simply applied my brand of anal retentiveness to everyone else’s work. And for a long time that worked, while there was work and budget and people who could take your place if you couldn’t hack it. Of course, once all of that went away and I had no projects to push, I was aimless.

Now, when I experience the “push” manager–the boss who is convinced his job is to force a project to completion–the hackles in the back of my neck stand at attention. Not only do I feel that this form of management is not effective; it’s oh-so-Web 1.0.

Don’t get me wrong. I work just as hard now as I did seven years ago–harder even. But a few things have shifted. For one: Push management just isn’t efficient. Perhaps I’m getting old; perhaps I’m married now and have better things to do with my time than breathe down the necks of my reports to make sure they are doing work. Perhaps I’ve seen how powerful the collaborative management model is and have forever turned away from thinking that everything must begin and end on my desk.

Knowledge@Wharton delves into the topic of collaborative management in a piece published last month–Make Room, Wikipedia: Internet-based Collaboration Could Change the Way We Do Business. The piece summarizes the thoughts of Anthony D. Williams, co-author of the new book, Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, who makes the case that Wikipedia, the open source online encyclopedia isn’t just a novelty, but a beacon for the way we will work in the future.

While the humongous growth in Internet usage fueled a churn-n-burn, instiwealth mentality in 1999, Wikipedia and the social media ethos is inspiring a reliance on open-source and “pull” management, in which ideas are solicited and inputs are volunteered rather than determined by the board room and then forced into execution.

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Williams calls this confluence of technological and cultural ethos, a “Perfect Storm”:

The key ingredients in that storm, he said, are the technological advances — often referred to as “Web 2.0” — that make online collaboration and communication easier to transact, as well as the arrival of a generation of Internet users that has been born since 1980 and that insists on taking a more active role in creating or editing the online content that it uses.

I insist on distinguishing myself as “not a geek,” but as a management enthusiast, but I can’t help sounding like one when I use examples like Wikipedia and Linux to describe the art of getting things done. Still, before I geek-out any further, I should disabuse you of some assumptions you may make about open source management, based on misperceptions many have about Open Source:

Open Source Management is NOT egoless nor without a reward system. I attended a session on open source technology at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference seeking to understand why the hell would anyone give up their time and best ideas for free? “I hate to sound like such a capitalist,” I said before asking my question, then braced for a stoning. Fortunately this was a friendly open-source crowd.

One of the panelists explained that there was, in fact, a hierarchy in Open Source software projects, but this hierarchy is based solely on participation and merit. There has to be a hierarchy, or the quality of the product can’t be preserved, and those who contribute most to the project won’t be incented to stay involved.

Additionally, there is a status, or acknowledgement given to people who contribute that I liken to blogging. Maybe you don’t get paid for blogging, but your free contributions get read and result in other things–speaking or consulting gigs, for instance, Google Juice, and overall recognition.

And Open Source is far from being simply a “free” or “cashless” enterprise. Companies like IBM spend big bucks paying their researchers to contribute to open source projects, as these projects often determine their next steps in product development. And key contributors are often commissioned to help keep companies competitive in the space.

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Williams provides a number of corporate Open Source examples:

1. Marketocracy.com, an investment tool in which some 70,000 people create virtual stock portfolios; the results of the top 100 performers are used to guide a real-world mutual fund that routinely outperforms the Standard & Poor’s 500 index of large companies.

2. “Ideagoras” — where scientists and product developers openly share ideas for new advances. A prime example of this concept is InnoCentive, a web-based approach to commercially oriented research that enlists scientists globally to solve specific problems, with the ability to reap cash bounties for their work. Williams said consumer giant Procter & Gamble is a major booster of InnoCentive, even though the firm already retains 9,000 of its own employees devoted to research.

3. The so-called “global plant floor,” in which industrial giants like aircraft maker Boeing are using the Internet to re-define their relationship with their suppliers. He said that Boeing’s new 787 jet, “the Dreamliner,” is a highly collaborative effort with parts manufacturers; one result is that the electrical specifications, which typically ran to 2,000 pages, have now been reduced to 20 pages.

4. Second Life, the increasingly popular virtual world developed by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, where players create human-like avatars that socialize and spend a type of money, “Linden Dollars,” to buy virtual property. Williams noted that the country of Sweden even has opened a “virtual embassy” within Second Life, with the idea of luring tourists.

Applying this to business is useful: An open source manager must know the value of collaborateive intellectual capital and how to use it.

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Open Source Management is NOT chaos…if you execute correctly. To pull it off requires re-branding of yourself however, from manager to steward. You are not making anyone do anything but rather extracting the goods from your best sources.

The best managers in an open source model are the best listeners. They perceive underground rumblings and potentially brilliant ideas. They mine diamonds in the rough and seek win-win situations. And they are exellent delegators; at the end of the day, they get others to execute. And I suppose they are excellent translators; they don’t brain dump a lot of open source jibberish on the floor, but rather pick out the important and usable strands and put them to good use. It’s work, but a lot less work than generating the pile yourself.

With the Open Source mentality firmly embedded in my psyche I offer up a new way of surviving and thriving in a new economy: turn to others, and keep your mouth shut.

Jory Des Jardins also blogs at Pause and BlogHer.org.

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