Sunday, January 18, 2009

Obama's Seven Lessons for Radical Innovators

Barack Obama is one of the most radical management innovators in the world today. Obama's team built something truly world-changing: a new kind of political organization for the 21st century. It differs from yesterday's political organizations as much as Google and Threadless differ from yesterday's corporations: all are a tiny handful of truly new, 21st century institutions in the world today.

Obama presidential bid succeeded, through the power of new DNA : new rules for new kinds of institutions.

So let's discuss the new DNA Obama brought to the table, by outlining seven rules for tomorrow's radical innovators.

1. Have a self-organization design. What was really different about Obama's organization? We're used to thinking about organizations in 20th century terms: do we design them to be tall, or flat?

But tall and flat are concepts built for an industrial era. They force us to think - spatially and literally - in two dimensions: tall organizations command unresponsively, and flat organizations respond uncontrollably.

Obama's organization blew past these orthodoxies: it was able to combine the virtues of both tall and flat organizations. How? By tapping the game-changing power of self-organization. Obama's organization was less tall or flat than spherical - a tightly controlled core, surrounded by self-organizing cells of volunteers, donors, contributors, and other participants at the fuzzy edges. The result? Obama's organization was able to reverse tremendous asymmetries in finance, marketing, and distribution - while McCain's organization was left trapped by a stifling command-and-control paradigm.

2. Seek elasticity of resilience. Obama's 21st century organization was built for a 21st century goal - not to maximize outputs, or minimize inputs, but to, as Gary Hamel has discussed, remain resilient to turbulence. What happened when McCain attacked Obama with negative ads in September? Such attacks would have depleted the coffers of a 20th century organization, who would have been forced to retaliate quickly and decisively in kind. Yet, Obama's organization responded furiously in exactly the opposite way: with record-breaking fundraising. That's resilience: reflexively bouncing back to an existential threat by growing, augmenting, or strengthening resources.

3. Minimize strategy. Obama's campaign dispensed almost entirely with strategy in its most naïve sense: strategy as gamesmanship or positioning. They didn't waste resources trying to dominate the news cycle, game the system, strong-arm the party, or out-triangulate competitors' positions. Rather, Obama's campaign took a scalpel to strategy - because they realized that strategy, too often, kills a deeply-lived sense of purpose, destroys credibility, and corrupts meaning.

4. Maximize purpose. Change the game? That's 20th century thinking at its finest - and narrowest. The 21st century is about changing the world. What does "yes we can" really mean? Obama's goal wasn't simply to win an election, garner votes, or run a great campaign. It was larger and more urgent: to change the world.

Bigness of purpose is what separates 20th century and 21st century organizations: yesterday, we built huge corporations to do tiny, incremental things - tomorrow, we must build small organizations that can do tremendously massive things.

And to do that, you must strive to change the world radically for the better - and always believe that yes, you can. You must maximize, stretch, and utterly explode your sense of purpose.

5. Broaden unity. What do marketers traditionally do? Segment and target, slice and dice. We've become great at dividing markets into tinier and tinier bits. But we're terrible at unifying them. Yet Obama succeeded not through division, but through unification: we are, he contended, "not a collection of Red States and Blue States -- We are the United States of America".

Obama intuitively understands a larger truth of next-generation economics. Unified markets are what a world driven to collapse by hyperconsumption is desperately going to need. We're going to need not a hundred different kinds of razors - and their spiralling costs of complexity and waste - but a single razor that everybody, from the slums of Rio to the lofts of Tribeca, is overjoyed to use.

6. Thicken power. The power many corporations wield is thin power: the power to instill fear and inculcate greed. True power is what Obama has learned wield: the power to inspire, lead, and engender belief. You can beat people into subjugation - but you can never command their loyalty, creativity, or passion. Thick power is true power: it's radically more durable, less costly, and more intense.

7. Remember that there is nothing more asymmetrical than an ideal. Obama ended his last speech before the election by saying: "let's go change the world." Why are those words important? Because the world needs changing. A world riven by economic meltdown, religious conflict, resource scarcity, and intractable poverty and violence - such a world demands fresh ideals. We must mold and shape a better world - or we will surely all suffer together. As Obama said: "we rise or fall ... as one people."

In such a world, forget about a short-lived, often meaningless "competitive advantage". It's a concept built for the 20th century. In the 21st century, there is nothing more asymmetrical - more disruptive, more revolutionary, or more innovative -- than the world-changing power of an ideal.

Where are the ideals in your organization? What ideals are missing - absent, bankrupt, stolen - from your economy, industry, or market? What ideals will you fight and struggle for - and live? Because the ultimate problem with industrial-era business was, as Wall Street has so convincingly demonstrated, this: there weren't any.

That seventh lesson is the starting point for tomorrow's radical innovators - because it's the thread that knits the others together. And it's where you should start if you want to use these seven rules to start building 21st century institutions - whether businesses, non-profits, social enterprises, or political campaigns.

I couldn't be more deeply or powerfully inspired by the "defining moment" of an Obama presidency. Yet, the seeds of a new challenge have been planted by that victory: for us to harness the lessons of his quiet revolution - our quiet revolution - to seed many, many more.


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