Monday, February 6, 2012

No One Knows How to Make a Computer Mouse

Here's a great TED talk from a few years back: In it, Matt Ridley makes the case that innovation and progress depend on the accelerating exchange of ideas and information. Going back to our earliest ancestors, he shows how societies whose members were able to specialize and trade (I'm good at making spears and you're good at making axes, so I'll make you a spear if you make me an axe) were able to progress to higher and higher levels of productivity and output, compared to societies whose members remained ruggedly individual (I'll make all my own spears and axes, thank you). Extrapolating this concept into the modern age, he argues that it--more than individual intelligence or creativity--is what is responsible for the highly specialized and technologically advanced culture we all live in. If you can't view the video in this post, go here. The title of this post comes from his point that we have reached such a level of specialization that now literally no single individual really knows how to make the things so many of us depend on (like computer mouses). And that made me think about associations and the ways we pursue the creation of member value. The parallels between Ridley's societies based on specialization and the exchange of ideas and an association's community of members and staff should be apparent to anyone who is a regular reader of this blog. As the association leader, you should clearly want to foster and facilitate that same style of exchange to help your organization innovate and develop on-going generations of breakthrough products and ideas. But what may be less apparent is the perspective that, like making computer mouses, there is no single individual in your community who currently knows or will ever know what that next innovative product will be, how to bring the idea behind it about, and how to build and deliver it once it is. And if Ridley is right, nor should you want there to be. If the best ideas comes from specialization and the exchange of ideas, then your job as the association leader isn't to come up with those ideas on your own, but to bring as much diversity together as you can and to support the ideas that grow out of those collaborations. Now, I'll bet you understand that. That seems obvious enough that it may not even be worth bringing to your attention. But here's the real question: Okay, fine. You know that. But does your staff? Does your board? Are there individuals in your community who are either looking to you to build their next computer mouse or, perhaps worse, trying to build it all by themselves? If so, what does Ridley's perspective indicate you should do?

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