The Encyclopedia Britannica was born In 1768 in Edinburgh to change how people accessed vast amounts of knowledge. And it became the encyclopedia that was in print for the longest time. But 2010 arrived, and it had to close its doors, forever. An institution that endured 244 years wasn’t able to adapt itself to the Internet and Wikipedia’s bulldozing power.
Mass participation is a powerful force, but millions of organizations still haven’t embraced this new power or have done so in a shallow way.
First, let’s explain what I mean by “New Power.”
In their book New Power, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms argue that the advent of the Internet has created a split in the way organizations interact with the outer world. And some organizations have embraced the participatory possibilities it has brought on a massive scale, and others like the Encyclopedia Britannica have stayed in their familiar ways of doing, which has ultimately led to their demise.
As Jeremy Heimans puts it: “Old power models ask of us only that we comply (pay your taxes, do your homework) or consume.
New power models are designed and structured to encourage mass participation and peer coordination. They demand and allow for more: that we share ideas, create new content (as on YouTube) or assets (as on Etsy), even shape a community (think of the sprawling digital movements resisting the Trump presidency).
And where it gets even more impressive is when we combine it with the Old Values and New Values mindsets these organizations carry within them.
In short, the Old Values mindset is one geared towards top-down decision-making and powered by big bureaucracies where people have small and standardized roles to play.
The New Values mindset is one that claims its inalienable right to participate.
So when we combine both old and new values with the old and new power models, we get four kinds of organizations: Co-opters, Castles, Cheerleaders, and Crowds.
The Castles make the most familiar (and populated) category. These are organizations like the Encyclopedia Britannica, most multinational companies or government agencies that are Top-down command and control, centrally driven, and expect people to comply or consume because they consider that “they know best.”
Among the Co-opters, we have organizations like Isis (at its most extreme), white supremacy, the Trump campaign, Uber, or Facebook. They have embraced the decentralized participation of the crowds. They are designed and structured to encourage mass participation and peer coordination, although they advocate for competition and resource concentration under autocratic governance instead of collaboration.
Among the Cheerleaders, we have organizations that have embraced new power values, like the transparency of their supply chains or financial but haven’t invited the crowds to collaborate with them.
For example, Patagonia makes excellent jackets, or Interface makes excellent carpets, both manufactured to create the least possible waste for the planet. But neither has openly invited their consumers’ involvement in helping them improve their work and spread these improvements across their industries at a massive scale or enlist them to champion causes like climate change.
And among the Crowds, we have organizations that embrace transparency and collaboration and the masses’ participation in collaborating, sharing their assets, organizing actions together, providing funding, or enriching and spreading their knowledge.
These are organizations like Airbnb and Linkedin platforms that advocate for collaboration and self-organization among their communities, or media platforms like The Correspondent, FreeCodeCamp, or Wikipedia, funded and varying extents, written by their members. This way of working has been pioneered by most open-source companies and nonprofits, like WordPress, Wikipedia, or Arduino.
Highly decentralized movements like Black Lives Matter and Hong Kong protesters have taken inspiration from this mass participation structure and lack an organizational owner or traditional leaders. The decentralized organization has enabled BLM and the Hong Kong protesters to inspire coordination and participation among millions of people all over their countries.
And one common trait of these Crowds is their antifragility. These movements are able to support big shocks and get better by reorganizing themselves when faced by new challenges when more hierarchical organisations have a harder time adapting to external changes.
So the distinction between these four groups is powerful because it allows us to understand the meteoric rise of the co-opters and keep an eye on them. But also to find opportunities to move into the Crowd quadrant, whether you’re a big or small organization, to make it more resilient and engage communities to build and spread faster a common mission.
Those who made the switch: the non-crowd natives
A trend you might have noticed is that most of the Crowd organizations already started as “crowd natives.”
So is it possible to become a Crowd leader if you didn’t start there? Or are you bound to stay where you are?
It’s not easy, but there is plenty of evidence that it’s doable. The alternative of not trying is to follow the same fate of the Encyclopedia Britannica or Kodak and become obsolete, which is not a very endearing prospect either.
Let’s explore some of the many examples of organizations that have made the transition successfully.
In 2003 Lego, a “Castle” at that moment, posted its most significant loss ever. So in 2004, they got a new CEO, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. First off, they did the traditional turnaround tasks like cutting staff, products, and peripheral businesses. But after that, he did surprising things. He started attending fan-organized Lego events, where he discovered Lego’s fans’ passion and commercial potential.
These insights led to Lego building tight relationships with their community, which inspired the company to create the Lego Ideas platform to showcase their fans’ creations. This platform has over half a million fan-made designs using Lego sets and has helped the company surpass Mattel as the world’s largest toy company.
This turnaround took many years, mistakes, and perseverance from the executive team, but it ultimately paid off both for Lego and their community.
A few years later, in 2010, NASA’s utility was in question, and the congress threatened to cut its budget because they were not innovative enough. So they took this as a challenge to prove the naysayers wrong. To do that, they began experimenting with open innovation by enlisting the crowd to help solve big problems. Before, they’d have gathered a small number of experts where the group had exclusive access to tools, data, and machines. But the new approach invited the whole world to engage on fourteen strategic research and development challenges they had picked.
Three thousand people in eighty countries responded, from recognized experts to unrecognized weekend enthusiasts.
And the initial results were both exciting and impressive. A traditional R&D cycle took three to five years. But by involving the crowd, they were now solving their problems tens times faster. In three to six months, the crowd would turn problems around and produce fast, cheap, and qualitative solutions.
Jeremy Heimans explains: “One solution stood out above the others and became a symbol of the promise of the approach. It addressed a serious problem in heliophysics: how hard it was to forecast solar storms effectively. Solar storms are huge bursts of energy from the sun that travel toward the earth at three million miles per hour. Obviously, the ability to avoid them is a high priority for those traveling the solar system.
Yet for all of the work done by experts around the world—at NASA and elsewhere—the best models allowed for forecasts at one to two hours’ notice and with a 50 percent level of accuracy. And now Bruce Cragin, a semi-retired telecommunications engineer from New Hampshire, who wasn’t even a heliophysicist and didn’t have access to anything like the tools at NASA, had submitted an algorithm that allowed for prediction eight hours in advance, with a 75 percent level of accuracy.”
This breakthrough coming from the crowd caught national media attention, the NASA teams’ enthusiasm, and the White house’s interest. So they doubled down on this approach to enable others to participate.
And the last example of a Castle turning to mass participation comes from the NHS. The public health-care organization counts 1.5 million employees and tons of bureaucratic inertia led by a top-down organizing model and a clinical hierarchy, with doctors at the top and patients at the base.
After 25 years working in the NHS, Helen Bevan worked as an internal change agent, and she became wary of the organization’s goals. They were meeting their targets for waiting time or dealing with people who had suffered strokes. These targets were useful as accountability tools, but achieving them had a considerable cost. Long story short, meeting the targets involved instilling a culture of fear and anxiety that hurt the staff morale and patient care.
So in 2013, after a few experiences leading a community school for innovators and heretics inside the NHS, she started a new grassroots initiative: NHS Change Day, an effort to mobilize people throughout the NHS system to pledge one thing they might do to improve life for patients.
It offered a lot of freedom and few conditions or rules, encouraging people to choose just one commitment they might make on the same day as their colleagues. It came when the NHS was feeling incredibly strained, with increasing demands and diminishing funding.
The results? In its first year, Change Day generated 189,000 pledges. By year two, there were over 800,000. It was the first significant grassroots mobilization inside the system, unleashing the vast agency of frontline staff.
And if this happened in one of the most hierarchical organizations in the world, it shows it’s an approach that has potential everywhere.
Who can, and should, embrace crowds?
So whether you’re already working with crowds in some form or haven’t, I hope you can see new possibilities in this.
Whenever I see a promising project or people standing for change spreading locally, I wish they explored this approach.
I recently came across a beautiful TED talk from environmental activist Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim. She is closely working along with her nomadic community in Chad with scientists to restore endangered ecosystems. They document their indigenous traditional knowledge, which has helped tribes worldwide save 80% of the world’s biodiversity and help us all better adapt to climate change.
This knowledge can include things like where to get food after a hurricane hits. Or how to predict the weather by looking at the insects’ movement.
There are thousands of indigenous communities on the verge of extinction and urgently need help to document their wisdom and languages. And by working hand in hand with scientists or media collectives, they could get crowds involved in these efforts and increase the chances of survival and restoration of their culture by forming petitions or events to take regular action to defend their land and people. They could even enrich their knowledge and spread it to help the rest of the world build newfound respect for their wisdom.
Other organizations that could benefit from engaging with the crowds are public and private institutions involved in innovation.
The German Fraunhofer Institut develops thousands of patents every year. I’d assert that many of their patents are losing money, so it could make sense to make them available to the world openly and partner with people who find new use cases to help them industrialize these projects. Opening some of their patents or challenges could help them in the same way it helped NASA find better solutions they can’t find inside, find the talent they were not aware of, and untap new commercial potential.
Companies trying to regenerate the planet can invite the crowds to improve their manufacturing practices. Companies like Veja, Patagonia, Interface, and many developing green techniques behind closed doors, could move from leading alone these efforts to create sustainable supply chains to working with experts across the world to accelerate the advent and diffusion of better solutions.
Book publishers, editors, media, authors, and educators also have a tremendous opportunity to work hand in hand with crowds. Their mission is not to sell paper to their customers. It is to help their readers change through the ideas they present them.
People can read a book and think about it on their own, but wouldn’t it be more powerful to practice the ideas they read about and connect with other readers?
Seth Godin is an author who has embraced this approach. He’s the writer of 19 best-sellers and has turned the knowledge in his books into participative workshops. In these workshops, thousands of students work together on the lessons and give each other feedback, helping Seth Godin vastly scale the support he could provide individually and effectively change the people who would like to practice what he talks about in his writing.
FreeCodeCamp, the largest online course to learn how to code, got famous mainly through its curated collaborative publication. Readers could submit their articles and get them edited by other community members.
I recently read the fantastic book Breath, by James Nelson, a book that went after the lost art of breathing. He went looking for the techniques practiced for centuries by Tibetan monks, yogic masters, ancient greeks, and native Americans to bring these techniques that have been ignored by science under the spotlight.
But as you can imagine by now, if James Nelson invited the crowd to practice together, it could bump this practice and its benefits to spread around the world where it’s most needed.
Like for Seth Godin, Lego, NASA, or FreeCodeCamp, there is potential for any organization or media trusted by its community to invite them to work on the ideas they write about, spread the word, and organize events add their work or invite their friends.
Inviting others is not just about avoiding the Encyclopedia Britannica’s fate by embracing a power that involves open participation. It’s about not missing the opportunity to scale the positive change courageous organizations like yours have created independently.
We will all be better off, and you’ll get new allies to join the journey.