Sunday, June 14, 2009

The beauty in following, in a participatory way

I attended two talks last week that helped me think about how Samara can help create opportunities for Canadians to meaningfully contribute, in small, fun and accessible ways, to issues that matter to them. Friends know this has been a long-time interest of mine, something I've reflected on for years and regret not writing more about.

If you're interested, here are the highlights on presentations by Barbara Kellerman and David Eaves. And if you're really interested, please get in touch with any advice and stay tuned for more from Samara on this front.

Talk #1: Kellerman was at Rotman talking about her new book on followership. She's a leadership scholar at Harvard, and correctly points out that you can't have leaders without followers. Given technological and historical/political trends, she predicts that in this century, followers will be more important than they've ever been before.

This felt a bit "no duh" for awhile, but then she outlined two things that got me thinking. The first was a typology of followers, developed in light of the fact that we too often think of followers as a monolithic group (think "my constituents" or "my employees"). She outlined five types of followers, ranked from low to high based on their level of engagement.
  • Isolates: Those who do nothing, and as a result, strengthen those with the upper hand.
  • Bystanders: Those who observe but deliberately do nothing and therefore tacitly support the status quo (e.g., many Germans circa 1933)
  • Participants: Favour or oppose leaders and care enough to invest something in it (e.g., Merck employees who alternately hid and highlighted the Vioxx problems)
  • Activists: Those who feel strongly and act accordingly to support or unseat their leaders (e.g., the Catholics who organized to in response to the sexual abuse crises in their church)
  • Diehards: Those who are prepared to die for a cause (e.g., suicide bombers, soldiers)
The second was the reminder that "most of us, on most issues, are followers most of the time." With the typology in mind, and not wanting to be a bystander when I shouldn't be, I called the VoxBox to suggest a different angle on a story that's really bothering me. Small step, I know, but better than nothing. I'll leave the diehard stuff to others.

Talk #2: David Eaves, who writes a terrific blog, negotiates and thinks big thoughts for a living, came to Samara to present his thinking on how technology and social change are transforming (or should transform) public policy development and public service delivery. Building on the work of economist Ronald Coase, internet thinkers Clay Shirky, David Weinberger and journalist Chris Anderson (0f long tail fame), Eaves argues that governments and other public service-seeking organizations need to orchestrate themselves for transparency, participation and collaboration to harness the "long tail." It is these features that will ensure legitimacy and success into the future.

This can be a lot to get one's head around, so he cited a few examples (which he's also written about): Mozilla, the 911 emergency service, Canada25 and space travel. He also highlighted some bright lights of change he's seeing in Ottawa.

My takeaway? This is going to require a little bit more of all of us. This means contributing when we can and, recognizing that things are more open than ever before, going a little easier on people to who are experimenting and may stumble from time-to-time. Samara looks to profile individuals or organizations who are working on the future of public service; ideas are very welcomed.

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