There has been a lot written in recent years about a way of working called "crowd-sourcing," which you could define as the power of mass participation to generate phenomenal ideas, solve complex problems, and organize broad movements.
We've seen examples, such as Wikipedia or the Linux operating system, where communities of people have learned to successfully tap the "wisdom of the crowd" (as documented by James Surowiecki in his book of the same name) to drive innovation, solve problems, and gain a competitive advantage through collaboration.
Big-name companies like GE and Dell to IBM and Starbucks have turned to the crowd as a way to generate new product ideas and turn customer feedback into the seeds of innovation. There are also "competitions" like the Ansari X-Prize, which awarded $10 million for the first non-government organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks.
It's clear that the more brainpower you can focus on something, the better the result will be. But that might be more easily said than done--especially when it comes to tapping the power of the crowd within your own organization.
If the best ideas can come from anywhere, what are you doing as a leader to make sure the people in your organization feel empowered to speak up and be heard while simultaneously ensuring others don't dominate with their own opinions?
I have come to think of it a bit like the role a conductor of a symphony. If you let everyone play as loud, or as little as they want, even the most well-composed piece of music can fall apart. But when you find that balance--signaling for more horn there, less reed; louder tuba, softer drum--you can literally see musicians begin to feed off each other and to collaborate in creating something more beautiful than any of them could do alone.
That same idea applies to leading an organization where you're trying to get the best contributions from everyone in your orchestra. Sometimes you need to pause some people so that you can ask others to speak more loudly as a way to get contributions from everyone.
I remember an instance where I was in a meeting with a few Red Hat associates to talk about an upcoming speech I was scheduled to give. Of the associates in the meeting, one was a senior manager while the other was more junior. As we kicked off the meeting, the manager became very talkative. They had a lot of opinions and great ideas, but were dominating the meeting. Meanwhile, the more junior associate had not uttered a peep.
As a leader, it becomes your job to find a way to get the best ideas from everyone in the room. That means you need to find ways to encourage people to share their ideas without hurting someone else's ego in the process.
In this case, I needed to find a polite way to interrupt the manager while also asking the junior associate what they thought. This can be a delicate operation, of course, especially if the quiet person really shies away from the spotlight.
My solution was to pause and shift the conversation by asking the junior associate some questions to get their thoughts on the ideas we had kicked around. And you know what? It worked. That junior associate did indeed have some great insights.
I later found out that prior to the meeting, the junior associate's manager told them not to speak up! That was obviously disappointing to hear. It shows that we still have work to do in breaking down the barriers to collaboration which can rear up inside any organization, especially when there are hierarchical titles involved.
A key takeaway is to be aware of the role that you as a leader have in setting context and orchestrating who and how people get heard. Every meeting you have can be an opportunity to lead by example by helping ensure that everyone on the team is encouraged--if not expected--to contribute.