Last weekend I watched The Botany of Desire. In this PBS documentary I streamed off Netflix, Micheal Pollan (the foodie hero who brought us The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book also called The Botany of Desire, and the documentary Food, Inc.) examines the natural history of the spread of four plants: apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana, but with a twist– he tells the story from the plants’ point of view.
Man, I love stuff like that. By switching the perspective, Pollan is able to show how each of these plants has manipulated humans into propagating it far and wide throughout the world. For example, apples are indigenous to the mountains of Kazakhstan and potatoes to Peru, but now both can be found pretty much everywhere. And wait ’til you watch the section about marijuana, a plant that has managed to get many humans to raise it better than their own children.
I thought it might be interesting to take Pollan’s trick, but rather than apply it to plants, apply it to ideas. Get all anthromorphic and consider how ideas get us to spread them.
There are tons of people out there looking at how ideas spread, probably most famously/recently Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. But what if, for a second, we take the perspective that the ideas might be using us the same way flowers use bees.
Early in human history, ideas weren’t particularly good at getting us to do their bidding. Heck, the idea for inventing paper first showed up in Egypt over 5000 years ago, and it couldn’t even get humans to take it one continent away to Asia. The idea for inventing paper appeared in China independently about 3500 years after it appeared in Egypt, according to what Wikipedia tells me.
Over the past month or so, I’ve been having a conversation with Iain Gray, Red Hat Vice President of Customer Engagement, about the ways companies engage with communities. I’ve also written a lot lately about common mistakes folks make in developing corporate community strategies (see my two posts about Tom Sawyer community-building here and here and Chris Brogan’s writeup here).
One idea we bounced around for a while was a mashup of community thinking and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For those of you who slept in with a bad hangover the day you were supposed to learn about Maslow in your intro psych class (damn you, Jagermeister!), here is the Wikipedia summary:
“[Maslow’s hierarchy of needs] is often depicted as a pyramid consisting of five levels: the lowest level is associated with physiological needs, while the uppermost level is associated with self-actualization needs, particularly those related to identity and purpose. The higher needs in this hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs in the pyramid are met. Once an individual has moved upwards to the next level, needs in the lower level will no longer be prioritized. If a lower set of needs is no longer being met, the individual will temporarily re-prioritize those needs by focusing attention on the unfulfilled needs, but will not permanently regress to the lower level.”
Now granted, the needs of a company are very different than the needs of a human being. At its very basic level, a company has a “physiological” need to make money. If that need is not being met, little else will matter. But in an ironic twist, this basic need to make money can actually hinder the company’s ability to make money if it is not wrapped in a more self-actualized strategy.
To explain what I mean, think about the last annoying salesperson who called or emailed you. Why were you annoyed? Probably because it was very clear to you that the salesperson was badly hiding his basic motivation to make money. He wasn’t talking to you because he valued you– he was talking to your wallet.
Now think about the best recent sales experience you’ve had. Mostly likely, this salesperson was being motivated by a higher purpose, perhaps something as simple as a desire to make you happy. Sometimes the most effective salespeople aren’t even in sales at all– like a friend who tells you about a new album you should buy, for example. Or sites like Trip Advisor, where you can learn about where to go on vacation from other folks like you.
When it comes to community strategy, most companies have trouble finding motivation beyond the simple need to make money– and the communities they interact with can tell.
Yet if you look at the greatest companies out there, you’ll find that they usually have a strong sense of identity and purpose– just like Maslow’s self-actualized people. Read anything by Jim Collins and you’ll see what I mean.
For a recent presentation, Iain developed a chart that looks a lot like the one below. And to embarrass Iain, let’s call it the Gray hierarchy of community needs.
I spent two days this week at the Coach K Leadership Conference at Duke. It’s always good to get above the trees for a few days, and this experience was exactly that kind of opportunity. Jonathan Opp did a nice summary post on the conference here and you can see the live Twitter stream here.
On Wednesday, Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst gave a keynote entitled “Competing as a 21st Century Enterprise Among 20th Century Giants.” Jim comes at this subject from a pretty unique vantage point: he is probably one of the few people in the world who has run both a 20th century company (Delta Airlines, as COO) and a 21st century company (that would be us, Red Hat).
In his presentation, Jim covered some of the things he has learned in moving from the command and control, military-inspired corporate environment of Delta (which is pretty similar to the structure of many of the other great 20th century companies) to the open source-inspired corporate structure here at Red Hat (if you want to learn more about Red Hat and the open source way, here and here and here and here are some posts that will help). In particular, Jim gave five tips that will help your company compete better in the 21st century world– I’ve summarized them below:
A few weeks ago I wrote a post called Tom Sawyer, whitewashing fences, and building communities online, where I outlined one of the biggest mistakes I see companies make when figuring out their community strategy– they expect a mythical “community” will paint their fence for them. But not everyone is Tom Sawyer.
If your community strategy starts with the question, “how can I make the community work for me?” you may still find success if there are a bunch of people out there willing to paint your fence for free, but you definitely are not taking advantage of all of the benefits you can get from participating in communities.
One of the most often used examples of customer/community-driven innovation (perhaps because it is simple to understand) is the My Starbucks Idea site. This is a place where customers can tell Starbucks what they want, people vote on each others’ ideas, and Starbucks takes the best ideas and uses them to make their products, services, and experience better.
A recent example of a service that was launched through the site is a mini Starbucks drink card that can fit on your key chain. Sweet. It looks like they’ve had at least 5-10 innovations like this that have come from customer ideas, maybe more. And Starbucks is not alone– many companies have built similar sites, as has The White House. You’ve seen them.
But this approach is still simple Tom Sawyer-style community-building. People just helping Starbucks paint their fence for free. So why is it working for Starbucks? Because there are people out there willing to spend their time and energy helping Starbucks make their products, services, and experience better. Not every brand can command this sort of attention and loyalty. Most can’t, in fact.
My view? I do think these sort of public idea generation efforts are smart 21st century thinking when they work. But why stop there?
I get excited when I see big companies focused not only on what they take from the table, but what they bring to the table. I love to see companies that aren’t afraid to be humble members of communities, rather than building the community around themselves.
Last week I was on a panel with Chris Brogan, author of (with Julien Smith) the NY Times bestselling book Trust Agents. Also on the panel were Robert Cook (founder of Freebase and Metaweb), Gary Slack (Chairman of Slack Barshinger and head of the Business Marketing Association), and June Arunga (partner at Black Star Lines and one of Fast Company’s 100 Most Creative People in Business). The panel was moderated by Sree Sreenivasan (Dean of Student Affairs at Columbia Journalism School and regular TV commentator).
After looking up the kickin’ credentials of each of these folks, I figured I’d better get my act together and do some research so I wouldn’t immediately out myself as the weak bulb. As part of my homework, I picked up a copy of Trust Agents to read on the plane.
Now I must admit, I’m not a big fan of most books about social media stuff. I think I may be allergic to what I call social media meta-marketing: people using social media to show others how much they know about social media. If all the people using social media to talk about social media just shut up for a minute, we’d probably save Twitter some serious bandwidth expense. But I digress…
So I buy this book, sign up for Chris’s Twitter feed, all the normal stuff. It turns out Chris has almost 100,000 followers on Twitter, and almost every post on his blog gets like 50 or 100 comments (and most of them seem really nice and friendly, us open source folks aren’t used to that).
His Twitter feed almost looks like a breathing rhythm, with tweets coming in and out every few seconds. You could probably even calculate how much sleep he gets by putting the times of his first and last tweets of the day for a month in a spreadsheet and averaging out the results. If I hadn’t seen him sneaking some tweeting in under the panel table via his phone, I’d guess TweetDeck was directly wired into his brain.
OK, cut to it. The book is great. I really dug it. It turns out it isn’t so much about social media as it is about building relationships, building trust, being helpful, being useful, being nice, and a bunch of other stuff your mom told you to do when you were younger. After reading the book and spending an afternoon with Chris, it’s pretty obvious how he’s been so successful. He’s just really, really freaking nice.
From the book, here is his strategy:
I spoke on a panel at GE today with Chris Brogan, author of the book Trust Agents (almost finished with it, more comments in a later post…).
After hearing Chris talk about building trust in online communities, it hit me that one of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen people make when trying to build communities online, even in the open source world, is that they think like Tom Sawyer.
Here’s how Wikipedia retells the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence:
After playing hooky from school on Friday and dirtying his clothes in a fight, Tom is made to whitewash the fence as punishment on Saturday. At first, Tom is disappointed by having to forfeit his day off. However, he soon cleverly persuades his friends to trade him small treasures for the privilege of doing his work.
When thinking about building communities online, are you thinking like Tom Sawyer? Why are you building a community in the first place? When it comes right down to it, do you really just want people to whitewash your fence for you and give you small treasures in return for the privilege?
If you are looking to ideas like open source or social media as simple means to get what you want for your company, it’s time to rethink your community strategy.