Open Leadership

June 12, 2010

“Be Open, Be Transparent, Be Authentic” are the new management mantras suggested by Charlene Li in her latest book: “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead”.

Social Technologies make it easy today for everyone to publish and share feedbacks and opinions on “everything”, especially when it’s about products, services or companies. These possibilities bring both new opportunities and new risks for the business.
New opportunities lies in the easiness for users to find solutions, collaborate and get support from each other. For some successful innovative consumer products, it is even not rare to see the natural development of communities of enthusiasts that create blogs, knowledge bases and generate passionate discussions on the Internet.
New risks arise when a negative user experiences ends up on popular web platform such as You Tube and ruins months of investments and efforts (see the United breaks guitars case).
Based on this new business situation, Charlene Li explains that the best way to manage customers and employees relationships today is to release control and be more open on both information sharing and decision making.
The book is organized in three parts: (1) The upside of giving up control, (2) Crafting your open strategy, (3) Open leadership: Redefining relationships.
I’ll try to summarize below my “open, transparent an authentic” opinion 😉 through some key ideas developed in the book.
  • New problem solving approaches: Today, different innovative tools and methods are available for sharing information and solving problems. Among them,  crawdsourcing is mentioned as a very promising new model. Today, it allows to outsource simple tasks, such as graphical design creation. In the future, Charelene Li predicts that crawdsourcing will be used to solve more complex projects. I link up this idea with Jacques Attali’s vision which predicts that future businesses will be developed around new forms of  transient organizations, involving groups of people that team up for the specific circumstance of a project to deliver a product or service in a limited period of time. Attali establishes a parallel between these future business organizations and the organization model in a circus: short-lived organizations which aggregates talented & passionate professionals for the time of a show.
  • The whole book explores new management models: An interesting description is provided on the Cisco management approach,  based on a distributed organization model, involving numerous councils and boards with significant power, budget and autonomy of decisions. The process followed to change the company’s culture from individual competition to collaborative work has required eight years of efforts, starting from the top management team. John Chambers (the CEO) has cloned his decision making process across the organization, duplicating and scaling at the same time the power of the company.
  • Collaborative leaders: Most managers have built their success on individual achievements since thier childhood. Education rarely focus on the development of collaborative ways of thinking. The awarness of the benefits of collaboration and team work usually comes far later in a career. Developing a true collaborative mindset requires an important personal effort and some maturity, but it is the most valuable way of making great progress in today’s business environment.
  • The Open management contradiction: The section about democratic and self-managing business organization presents a model where the management seems to release control  on projects delivery and is less involved on operational issues and decisions. A few examples are given, including Meetup.com which is mentioned as an organization that let each individual software developer to decide what features should be  implemented in a self organized way. Such an approach could question the consistency of the final product, its match with the buiness and the overall efficiency of the work. Meetup is a free social web site – could such an approach be applied to design and manufature a new car? Managing is difficult in many ways, but its a duty for the benefits of all. Giving up on managing issues is a temptation for some managers that I have seen several times in my career path. Charlene develops a full section about the contradictory nature of openess, based on her experience on the USS Nimitz supercarrier where openess on non classified information is combined with strong control and rules when it comes to decision making.
  • The scope is “web centric”: The power of the web is emphasized, however, it seems to me that the power of nuisance of internet communities mainly affects big B2C players (Service providers, product manufacturer) or fancy/highly visible innovative startups that base their communication on internet buzz. B2B firms and a majority of SMB are probably less concerned about the internet noise and the need to develop a presence on new social medias.
  • Back to business basics: A company which fails to deliver quality products or services in a repetitive manner only jeopardise its future and its survival – Internet might only accelerate the trend. Focusing obsessively on quality and customer satisfaction is a basic of business. Being open and humble towards customers is probably a natural consequence  of this first objective, even though it is not so much common. Social technologies provide a great new channel for B2C actors to connect with customer, gather feedback and improve the business execution.
In practice:
  • A large part of the book is dedicated to the deployment of an open leadership approach within an organization, with a lot of advices and tools to use from the initial audit to the practical implementation.
  • What I keep in mind : Open leadership is about communication, relationship and management practices, both from an internal and an external standpoint. The single message that I would keep from this book, is the idea that conservative and protective behavior are often counter productive in the current environment. Open approaches may be challenging and risky, but they are a bet to make for high potential companies, involving responsible values and focusing on innovation, efficiency and outcome.

Open Leadership cover

About Charlene Li: I have met Charlene several years ago, when she was VP and principal analyst at Forrester. I have presented her a new startup project (Camino) that she has considered and analysed in a very open, curious and positive way. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford the Forrester consulting offer and the contact has vanished, but the open nature of the discussion remains attached to her name. Another positive side effect of being open. Charlene has founded the Altimeter Group in 2008.

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