Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Multiplayer games demonstrate a new model for leadership

For many people engaged in knowledge work (a larger and larger percentage of the workforce), the biggest hassles are the noise and overhead of keeping track of their time, following procedures, reporting status, getting direction.

In other words, being "managed."

And managing is no fun either. Imagine days of back-to-back meetings, with little or no time to think, create or strategize. Imagine gathering your team's reports and consolidating them for the next link up the chain, then taking context-free task assignments from up the chain and distributing them to your team.

Ugh. I'm not missing that work at all.

I was thinking of this while reading the article, "Leadership's Online Labs," in the May Harvard Business Review. The authors--Byron Reeves, Thomas Malone and Tony O'Driscoll--examine successful and experienced players of massively multiplayer on-line computer games (like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and the like) for lessons on how to lead groups and companies in the future.

There are lots of important observations in the article, including this one on leadership:

Perhaps the most striking aspect of leadership in online games is the way in which leaders naturally switch roles, directing others one minute and taking orders the next. Put another way, leadership in games is a task, not an identity—a state that a player enters and exits rather than a personal trait that emerges and thereafter defines the individual.

...[G]ames do not foster the expectation that leadership roles last forever. Someone leading a guild today may grow weary of the stress and hand over the reins after a month or two. The leader of a raid knows that someone else’s skills and experience may be better suited to commanding the next effort. Even during the frenzied activity of a raid, the leadership role can be transferred as conditions change or because the person in charge doesn’t happen to be around when the need for a decision arises. Notably, choices about who will lead and who will follow are often made organically by the group—frequently because someone volunteers to take over—not by some higher authority....

The idea of temporary leadership is alien to most business organizations. Companies usually identify people as leaders early in their careers. The selected few carry that designation with them through different jobs, each typically lasting several years, as they move up the corporate hierarchy. That model may not work well in the future. The growing complexity of the business environment means that no single leader will be an expert in every area. Beyond the obvious benefit of matching an individual’s expertise to a challenge, treating leadership as a temporary state can empower employees to volunteer to lead and, thereby, can unearth previously overlooked talent among the ranks.

In the above paragraphs is a challenge to the heart of the business status quo. Business schools churn out thousands of graduates aspiring to management roles. Is it possible that companies will increasingly not need managers but instead flexible contributors who can adopt and shed "leader" and "follower" roles as needed?

This sounds more like the way things work at Google and W.L. Gore, as profiled in Hamel's "The Future of Management." If it is to happen, it will require wholesale reinvention of compensation, incentive systems, personnel development and recruiting. In brief, a tall order.

One thing is for certain, though. The companies who pioneer and master this new model will not be the behemoths of today. Twisting some recent words of Doc Searls, it "will come from the edge. It’ll happen under the feet of clashing giants."

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Wally Bock said...

Congratulations! This post was selected as one of the five best business blog posts of the week in my Three Star Leadership Midweek Review of the Business Blogs.


Wally Bock

Wally Bock said...

Hi John. Thanks for bringing this together in one place. Great post.

I posted on this last year when the IBM/Seriosity study came out and many pundits proclaimed a change in the way leadership will be done in organizations and the arrival of the ultimate leadership training tool. I thought then that both those claims were nonsense and said so in a post titled: "Games (even big ones) are not the solution to leadership development."


I still think that, even though I've absorbed more of the research. As of this moment I think that future (next 50 years) leadership styles will evolve to allow for more individual choice on routine issues. Some workplaces will become democratic in the operational sense of the term as Semco is now. Overall the position of "boss" in a team or a company won't change much.

That's because that role is rooted in anthropology. Melvin Konner pointed out that if you see a specific behavior in all cultures and across all time periods, it's probably hard-wired into the species. Much of the way we do leadership meets that test.

At one level it supports much of what we're finding in the game research. Effective teams, in most situations, pass leadership around for specific tasks and tactical achievements.

But for longer term objectives and in crisis situations we tend to cede leadership to a few individuals who are the fill the leadership role most of the time. Put another way, there is a subset of human beings who are very good helping groups achieve their goals and who love to do it. The rest of us are usually willing to have them step up and handle that aspect of our life together.