Why Michael Jackson flashmobs made me emotional

This morning I was moved to tears watching these two flash mobs dancing to Michael Jackson. This had nothing to do with the music of Michael Jackson - it happens almost every time I watch a video of a flash mob. Why?

There is something about people working together on something complicated without overt direction that seems to trigger profound feelings. Its like it is a basic human instinct, or at least potential, that kicks in when we experience it or even simply watch it happening. What a shame that we have been conditioned to think that without intervention the world starts to fall apart

I am currently reading Kevin Kelly's wonderful book Out Of Control in which he describes the actions of swarms of bees or flocks of birds in which there is no predetermined plan or particular leader but a group of individual creatures working within certain parameters can achieve complex operations on a vast scale without any apparent organisation. He then talked of an experiment conducted in a large auditorium where participants were given flags which could be turned either red or green and then asked to conduct relatively complex tasks such as play a game of Pong by making their choice of red or green behave like pixels on a large screen. After a couple of more simple tasks the group managed to replicate a flight simulator and "fly" a virtual plane successfully.

When I spoke at Reboot in Denmark recently I decided to do something a little different at the beginning of my keynote. When I was introduced by Thomas to an audience of approximately 300 people I didn't appear on stage but was in fact sitting alongside them in the audience two thirds of the way back in the hall. This alone was enough to disconcert the audience but when I began speaking, equipped as I was with a wireless microphone, they became even more agitated - some to the point of visible annoyance. My first words were to suggest that the feeling of discomfort that they were experiencing was likely to be very similar to the extreme discomfort that people are likely to feel when their manager doesn't do what they expect but instead appears alongside them acting very more like one of them than adopting familiar command and control behaviors. People have been trained to expect certain structures and behaviour and pulling those away without explanation or alternative structures in place can be very disconcerting.

This is why when I am working with clients I work with them as individuals and their attitudes, expectations and willingness to engage with others in a common purpose. There is , as far as I'm concerned, no "endgame". I am confident that if each of them operates with respect, tolerance, autonomy and fully engaged energy then as a group they will get where they need to get to. This is also what some clients, and certainly their bosses, find disconcerting. They feel the need of a plan and predicted outcomes.

Frankly an awful lot of management consultancy over the last few decades has been sold on the myth that life is that predictable. That if you apply McKinsey formula x,y, or z then outcomes can be predicted. I think this is less and less easy to pull off these days as things get more complicated and setting people up with the skills, attitudes, and insights to deal with whatever happens next and collectively work, in their respective Flash Mobs, towards a positive outcome seems a far more robust approach to adopt.

The Price Of Pomposity

On an almost daily basis I am faced with someone asking me to tell them the return on investment of social computing in business or proclaiming that Twitter is all about people telling us what they had for breakfast. These interactions are always delivered in a particular tone -- at best pompous, at worst sneering and condescending. Every time it happens it brings back memories of countless interactions I have had with more senior managers in my organisational life.

I would argue that pomposity represents a real, and nontrivial cost to the business world in the following ways:

  1. Every time someone is faced with a pompous response to a suggestion or idea they take one step back and become much less likely to ever offer their heartfelt thoughts again. Imagine the impact this has on the creativity and innovation that organisations depend on.
  2. Many, many meetings could be done in less than half the time if there wasn't a need to feed the ego of the chairperson or more vocal participants. How many times have things gone on way too long because someone likes the sound of his own voice?
  3. How many millions and millions of pounds have been spent because someone was too pumped up and full of themselves to admit that perhaps the major project they are sponsoring should be aborted?
  4. How many fledgeling social media projects get squashed by IT departments because "professionals" have had their nose put out of joint at "amateurs" thinking they know better?
  5. How many bright, committed and intelligent potential senior managers have failed to step up to the mark because they couldn't face the antler clashing and ego massaging that goes on in the boardroom?

I could carry on but I'd better stop - I'm sure you could add many examples of your own. Seriously, the cost of all this nonsense to business is astronomical and makes the odd bit of social banter on low-cost technologies appear trivial in comparison.