Leaders Make it Easy to be Followed

Wednesday, November 27, 2013
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken
In September I wrote about nudges: ways to influence behaviour through setting defaults or designing interactions, without actually limiting people's choices (see: How Nudges Work for Government).

Nudges can be considered in contrast with other levers we have to influence action. For government, these could be rules, economic incentives, or information. However, it's also worth considering the role of nudges - interaction design - for ourselves as individuals. It's because we now create value through tribes.

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.” - Seth Godin
Godin's book Tribesmore frantically paced than Kerouac's On The Road, describes the rise and increasing power of such tribes. Even while working within a company, on a portfolio duly ascribed through the hierarchy, Godin had to exercise informal leadership and connect to people throughout the organization, just to get his job done. Specifically, he crafted and distributed a newsletter to draw colleagues' spare time and effort to his software development projects that desperately needed help.

I think this is increasingly the case for most knowledge workers. We rely on our friends and colleagues for help, advice, bouncing ideas around, and invaluable feedback on possible solutions. Whether we recognize it or not, we all sometimes take informal leadership roles. But unlike those in formal positions of power, rules and economic incentives are out - leaving us with information and, perhaps, nudges to get things done.

Information is obvious. We have to explain why people should take interest in our projects, and how they can contribute. But that leaves an interesting question about nudges, for leaders of tribes.

Nudging Contribution

Cass Sunstein, who popularized the term nudge, uses the example of mail-in rebates for purchases as a broken system. Such rebates are not completely easy, don't fit into consumers' day-to-day lives, and involve barriers. Even though all the information is available, people are nudged towards non-participation and so redemption rates are low.

Nudged towards non-participation. When seeking participation from our peers, it's easy to accidentally set that trap.

In Cultivating Communities of Practice, the authors related the story of a community manager realizing what lay behind success for his meetings. Regardless of emails asking for agenda items, consistent scheduling, and clear messaging, attendance was based on how much time he spent visiting people face-to-face outside of the meetings. It changed people's relationship with their community. People needed to be convinced of their role in the community's success, and to talk out the value of the meeting's agenda, to be inspired to contribute. Information wasn't enough.

I'm sure you can summon an example of asking for attendance or input and getting responses only from the usual suspects. (Who are quite likely the people you go for coffee or drinks with. It's trust: to respect their time, and to value their input.)

But often we need to throw our nets further. And unfortunately, in doing so it's very easy to communicate in next-to-useless ways. Consider this parody of what Nike's advertising would look like, if Nike communicated like government (according to Dave Meslin):

Shared by Michael Grigoriev.

The contrast is powerful: Nike's effective, visceral advertising, and this information-is-enough style. We all know the limits of emailed blocks of text for conveying a message, but use them anyway, which is only okay for people who already trust us not to waste their time. (And I unfortunately have to admit guilt here.) 

But, how we present information is just one nudge, one part of the interaction design, for informal leadership. It could also be what kind of input we request, the platforms we use, and even how we schedule meetings. So there are questions we should ask ourselves:
  • Do I make it easy for people to know about my project in the first place?
  • Do I give people meaningful choices for different ways to contribute, based on the different levels of time, understanding, and comfort they might have?
  • Am I considerate of the different ways people need to be engaged?
In short:
  • Do I make it easy for people to help me?
But remember. Technically easy does not mean intellectually easy, or interpersonally easy, or culturally easy. It's a hard road to easy leadership.