Network leadership

The industrial approach to leadership places a heavy emphasis on the formulation of intentions and plans and then communicating them as action points to be implemented by others. The starting point for change then involves leaders conceiving a picture of the future that is somewhat different from the picture of the present.

There is a different approach to this need, which is made possible through the Internet, cooperative platforms and new social technologies. The question asked is: “How can more people participate in ways that bring about development and change over time?”

The strategic logic is temporal rather than spatial. When following a spatial metaphor, there is a territory that can be explored and understood by the leaders, but in a temporal logic the territory is seen as being under continuous development and formation by the exploration itself. “It is impossible to map an area that changes with every step the explorer takes.”

People inhabit a complex world of emergence, uncertainty and continuous change. Corporate life is improvising and learning together. It is an ongoing continuous exploration, a movement that is open-ended and always incomplete.

In industrial settings the primary context for communication was meetings. In pursuit of productivity, meetings were more or less orchestrated and planned in advance: “You should come prepared. There should be clear goals.” Following this thinking, there was no true sense of creating the future together.

When people use networks to connect, they experience the potential inherent in communication, depending on how they express themselves and how others respond. “Networks create the experience of acting into the unknown, creating the future together, improvising together in the responsive interplay of different participants with different views.”

But the problem is that a crucially important thing, responsiveness, is often the missing ingredient.

I know that there are huge problems with communication on social platforms. There are the people with a preset interpretative model. There are the narcissists who talk but never listen, the one-point-of-view experts who advocate their solution to all problems and the people who insist on bringing all conversations round to their particular issue.

I know that there are more issues: not all the participants are ever visible. Any given conversations may have just a few active participants and several silent ones. This creates a fundamental malfunction in the social system and gives the oddballs the opportunity to dominate the space in a way that would be much harder to do offline. The audience is present but in an invisible way. The tyranny of the hatemonger results from the lack of response.

We are so used to the one-directional mass media that we don’t see it, but it is a systemic problem if communication is not interactive.

The volume is too high for any single manager to filter out the useless or the disgusting. This is why you cannot have a centralized mindset. There are, however, ways to filter out the irrelevant and the obnoxious, but it requires all people to be active and responsive.

The new rule is that if you are a participant, you are, by default, a moderator, a curator and an editor for others.

Leadership used to be based on asymmetric power relations, but networks work differently. Network relations are typically more symmetric. There is less dependency between people. In symmetric systems, leadership needs to be handed to the community itself without any single individual being in control, or trying to be in control. The solution is simple in theory but very hard in practice. It is about active participation and responsiveness.

Leadership is communication. The leaders, people worth following, raise bottom up. There is always going to be hierarchies, but hierarchies in network architectures are dynamic, contextual heterarchies. In fact, this is the only way that there can be leaders in democratic systems. But we need what complexity scientists call enabling constraints, the new rules. This is what algorithms can do for us in four areas: (1) the volume and (2) the value of contributions, (3) the reputation of contributors and (4) diversity of thinking.

Algorithms (such as Amazon, Reddit, Yelp, Ebay, Klout and PageRank use), or completely new kind of reputation tokens and reputation protocols such as Backfeed, could track the volume and value of contributions on the basis of responses; another could track the reputation of contributors based on the history of responses they reserve. Responsiveness is to posts what links are to websites. And, as Eitan Reich comments below: “the responses should have different weights based on their own network attributes.” if you are making very bad reviews on a restaurant while everyone else is making good ones, then your reputation can decrease.

Leadership could be seen as an emergent property of responsive interaction in the whole network. The goal is creative learning and a continuous movement of the whole social system towards a direction based on all intentions, hopes and dreams and what everybody is doing everyday in responsive interaction. There is no direct coordination by a leader or negotiations and agreements on what everyone is going to do.

The problem we have is that the majority viewpoints get amplified, while minority opinions get silenced, as Steven Johnson puts it.

This is why we need a new algorithm. It follows the diversity of opinions and interaction. Instead of highlighting posts with high ratings, the third algorithm should highlight posts that have triggered something new. Many conversations, and people, are stuck or running in circles. New ideas that inspire opinions either way, both positive and negative, should arise and be taken into account.

Leadership algorithms should reward different voices, not only popular ones.

A viable social system always needs to reward perspectives that deviate from the mainstream in order to fight group-think. We need perspectives that don’t aim to please. The thoughtful voices that attract both admirers and critics should have a visible place in the process of creating the future in responsive cooperation.

The Web gave all of us a voice. What is happening at the moment is potentially much more radical. It is not about broadcasting opinions but about creating a deliberative form of democracy and a cooperative form of network leadership.

The future focus of interactive technologies should be on the enabling constraints of responsiveness. Extended intelligence requires extended leadership and extended leadership requires participation. We have the technologies, next we need the designs for participation and responsiveness beyond what we have today!