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Oreos and Edward Snowden: The coming crisis for companies

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As computing power migrated from big institutions to small, personal devices, the ability to create and distribute media anywhere, at any time, to anyone, at any scale, at virtually zero cost has become accessible to anyone with a smart phone. That diffusion of power has dramatic implications for any organization—not only for consumer brands like Oreos, but for the National Security Agency.

Power shift

I will leave a debate about the ethics of Edward Snowden's actions to another forum, but the fact remains that after less than three months on the job, Edward Snowden used a thumb drive and an anonymous e-mail account to substantially subvert the national security apparatus of the United States of America. The balance of power has shifted from the institution to the individual. Building a digital strategy that has integrity and power for your organization must recognize and harness the power that radical connectivity has redistributed to individuals.

A starting point is recognizing that new balance of power. Focus on changing your organization's culture and process to make it more amenable and responsive to individuals. Every single citizen, customer, client, employee, listener, reader, student, patient—every single person your organization touches—is powerful, almost beyond measure. Treat them that way. Our institutions are necessarily designed to subvert individuals, to bring order through hierarchy, but it is not at all clear that this approach makes sense anymore. We must embrace individuals and make the most of what a more diffuse, non-hierarchical, decentralized orientation has to offer.

As Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom wrote in their book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations: "Decentralization has been lying dormant for thousands of years. But the advent of the Internet has unleashed this force, knocking down traditional businesses, altering entire industries, affecting how we relate to each other and influencing world politics. The absence of structure, leadership and formal organization, once considered a weakness, has become a major asset."

Change management is hard. It means we need to develop new processes and approaches to combine the networked, individual power of radical connectivity and the direction-setting shared purpose of organizations (whether it is to bring value to shareholders or elect a president). Barack Obama's first presidential campaign in 2008 offered an impressive example of how to harness the energy of empowered individuals while still providing clear leadership and direction.

Obama expressed a vision and provided details around the vision. His leadership team provided tactical direction—how much money they needed to raise, what states they were focused on. Both the vision and the tactical direction were communicated transparently and openly online through measures such as  YouTube video briefings with senior campaign staff and regular e-mails to their list. Everyday Americans—more than 6 million of them—took the vision, leadership and tactical needs of the Obama campaign and brought it into their local neighborhoods and online social networks. They hosted house parties, made phone calls, knocked on doors, made YouTube videos, wrote blog posts and much more—and as a result, Obama won the White House.

A growing gap

Unfortunately, this impressive fusion of top-down leadership and distributed individual action across the network seemed to wilt once Obama actually came to occupy said White House. The reason for that is pretty clear: The institutions of Washington, D.C.—namely the Executive Branch and the Democratic National Committee—are not nearly as flexible and malleable as political campaigns are. Still, in small ways the Obama team has made some headway, for instance by re-inventing WhiteHouse.gov from a staid archive of press releases to a dynamic way of engaging with the American public.

In the era of radical connectivity, where 130 million Americans have smart phones with the approximate power of a Cray Supercomputer, individuals carry a phenomenal amount of power. There is a gap between the traditional ways we've organized society (from big government to big brands) and the power of social media. That gap is wide, and growing. I wrote my new book, The End of Big, to provoke more discussion about this gap—and to better understand what we can do to be successful leaders and build successful organizations in the digital era. The tremendous diffusion of power from organizations to individuals is still in its infancy, and our organizations are struggling to figure out what to do with this changed world. It is important to do the hard thinking—and the even harder work—to build organizations that encourage and respect the power of the individual, whether it is as consumer or as employee. The future demands it

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