Tuesday's CrowdConf 2012 was an eyeopener. Modern leaders may do their best for their organizations by letting go. Letting go of employees inside their walls in exchange for partners wherever in the world they are. Letting go of pay secrecy. Letting go of formal sources of funding. I've followed on-line freelancing firms like oDesk and Elance since their foundings, but now we have evidence of how whole organizations can be run with greater freedom of design and structure.

Approximately 500 people attended CrowdConf at UCSF's Mission Bay Conference Center. The sponsors included Jefferies, a global securities and investment banking group, and the high-tech law firm Latham & Watkins. This signals to me that crowd sourcing is getting hot.

Not Just for Start-Ups

Bluechip organizations are becoming more comfortable with on-line freelancing (e.g., oDesk and Elance), full platforms to support specific functions (e.g., Poptent for video marketing, Kaggle for data science/analytics), the use of micro tasks to get real work done (e.g., Amazon Mechanical Turk and CrowdFlower), and the innovations driven by open prizes (e.g., xPrize Foundation). The main theme of this transition is that change is happening, but we don't have a clear body of leadership knowledge to help us leverage these capabilities either in our organizational design or in how we lead the individuals who are participating.

Shifting Leadership Styles

I suspect that Steve Kerr's ideas around "substitutes for leadership" will be of increasing value - ironic given that he coined the term in 1973. The idea is that the need for interactive leadership can be reduced by clear and meaningful tasks and goals, among other things. Keith Murnighan's more recent book, Do Nothing: How to Stop Overmanaging and Become a Great Leader also bubbles to the top when you think about leaders letting go to do more. Murnighan writes, "This is what great leaders do. They don't work; they facilitate and orchestrate." Modern leadership may be more about facilitating strategy than charismatic face-to-face interaction. This is not to say less important. Leadership may be even more important as the organization itself becomes more diffuse.

Greater transparency may be another substitute for leadership. Coffee & Power is an app supported mobile community where "nearby people can help each other with their work." Co-founded by Philip Rosedale (also known as Philip Linden, creator of Second Life), Coffee & Power has been discussed in the Wall Street Journal for their transparent and inclusive pay processes. Rosedale described how they initially arranged for work and pay via a public spreadsheet were people would sign up for tasks that needed to be done in one column, their progress in another, and what they needed to be paid in a third (slide 4). Though their tools have gone beyond a spreadsheet (Elance, oDesk, and others), the main ideas still work.


The final letting go may be around funding. With the signing of The Americans Jobs Act, crowdfunding for equity investment has become legal. Within the next year we should expect the regulations to be written that enable implementation. Australia and the United Kingdom are ahead on this front. Crowdfunding of projects on platforms like Kickstarter have already shown the commitment you can garner when you let more people be involved. Ownership versus preorder models will be interesting to compare.

Letting Go

The famous golfer Sam Snead is said to have described the best grip for a long shot as the same as holding a baby bird in your hand. It may be that we can apply this technique to modern organizational design. Keep a light grip for greater success.

In terms of organizational design and leadership this means a focus on the work to be done more than the people to be hired. I'm looking forward to talking with Philip Rosedale about the realities of building an organization in this way. I'm also interested in thinking about how you transition from a more tightly held model to one with a looser grip.

Calling on the Crowd for My Next Steps

Hoping to crowdsourcing some of this research... What questions should I ask Philip Rosedale about the growth and leadership of Coffee & Power? Do you have any suggestions for organizations that have gone from traditional models to those involving crowdsourced work?

Image courtesy of Rand Fishkin of

A shorter version of this post appeared on Technorati.