Sea Monster Eggs and Leadership
In the early 90s, about 5,000 participants attended a computer graphics conference, where they were asked to operate a computer flight simulator designed by Mr. Loren Carpenter. Each attendee was connected to a network via a virtual joystick, allowing each of them to move the plane’s rudder and tail, thus directing the plane vertically and horizontally. No one individual could control the airplane; the controls were managed by an average of the decisions made by the group. The exercise took place in a huge auditorium so there was a great deal of yelling back and forth as each person did their best to guide the plane. Interestingly, the group was able to land the plane with very little direction or coordination from the creators of the simulator. The experiment indicates the remarkable power of distributed, decentralized, autonomous control. Cool, right?
Approximately five years later, Mr. Carpenter was in the same conference with an improved simulation, including better audience controls and much higher expectations. This time, the participants were told to steer a submarine through a 3-D undersea adventure. They were to capture the eggs of a sea monster. It was the same audience, in the same place, with more choices, more dimension, and extensively more control over the movement of the submarine. The result? When the audience took control, nothing happened. When they jiggled various controls and pushed various buttons…still nothing. They shouted commands and counter commands to each other to no avail. Each person’s actions were canceled out by the others’ actions. The sub just sat there.
Finally, from the back of the room, Carpenter’s voice suggested, “Why don’t you guys go to the right?” And boom! The sub darted off to the right. With growing coordination, the audience adjusted the details of sailing the sub and now confidently set off in search of sea monster eggs.
Carpenter’s voice was the voice of leadership. His short message, “Why don’t you guys go to the right” was indeed minimal. The smallest example of top-down control was enough to release the power of the group. He never steered the sub himself. The 5,000 co-captains undertook all of the maneuvering. All Carpenter did was destroy the group’s paralysis with a vision of where to aim first. They figured out on their own how to get there in the same way they landed the jet five years before.
So, there are lessons here:
- Without leadership from the top, bottom-up control will freeze, given too many options.
- The group is a mother lode waiting to be tapped. There is far more to be gained by pushing the boundaries of what can be done at the bottom than by focusing on what can be done at the top.
How does it work at your company?