Startups Are for the Boobies: 5 Ways Businesses Can Become Collectives

In 2002 the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society launched a remarkable website called Ebird. If you’re not a birder, you probably haven’t heard of it. If you are, you almost certainly love it. It enables a worldwide community of bird watchers to upload photos, dates, and locations of bird sightings. Their passion and friendly competition has created such a wealth of data that Ebird is now a valuable tool for researchers studying migration patterns and threatened bird species.
So how does this relate to business? Often, we hear of a company trying to institute a “startup mentality.” Sometimes they even pour a team into a room with a ping pong table and hope for the best. That can work, but if you ask us, we’d rather build an Ebird mentality.
Sites like Ebird offer businesses a new model for success: the collective. A collective is not necessarily a startup; in fact, it’s very likely a large business. Its central feature is that it relies on technology to bring together the isolated work, thoughts, and expertise of many people to solve problems and drive success.
You can find many examples of collectives outside the business world. They can be lighthearted, like Director Chris Milk’s The Johnny Cash Project, which created a crowd-sourced music video by soliciting portraits of the legend from people around the world. Or they can be serious. Planet Hunters has 230,000 users from 181 countries, and they have classified over 17 million objects in the skies. Drupal has nearly one million developers solving content management problems. Not to mention Wikipedia.
My team spent the last quarter looking at collectives. (If you’re interested, you can find links to videos of our research and all sites referenced in this article below.)
Here are our big takeaways:
1. Collectives flatten hierarchies to drive individual participation. Anyone can contribute ideas to Drupal or thoughts to Wikipedia. But that’s not the case in a business. Too often, a great idea gets buried merely because it originates too far down the chain of command. Technology gives us plenty of ways to gather everyone in a business around the table. My company made its own social network, but you can also use wikis, forums, or many other widely-available tools.
2. They are fun and (slightly) gamified. Bird watchers can be surprisingly competitive, so Ebird gives them ways to become top birders in their areas. At the same time, good collectives don’t go too far with this. They create something that rewards increased participation but doesn’t require it—and certainly doesn’t make less active members feel less useful.
3. They have a shared sense of purpose. The amateur astronomers on Planet Hunters love the idea of advancing our knowledge about the universe. Likewise, employees in a company have a shared interest in making better products or delivering better services—after all, their paychecks depend on it.
4. They allow different levels of engagement. In a good collective, everyone can contribute to the level at which they are comfortable. On our social network, for example, you can simply push a like (actually, it’s a love) button or take the time to write a 300-word post. Or simply read. No one is penalized for not participating.
5. Their members self-select. Collectives aren’t for everybody. There are always going to be cynical people who don’t want to “drink the Kool-Aid.” So if your company has a collective mindset, ask prospective employees up front how they’d feel about taking part in it. If they think it’s childish, they can find somewhere else to succeed.
One last thought. I’d be lying if I said everyone in my company participates in our social network. We have offices in many different countries, and in some cultures people aren’t comfortable posting. That’s fine. They do like to read it. So we hope it’s doing some good even where it’s not generating active participation.
Your thoughts are welcome.
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