Leveraging the 1% rule

While more organizations are investing in digital tools so people can collaborate, most of them find themselves confronting the same obstacle: participation inequality. 

If you’re a member of an online community, you’re already seen this. The term was introduced in 2006 by the Nielsen Norman group, known for their work on intranet design and usability, in an article titled, “The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities.” It’s often generalized to “the 1% rule.” 

“In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.”

So what do you do if your organization is spending money on tools for people to collaborate, and yet so few people are contributing?

Attempting to change the rule

There is a lot of good advice on driving adoption of new tools. I’ve even written some myself

For example, you might focus on training, so people know how to use the tools. Or you could start with processes, so use of the new tools is embedded in the work people are doing. You may even focus on a new class of professionals, community managers, whose role is to encourage online participation. 

All of these are good ideas. In practice, though, they don’t seem to be enough to help organizations realize the potential of collaborative technologies.

What if, instead of trying to get everyone to participate, you focused on helping 1% participate in a way that was more effective? In a way that could spread more readily?

A different approach

You can do this by spreading Working Out Loud Circles, the peer support groups in which individuals choose a goal and deepen relationships with people related to that goal. (There’s a variation of this process for shared goals, teams, and leaders too.) 

The Circle Guides help individuals use the tools in ways that are intrinsically appealing, ways that more clearly answer the question, “What’s in it for me?”

When I work with organizations, we customize the public guides so they are specific to the organization’s goals, culture, and technology. We use their examples in the exercises, highlighting different ways to contribute ideas, issues, and improvements.

The Circles are still confidential, and they’re still designed to tap into each person’s sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. It’s just that the customized guides make it easy for individuals to know what to do and to feel positive about doing it

The Circle Guides essentially encode collaborative behaviors into a self-directed social learning process. The Circle members’ personal experiences, as survey results show, help them see these behaviors as good for them and good for the organization. The personal fulfillment they experience, plus the repeated practice in the Circle, help the new behaviors become habitual.

When 1% of your organization Works Out Loud

“Good for them,” you might say. “But what about everyone else who isn’t in a Circle?”

This is where the leverage comes in. 

By equipping your 1% with the set of specific collaborative behaviors in the Circle Guides, you’re making those behaviors visible. Rather than just hoping for meaningful contributions, you’ve helped people make them in a systematic way. 

Those contributions - sharing work that can be helpful to others -  are what the other 99% will be seeing. That social proof will help other people know what to do, and motivate yet more people to join circles, so the 1% becomes 2%, then 3%. (One company approaching their 100th Circle observed how Circle participants were using their social intranet: “Many of them we hadn’t seen before.”)

Because of participation inequality, even 1% of your company working in an open, networked way can make a difference in your company’s culture, and can unlock more connections, contributions, and collaboration from the rest.

If Abe Lincoln had a social network

What would Lincoln do? Last week, my coach and friend, Moyra Mackie, wrote a good post about the value of management by walking around (MBWA) and about the benefits of managers being available for their teams.

She described how Lincoln is credited with using this technique during the Civil War. How Hewlett-Packard executives practiced it in the 1970s and Tom Peters and others wrote about it in the 1980s.

Now, modern managers will nod their head knowingly when you mention this useful practice. But an incredibly small number of managers are taking advantage of an improvement to the technique that’s available today - one that Lincoln could have only dreamed about.

MBWA

It’s the unplanned, unfiltered nature of MBWA that results in the manager receiving useful information. Here’s a helpful definition from Wikipedia:

“The term management by wandering around (MBWA), also management by walking around, refers to a style of business management which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, or equipment, about the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an impromptu movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times. The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate the productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.”

Lincoln in the 1860s

In the Lincoln biography, “With Malice Toward None”, Prof. Stephen Oates asserts that Lincoln invented MBWA. And Moyra writes about why he did it:

 “During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would surprise his generals and their men with impromptu troop inspections. By seeking out and listening to ordinary soldiers and observing what was happening, his habit of unannounced visits allowed him to get an unfiltered view on which to base future decisions.”

Instead of waiting for information to come to him, perhaps tainted by the interests of generals, Lincoln went and got it himself. (Over a hundred years later, Deming noted “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them.”)

In addition to this valuable feedback leading to better decisions, Moyra describes how Lincoln’s direct interactions with troops could also “kickstart a two way process of communication and learning”.

Lincoln today

MBWA, when done well, does indeed have these benefits. But even for Lincoln it was incredibly limited: the time required to travel to meet troops in the field; the very small number of people he could interact with; the difficulty of getting honest feedback from a private to the President. It was easy for MBWA to devolve into just speeches to large crowds or staged tours to meet a few pre-selected soldiers.

If Lincoln had a social network, he would complement his historic trips by virtually walking around his organization. From the White House, he would see what soldiers across the country were saying when they didn’t think he was listening. He would provide feedback and encouragement that everyone could see. Inspiration that everyone could read and share. Lessons and directions that everyone could learn from.

He would still go to the field. But he would augment the practice he invented with modern techniques that would make him even more effective and help his troops be even more engaged in their mission.

Modern managers, more pressed for time than ever before, could learn a lot from what Lincoln did - and would do.

If Abe Lincoln had a social network

What would Lincoln do? Last week, my coach and friend, Moyra Mackie, wrote a good post about the value of management by walking around (MBWA) and about the benefits of managers being available for their teams.

She described how Lincoln is credited with using this technique during the Civil War. How Hewlett-Packard executives practiced it in the 1970s and Tom Peters and others wrote about it in the 1980s.

Now, modern managers will nod their head knowingly when you mention this useful practice. But an incredibly small number of managers are taking advantage of an improvement to the technique that’s available today - one that Lincoln could have only dreamed about.

MBWA

It’s the unplanned, unfiltered nature of MBWA that results in the manager receiving useful information. Here’s a helpful definition from Wikipedia:

“The term management by wandering around (MBWA), also management by walking around, refers to a style of business management which involves managers wandering around, in an unstructured manner, through the workplace(s), at random, to check with employees, or equipment, about the status of ongoing work. The emphasis is on the word wandering as an impromptu movement within a workplace, rather than a plan where employees expect a visit from managers at more systematic, pre-approved or scheduled times. The expected benefit is that a manager, by random sampling of events or employee discussions, is more likely to facilitate the productivity and total quality management of the organization, as compared to remaining in a specific office area and waiting for employees, or the delivery of status reports, to arrive there, as events warrant in the workplace.”

Lincoln in the 1860s

In the Lincoln biography, “With Malice Toward None”, Prof. Stephen Oates asserts that Lincoln invented MBWA. And Moyra writes about why he did it:

 “During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would surprise his generals and their men with impromptu troop inspections. By seeking out and listening to ordinary soldiers and observing what was happening, his habit of unannounced visits allowed him to get an unfiltered view on which to base future decisions.”

Instead of waiting for information to come to him, perhaps tainted by the interests of generals, Lincoln went and got it himself. (Over a hundred years later, Deming noted “If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them.”)

In addition to this valuable feedback leading to better decisions, Moyra describes how Lincoln’s direct interactions with troops could also “kickstart a two way process of communication and learning”.

Lincoln today

MBWA, when done well, does indeed have these benefits. But even for Lincoln it was incredibly limited: the time required to travel to meet troops in the field; the very small number of people he could interact with; the difficulty of getting honest feedback from a private to the President. It was easy for MBWA to devolve into just speeches to large crowds or staged tours to meet a few pre-selected soldiers.

If Lincoln had a social network, he would complement his historic trips by virtually walking around his organization. From the White House, he would see what soldiers across the country were saying when they didn’t think he was listening. He would provide feedback and encouragement that everyone could see. Inspiration that everyone could read and share. Lessons and directions that everyone could learn from.

He would still go to the field. But he would augment the practice he invented with modern techniques that would make him even more effective and help his troops be even more engaged in their mission.

Modern managers, more pressed for time than ever before, could learn a lot from what Lincoln did - and would do.