By Joi Ito
Director, MIT Media Lab
A speaker at THINK: A Forum on the Future of Leadership, in New York City today
The Internet has enabled the cost of the production and distribution of ideas and information to plummet nearly to zero–resulting in an explosion of ideas and a low cost of collaboration. This has prompted a great deal of innovation, but also a complexity, speed and capacity for amplification that makes the world a difficult and dangerous place for many organizations and human-made systems designed for a slower and simpler era.
The cost of planning, predicting and managing rapidly changing, complex systems often exceeds the cost of actually doing whatever is being planned and managed. In fact, it can be often easier to try something and iterate than to try to predict the outcome and manage the risks. Most great ideas as well as dramatic failures have been unpredictable and are only obvious in hindsight. (Don’t get me wrong: foreknowledge and planning are useful and, often, necessary; they’re just not sufficient.)
In such a world, leadership hinges on the ability to master a broad set of skills and character traits necessary for fostering a robust system, including courage, flexibility, speed, values and a strong vision and trajectory. It’s more important to have a strong compass than a detailed street map since the map is probably outdated and wrong.
These kinds of decentralized models of leadership have been evolving and emerging in a variety of situations ranging from battle (virtual and real) to religions. The Internet has just super-charged the importance of this type of leadership in almost every organization.
Managers in large corporations no longer have the promise of promotions and long-term employment to keep employees obedient and hard working. Central corporate R&D and planning organizations can no longer provide detailed maps of the world to their staff and partners. Innovation is happening in the most unlikely parts of the organization–often outside of the organization.
Leadership today is about empowering those around you to share your vision, embrace serendipity, have the courage to take risks and learn from failure rather than be crushed by it. Diversity must be embraced and organizational borders made porous. Assets such as intellectual property and lines of software code must not prevent aggressive agility. Organizations must be willing and able to pivot away from attachment to such assets lest these assets become liabilities holding back innovation and progress.
In this new world, leaders must be courageous, visionary and comfortable in an environment where control and complete knowledge are impossible and their pursuit futile and counterproductive.