“Wow. Such f—ing bullsh-t.”
No, this is not a snippet from the latest Quentin Tarantino film. It’s Stanford professor Jay Wacker responding, on the Q&A site Quora, to the now-infamous TEDx talk “Vortex-Based Mathematics.”
A member had posed the question “Is Randy Powell saying anything in his 2010 TEDxCharlotte talk, or is it just total nonsense?” Wacker, a particle physicist, was unambiguous: “I am a theoretical physicist who uses (and teaches) the technical meaning of many of the jargon terms that he’s throwing out. And he is simply doing a random word association with the terms. Basically, he’s either (1) insane, (2) a huckster going for fame or money, or (3) doing a Of Fakes King New York - hoax on TED. I’d bet equal parts 1 & 2.”
Powell’s talk had been given in September 2010, at what was one of numerous local TEDx gatherings spun off by TED, a nonprofit that puts on highly respected global conferences about ideas. But the talk went relatively unnoticed until the spring of 2012, when a few influential science bloggers discovered it—and excoriated it. One dared his readers to see how much of the talk they could get through before they had to be “loaded into an ambulance with an aneurysm.” Another simply described it as “sweet merciful crap.” By August the uproar had gone mainstream, as other questionable TEDx content was uncovered. The New Republic wrote, “TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas ‘worth spreading.’ Instead it has become something ludicrous.” As others piled on, TED staffers called Powell and asked him to send the research backing up his claims. He never did.
The TEDxCharlotte talk, which had received tremendous applause when delivered, was one of thousands produced annually by an extended community of people who neither get paid by nor officially work for TED but who are nonetheless capable of damaging its brand.
TED’s army of volunteers has extended its reach to more than 130 countries. But TED no longer completely controls its brand.
When it was founded, in 1984, TED (which stands for “Technology, Entertainment, and Design”) brought together a few hundred people in a single annual conference in California. Today, TED is not just an organizer of private conferences; it’s a global phenomenon with $45 million in revenues. In 2006 the nonprofit decided to make all its talks available free on the internet. (They are now also translated—by volunteers—into more than 90 languages.) Three years later it decided to further democratize the idea-spreading process by letting licensees use its technology and brand platform. This would allow anyone, anywhere, to manage and stage local, independent TEDx events. Licenses are free, but event organizers must apply for them and submit to light vetting. Since 2009 some 5,000 events have been held around the world. (Disclosure: I spoke at the main TED event in February this year.)
The brand extension and new content TED gained by setting up a decentralized community would have cost millions of dollars to produce through traditional business means. Such a community can create value in many ways. Look at the benefits Apple reaped by opening app development to the crowd. By designing a tool kit that lowered the cost of development from $1 million to $10,000, the company harnessed the creativity of thousands of developers. Ask yourself what Apple’s business model would be without its diverse app store. When the security-software maker McAfee allowed volunteers known as “McAfee Maniacs” to offer customers answers to technical support questions, it cut overhead expenses by 5%. At Intuit, users of Mint, QuickBooks, and TurboTax serve as “live communities,” providing peer-to-peer advice for everything from special tax circumstances to competitive pay issues. To date they have answered more than 25 million questions—about 74% of all questions that have come in. “In one product line, this approach has slashed support costs by 35%,” says Per-Kristian (Kris) Halvorsen, the chief innovation officer of Intuit. And then there’s the upside of having a community of superusers built around and invested in the Intuit platform, creating a competitive moat.
The benefits of open innovation are clear. Yet many companies still worry about an approach that involves collaborating and sharing power with many. Openness is indeed risky, as the TED example clearly shows. TED’s army of volunteers has extended its reach to more than 130 countries. But because TED allows nearly anyone to contribute, it no longer completely controls its content or its brand.
Leaders might wonder whether the rewards of openness are outweighed by its risks—especially when they have a public company to run and predictable results to deliver. To gauge the trade-offs, you first need to understand that “open” does not mean “easy” or “free.” Second you need to know how to get a crowd working with you and not against you. That will mean adopting new practices: listening harder, aligning through shared purpose, and opening your organization in the ways that matter.
How Open Is Open?
Learning by “Listening Loudly”
Crowds will organize themselves far faster than you could manage, which is great when they’re holding events for you around the world—like TEDxKibera and TEDxAntarcticPeninsula—but not so great when they’re setting up ones that feature “experts” in pseudoscience topics like “plasmatics,” crystal healing, and Egyptian psychoaromatherapy, all of which were presented at TEDxValenciaWomen in December 2012. That conference was described by one disappointed viewer as “a mockery…that hurt, in this order, TED, Valencia, women, science, and common sense.” Within 24 hours commentators on Reddit had picked up the charge; by the next day more than 5,000 people had weighed in on Reddit, Twitter, or other social channels.
Use Little 'scouser To Scotsman Featuring Britain The - Andy' Tried Drinker From Fake Two months earlier, in October 2012, TED had removed Randy Powell’s “Vortex-Based Mathematics” video and had begun to respond to public concerns about that particular talk on a few influential websites like Quora. But those small steps did not address the fundamental problem: The TED name had become associated with bad content, as the chortle-inducing lineup of TEDxValenciaWomen made clear. People who didn’t even know the specifics of those situations but had grown to dislike what TED represented used the occasion to trash the brand—both for its perceived elitism and, somewhat paradoxically, for dumbing down ideas. An angry mob was forming. The dialogue was mean. And, organizationally, it was life threatening because the very premise of TED was being questioned.
TED’s leaders needed to look beyond the complaints about the Charlotte and Valencia events and hear the bigger message. They had to start “listening loudly”—engaging in a dialogue through a variety of public forums to understand what had gone wrong and to learn how to fix it.
As soon as Emily McManus, the editor of TED.com, waded into the blogosphere, the tension started to subside. Through posted exchanges on the NPR, CNN, and LA Times websites, and the Huffington Post, Slate, Quora, BuzzFeed, and other online venues, she reached out to 100 different communities. By communicating publicly and person-to-person, TED achieved two things. One was to signal that it was paying attention to people’s concerns. But more strategically, TED learned about a systemic problem that demanded a broad solution.
Don’t confuse listening “in public” with “public relations.” First, it’s not just about sharing your perspective (PR) but about being open to change that is prompted by the interaction (community building). With the former, you just want the crowd to feel better about your brand; with the latter, you want the crowd to work with you to solve problems.
So although Lara Stein, the TEDx program head, first joined the ValenciaWomen Reddit discussion with a flat explanation of policy (“While we do vet licensees carefully, we do not review or approve every speaker lineup….From time to time, a licensee gets it wrong….If we feel there has been a blatant disregard for the TEDx rules, we will not renew the license”), she and her colleagues eventually started engaging with critics, asking them questions and teasing out more-constructive feedback. For example, one such dialogue led a crowd member to point TED staffers to a Forbes article titled “10 Questions to Distinguish Real Science from Fake Science,” which they ultimately built on to create new content guidelines for the TEDx community. According to Stein, “TEDx policies have gone from a set of 10 simple guidelines to pages and pages of specific rules including things like branding, messaging, sponsorship, speaker selection and so on, based on the input we’ve gotten.”
Realigning the Crowd
It wasn’t enough to respond rapidly to and learn from online critics by writing new policies. TED also needed to redirect the crowd.
Changing an organization’s focus is hard enough when the people in it work for you. Consider the challenge Howard Schultz faced when he famously returned to the helm of Starbucks, determined to steer the company back to its core mission of providing a “third place” for customers and away from its policy of rapid expansion. But a shift in direction is even more difficult when it involves people who don’t work for you. You can’t “manage” a crowd—or a community—through transactional exchanges or economic incentives. You need something stronger: shared purpose. Of course, cash-strapped nonprofits and similar organizations have used the power of higher causes to align and motivate people for years. Businesses have begun to do so only recently. But shared purpose is now integral to how people create value, especially through the crowd. And TED’s experience again offers some useful lessons.Falls Off Man Dies Drunk Hyderabad Building
To get its crowd recommitted to the objective of “ideas worth spreading,” the TED team sent a lengthy letter to the TEDx community (made public the next day via the TEDx blog) reminding members that the organization’s mission was theirs to uphold. While elements of the note are clearly transactional (“Presenting bad science on the TEDx stage is grounds for revoking your license”), the bulk of it is instructional: a definition of pseudoscience, a list of common red flags, and examples of topics best left untouched. The letter (which ran pages long) explained in much greater depth than ever before what type of content TED considered appropriate, a judgment previously left entirely to each event planner. The TED team asked members of the “TEDx movement” for more feedback and for help monitoring the quality of events. The team also offered help with vetting speakers. The message was clear: Spreading important ideas was the shared purpose, improving quality was a shared problem, and it would take a shared effort to fix it.
Remember that TED’s initial response to the TEDxCharlotte fiasco was to call the presenter and ask him to defend his assertions. But as the December conflagration made clear, this private approach—which would have worked well for an internal employee—did little or nothing to get the crowd back on course before TEDxValenciaWomen. Instead, TED had to openly clarify to the TEDx crowd what TED isn’t in order to help sharpen what it is.
When TEDx Events Went Astray, Critics Blasted Them
Stein describes it as a collective teaching opportunity. “This was not a case of TED saying no, no, no,” she explains. “It was letting the people in the TEDx community say to one another that the trust had been breached, we had strayed from our shared purpose, and we had to get back in alignment.” TED’s role was that of adviser and shepherd, not director or dictator.
Being Open in the Ways That Matter
Because the events described here happened in a public court, not in private, you might infer that an organization applying the ethos of openness must be fully open. But that’s not at all true. For the strategy to work, what needs to be open should be open, but other parts of your organization can remain closed.
Indeed, open as TED is, pieces of its ecosystem are highly managed. For example, while 25,000 TEDx talks have been produced so far, as of the time of this writing only 228, or approximately 1%—the best of the best—had made it to TED.com for broad-based distribution and endorsement. People who complain that TED is not curating its content are ignoring how selective it is when posting TEDx content.
Apple manages its mobile platform in a similar way. The platform is closed in its hardware design but open to app store contributions, so it allows in a wide range of ideas and solutions from developers. Apple then benefits as “1,000 flowers bloom” on its platform. The app store accounts for only 4% of the firm’s sales, but by making smart outsiders feel welcome and rewarded in its fold, Apple ensures that they’re not aiding—or becoming—competitors. (Whether the even more open and rapidly expanding Android system will turn out to be a serious threat to Apple’s semi-open system remains to be seen.)
Apple, McAfee, Intuit, and TED have all found ways to engage the crowd by drawing a clear line between their own offerings and what they’re willing to let the public contribute.
Everyone’s a Crowd Manager
Today talent is increasingly untethered. Well over 30% of U.S. workers are now self-employed. This isn’t just a U.S. trend; on the popular websites Freelancer.com and oDesk, most freelancers hail from India and the Philippines, respectively. These are not workers who couldn’t find other jobs; they are talented people. Another popular freelancing site, Elance, reports that 71% of its users have either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Value is being created by all categories of people—workers and volunteers, paid and unpaid, contributors and consumers. Organizations that still believe they can and should keep the crowd out may find themselves in an undesirable position—alone and apart.
Anyone leading an organization today is already managing a crowd—whether it’s composed of consumers, the media, or citizens of the towns in which the enterprise operates. What TED faced is the new reality for all of us. “Nothing is predictable,” Stein concludes. “This flies in the face of leaders’ being asked to plan and predict and know more than others. Today we have to create scale for our mission by being open. The TEDx construct is an example of how being in a community lets us learn, adapt, and grow together.”
Even though management experts have long argued for looser organizational models and against command-and-control leadership, most executives are still ill equipped to manage crowds. As humans, we want to be perfect and in control. We like knowing more than we enjoy learning. We want to get it right the first time rather than iterate. But crowds—and the community constructs we’re talking about—are not about flawless execution; they are about allowing anyone (quite possibly everyone) to contribute and gathering a large volume of potentially powerful ideas from which to pick the best.