“Five thousand people are a whole lot smarter than five”

LargeCrowdSome time ago I heard a story about a CEO who had opened up his organization’s strategic planning process to solicit ideas from all of the company’s 5,000 employees. When asked why he did that instead of relying on his executive committee, he said, simply, “I woke up one morning and realized that 5,000 people are a whole lot smarter than five.”

But that kind of openness is highly unusual among senior executives. Most of the executive leaders I have known and worked with see themselves as the “deciders” and the visionaries whose instincts about what is needed are superior to everyone else’s. Most of them are convinced that’s why they are in a leadership position.

But in large complex organizations it’s not that simple.

As I pointed out last week (“Getting Everyone in on the Action”), there is valuable knowledge distributed throughout every large organization – but it’s usually buried deep within the rank and file, and most executive leaders do not seem interested in seeking it out.

While widespread participation in designing and implementing organizational improvements usually leads to better designs and much higher levels of acceptance, participatory change generally takes so long to plan and execute that leaders tend to rely on people they know and trust. And they don’t know how to get everyone in on the action and still get action.

Today, however, technology in the form of social media and even such “rudimentary” applications like email and online discussion forums enable organizational leaders to pose questions, solicit suggestions, and test ideas with thousands of employees simultaneously. And while gathering and interpreting all those responses can take time and effort, the results can be astounding.

The kind of digital dialogue I am referring to is often called an “organizational jam.”

An organizational jam is essentially a very large-scale online collaborative conversation – a “conversation” in the same sense that Facebook posts and Twitter exchanges and LinkedIn discussion groups are conversations.

As I noted last week,

It’s an exciting use of technology, and in several instances has resulted in millions of dollars of new revenue. In brief, these “organizational jams” solicit ideas from thousands of employees, generate multiple discussion threads, and enable the jamming leaders to tap into the innate talent and knowledge that those employees bring to work every day – but that hardly ever gets a hearing.

One of the first large-scale organizational jams I am aware of was a “Values-Jam” organized and conducted by IBM in 2003. Its intent was to enable as many of IBM’s employees as possible around the world to contribute to the company’s first re-examination of its core values in 100 years.

The company describes that experience this way:

Through “Values-Jam,” an unprecedented 72-hour discussion on IBM’s global intranet, IBMers came together to define the essence of the company. The result? A set of core values, defined by IBMers for IBMers, that shape the way we lead, the way we decide, and the way we act.

Here is the way IBM’s own website describes this important organizational innovation:

In that regard, IBM’s jams represent a new form of organizational intervention, a way to accelerate change. As their name suggests, these jams are jazzband-freeimagelike jazz improvisations, connecting people who might otherwise never meet, allowing them to formulate and build on each other’s thoughts, and in the process, create something entirely new. Because they are radically open and democratic—everybody has the same capacity to participate, regardless of level or expertise—jams speak to the expectations of today’s professional worker.

In 2006, several years after that ValuesJam at IBM, then-CEO Sam Palmisano sponsored an “IBM InnovationJam®” that was by far the largest brainstorming conversation ever held up to that time. Patterned after the 2003 event, it took place over the course of two 72-hour time periods. It included over 150,000 participants 67 companies in 104 countries, and it produced a powerful set of ideas for new businesses and new products.

A core group of IBM staff sifted through the thousands of ideas, boiled them to down to a manageable number of possibilities, and launched a second round of brainstorming.

That 2006 event ultimately led to a $100 million investment by IBM in 10 separate new ventures, most of which were major financial and strategic successes.

And although I do not have any inside information from IBM, I have to believe that the InnovationJam® accomplished much more for IBM than just those new products and their revenue streams. Just imagine what it must have felt like to IBM employees to be listened to, and to having their ideas taken seriously by the company’s senior executives. Even if a particular suggestion didn’t make the cut, it must have been incredibly confirming – to say nothing of engaging – to be able to participate in the jam and to feel heard.

Contact me for a free consultation about how you can orchestrate creative corporate conversations that produce breakthrough organizational performance.