Malcolm Gladwell (@gladwell) has a very interesting article on Twitter, Facebook, and social activism in The New Yorker today. In the National Journal Magazine, Jonathan Rauch [website] has a fascinating article that dissects How Tea Party Organizes Without Leaders. Gladwell seems to assert that social activism will only be effective when you at least have a core team dedicated to leading the effort, even if such efforts are decentralized at the onset. Rauch describes (not sure if he buys into it) a radical decentralization that on the surface seems more fractal in how patterns of activism and participation can be found in the individual to the small group to the larger group.
I read both articles back to back (and then once again switching in between them as I advanced). As I often do, I tried to compare both conceits with each other and relate their argument to what I see and what I experience in terms of organizational learning and collaboration. Social activism in any stripe is a “change effort.” I think Andrew McAfee (@amcafee) would agree with Gladwell, as the small core leadership component pairs well with his thoughts on the thin layer of bureaucracy needed in Enterprise 2.0 efforts.
I want to be careful with how I phrase this sentence: the radical decentralization (the leaderless organization) that is cited by Rauch from The Starfish and the Spider (caveat: I haven’t read it, so I’m going off of Rauch’s article) seems indistinguishable from most insurgent groups. The activist/participation model can scale up or down in levels of organization, can branch off and regenerate. It’s very powerful and very, very hard to stop.
Which one of these is most effective? I think it really depends on what the goals are. My reasoning in sketching out the Hierarchy of Organizational Social Media Needs last week is more aligned with Gladwell (what I’d call a Hub & Spoke model): goals imply some kind of higher reasoning and higher order — something bigger than the subscribers or participants. There is always a diverse set of goals when you look at each individual participant; at the very same time, looking at the aggregate (or “collective”) of the individuals participating in an effort, I would argue that while it’s messy, there is a form that emerges from (if not defined by) the “shared goals” of the group. There are some. There always are. It’s a Yin/Yang thing: every person in your organization may want to be something different when they grow up, but chances are they want a future that is riper with opportunities (even if still personal) than the current state. Maybe this is myopic but I’m a believer that despite your belief system, there’s always a bigger puzzle than the one we’re figuring out.
If you’re into design or architecture, imbuing a community with shared goals, or common purpose doesn’t necessarily get you want you want by itself. How the collective approaches such goals makes a difference. This is where more context is required.
I’ve been in positions to affect organizational changes without any formal authority. I’ve worked within organizational structures with “leaders” (finger quotes) are successful to a point in creating the space for change efforts to happen but, perhaps intentionally, never defining the end state or the goals. In such structure, there is a great deal of empowerment to individuals to collaborate and innovate, but there’s very little “form” (what I’d call design or architecture) that structures the involvement. This seems to be the Starfish & the Spider model, and the results are difficult for me to wrap my head around, because while everyone is empowered, not much ever gets done as a group, but the lowest common denominator gets done REALLY effectively. What’s an example of this? Having an ill defined “innovation effort” in the hopes of tapping the collective’s best ideas, resulting in the arbitrary purchase of some shiny object. Why does this happen? Because buying the shiny object looks like change, perhaps solves a very low-level requirement and it’s a shitload cheaper and easier than doing any of the forty-five other innovative ideas that require more than a purchase order can fix.
That’s the mild “Starfish Effect” I see in collective action: the race to the bottom or middle. The more drastic Starfish Effect is nothing short of anarchy. Now I like anarchy as much as the next self-identified edupunk, but burning down everything doesn’t necessarily give you a clean slate. It leaves a lot of carbon residue that’s harder to remove (or work with) when you eventually rebuild. I don’t mean to imply that this some moral wrong: it’s a strategy to consider for leading without authority, and the net effects, such as I can imagine them, are things I consider. Something going for a Starfish Effect is that it’s pretty easy to execute, mainly because the goals are generally “change by any means necessary.” In other words, the desired result of the effort is a change from the current state: neutral, not necessarily targeted.
Hub and Spoke models for community and change efforts are much more difficult. Every thread from the core needs to, at some level, coordinate (it not collaborate) with the others. You’re trying to keep a coalition together that’s focused on the same goals, even when working through adversities like competing (or conflicting) personal goals — all without the power of “leadership” sponsorship that actually uses that formal authority to remove barriers. People are not perfect as a general rule, so even the best laid plans aren’t going to go exactly as you designed or architected, and mid-stream you need to make compromises that continually force you to evaluate if the juice you’ll get from the fruits of your labor will be worth the squeeze.
I still believe, even though I continually get beat up by it, that there is enduring value in hub and spoke models of community building and organizational change, even without sponsorship from authoritative leaders. Even when we fail in this model, we at least still learn and the reason why I argue that point is because, at the very least, there is a desired state that you’re driving toward (not neutral). A Starfish Effect is definitely about performance in the immediate to get to, what seems to me, an unidentified state of “change” (neutral).