What you need to embrace before opening the gates to participation

In 2008, Obama became the US president thanks to the ways he invited the crowd to participate. In 2014 Podemos barged into the spanish political scene by betting everything on their bottom-up strategy. But both Obama and Podemos community support slowly fizzled once they got elected. 

And these are just two examples. Over the last few years, community building, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding and all of these crowd driven initiatives have become increasingly popular.

There are many organisations turning to create their own communities, wishing to reap the rewards of crowds who can support spreading, funding and developing their ideas.

And this doesn’t always work well. NERC, Uk’s Natural Environment Research Council, decided to dip its toe into crowdsourcing by launching a contest. The goal? Naming a new $300 million polar research vessel that was to be “the UK’s largest and most advanced research ship yet”.

This was the first time they did such experiments, and as the magic of the internet would predict, they got “crowd-jacked” and “Boaty McBoatface” won the vote by a landslide, attracting 124.000 votes. Of course, Jo Johnson, UK’s science minister at the time didn’t find this funny at all. So they overruled the crowd and made the final call of naming the boat after the much beloved naturalist TV star Sir David Attenborough. 

And this was a missed opportunity. As many organisations, there is the conviction that there is a huge upside by engaging with bigger communities and opening up to the world. But there is the risk that it won’t go as expected. 

So if you or your organisation are planning to work, or you are already working with the crowd, to avoid this move being an occasional initiative or stunt, you should check the questions Jeremy Heimans gathered in his great book New Power. With these questions you’ll find out what mindset you need to build a constructive relationship with communities. 

Source: New Power, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms. OP stands for Old Power, NP stands for New Power

Let’s see what this means with examples.

Strategy

The first question to consider is whether working with communities really fits with your strategy. What problem are you trying to solve that your old playbook can’t handle? What opportunity exists in the energy of the crowd that could add real value for your efforts? What new innovations might come from the crowd that would not have come from inside your walls?

If we go back to NERC’s case, they didn’t really need (or want) the crowd to name its boat, given that the executive team was set on a conventional name. They were just really excited to engage the public in their newly launched research vessel. 

If you want to make it work, you have to thoughtfully consider what you can offer in return to your community that will motivate it. This can be learning new skills, getting access to new technology or ideas, contributing to something meaningful, among many other motivations.. 

The crowd is not an asset to be squeezed to work for you and your organisation. You really need to consider what’s in it for your community before you engage with them. 

Legitimacy

If engaging a community is a strategy that makes sense, then you should consider whether you have —or you are ready to build— trust and credibility with those you want to engage. In other words, are you confident people will “show up” for you when you invite them?

This goes beyond having the CEO join Twitter, or even sharing code in Open Source or transparently giving away your internal processes. 

Jeremy Heimans shares a great cautionary tale about this:

When in 2013 JPMorgan, with wounds from the financial crisis still fresh, launched #AskJPM, a Twitter campaign offering career advice to aspiring professionals, its lack of legitimacy was flung back in its face. Its efforts were quickly dispatched by a bemused crowd with questions like “Did you always want to be part of a vast, corrupt criminal enterprise or did you ‘break bad’?” 

One of NERC’s challenges was that it didn’t have buy-in from the crowd to draw on. And they didn’t engage much with those they were meeting for the first time. NERC’s approach was to open the gates and claim “we’re open!”. And this was fatal, when they got crowd-jacked, they had no core supporters to redirect the offenders.

Another example is Nike. It recently shared its circular design guide for free. But it hasn’t invited anyone to participate in practising with them and sharing back whatever experiences people might discover while applying their guide. Even if they say this is openness, it’s a huge missed opportunity to both the company and to those who’d like to get involved in accelerating the change they want to push in their industry. 

Control

Incorporating crowd participation and getting something meaningful out of the result requires a willingness to give up at least some control and accept a range of outcomes, including an answer you might not view as ideal. Otherwise you’ll never really unleash people’s energy and enthusiasm. 

This does not mean an organization has to embrace anarchy. But it does mean that once you have carefully structured the ways your communities can engage, you need to be prepared to be surprised if they lead you in an unexpected direction. 

Once you embrace working with communities, nothing stops you from setting boundaries to what’s possible and to curate the contributions. 

Unsplash has clear guidelines of which photos are accepted. Linux also has high quality standards before it accept new contributions into its code base.

And those who want to use TEDx’s brand to organize their events have to follow some strict rules. 

So even if inviting the participation of the crowd can sound like utter anarchy, once people know which boundaries exist, they are even more free to create and contribute and the community is more likely to thrive.

If NERC had been willing to give up some of its closely held control, it might have seen the big potential Boaty made possible. They could have gathered a lot of goodwill from the crowd. Boaty McBoatface would bring enormous visibility. And this visibility could be a springboard to larger collaborations with specific communities of people, like engineers or shipping enthusiasts, on bigger projects than boat naming. Or NERC might have also chosen to participate in other communities to build stronger ties before going fully “open”.

 But instead it chose to go back to the sanitized route and put the genie back in the bottle. 

Commitment

Too often, organizations used to hierarchy, competition and confidentiality see crowd participation as an occasional and peripheral activity. But getting the best results requires a willingness to cultivate the energy and enthusiasm of a community of people over an extended period, which NERC had no plan or intention to do. One should expect from 3 months to one year to start seeing results from its community strategy, but once it takes off, the rewards are exponential.

If collaboration enthusiasm is simply the new shiny idea of the month, or the passion project of an unsupported mid-level millennial, it will likely fail. As any seasoned movement builder can tell you, the greatest viral successes and most impactful moments usually come after months and years of consistent investment in your crowd.

Makerbot created an amazing crowd of 3D printer enthusiasts who loved their products and their open source ethos. But after it got bought by a private company, Stratasys, their new owners required them to patent and close down their innovations. This led them to patent ideas that their community had contributed, which as you can imagine destroyed almost completely the relationship with their supporters. Since then Makerbot hasn’t been able to keep up with its open competitions and has laid off 20% of its employees in 2015 and 30% in 2017. 

On the opposite end, in 2003 Lego posted its biggest loss ever. So in 2004 they got a new CEO, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. Besides doing the traditional turnaround tasks like cutting staff, products, and peripheral businesses, he did a surprising things. He started attending fan-organized Lego events. There he discovered the passion and commercial potential of Lego’s fans. 

And this new relationship with their community lead the company to create the Lego Ideas platform to showcase the creations of their fans. This platform has now over half a million fan made designs using Lego sets, and has helped the company surpass Mattel as the world’s largest toy company. So committing to let ideas from the outside into their products has proven to be more than a great strategy for a declining brand.

What’s the price for reaping the community rewards?

As you can see the potential to work with outside communities is almost infinite and has the potential to turn your organisation around. But it comes with a price. 

If you want to take this route, you’ll have to pivot your strategy so it puts your community at the center of your organisation and invest in carefully structured incentives to participate. To build your legitimacy you’ll have to invest time, money and energy in engaging with those communities you’ve neglected so far and put them at the center and forefront of your organisation’s culture and innovation engine. If you want the crowd to take you seriously, you’ll have to take it seriously in the first place. 

Once you’re ready for it, you have to give up control over the outcomes you expect from the crowd. But you can provide smart routes of participation to direct it in a certain direction. And finally this is a path that needs 100% commitment. Finding a way to strike the right win-win balance between your organisation and the crowd is really hard work to balance on both sides. So this commitment really has to come from the top of your organisation and be more than a sporadic stunt.

If you can say yes to all of this, the rewards will be much higher than the price it will cost.

Photo by Anna Samoylova on Unsplash

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Jaime Arredondo
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