The Do’s & Don’ts of Initiating A Swarm

I’ve written in the past about the power of a “swarm” to make big changes within organizations, even markets. And these past few months I’ve been fortunate to participate directly, and indirectly, in several swarming environments from the advent of social media communities with whom I participate, to being part of a fast growing, cloud-based service provider. Along the way I’ve seen amazing evangelism in action both within my own company, and outside with vendors, partners, and even competitors. I’ve even seen a call to arms swarm within the town I live. I watched a friend & neighborhood mother single handily rally parents to create our first Earth Day festival that turned out hundreds of participants and raised thousands of dollars.

Across all of these adventures there are as many different approaches to leadership as there are people. As such, there is no one guidebook of to-dos that works across all organizations. However, there are some clear things successful leaders did well to maximize effectiveness of their swarm. Because I assure you not my company’s CEO, not my competitors VP of Marketing, nor our neighborhood mom led success alone. They rallied, they evangelised, and they built passion all around them.

Elect Ambassadors Based on Influence & Passion
One of the most common mistakes I see organizations make is building so called leadership teams based on functional area or seniority. Each department elects someone to participate in the “council”. Usually that person is the managerial lead. It’s understandable why executives embrace this approach. Its easy. Unfortunately, its also largely ineffective. Instead, ambassadors must be people who have passion for the business but whom are respected not only for their official role, but for their character, their drive and their intelligence. They must be problem solvers who can carry a message beyond the confines of their department, and who aren’t afraid to learn from others. They must also be individuals who are capable of representing more than their functional roles during discussins and debates. Swarms are largely organic but you have to get them started somewhere and that means carefully pulling together delegates who can carry forward in unison. I can tell you first hand our neighborhood Mom didn’t start our Earth Day festival by finding a professional fund raiser, or making sure each grade had a parent & teacher representative on the committee. Nope, she started by recruiting a few people she knew were passionate about the environment and painted a picture of what could be done. Then she personally created a couple of small victories that proved the task could be accomplished i.e. getting school committee approval, and nailding down the first corporate sponsor. Eventually, the event committee grew and did include coverage for every grade, vendor sponsors and a whole lot of coordination. But those came from unusual places you might not have expected – sparked from the passion of the initial delegates and her hard work.

Don’t Forget External Stakeholders
Assuming your swarm is only comprised of internal team members is a classic mistake. If you want to make a real difference you need to embrace ambassadors no matter where they reside, and most often that’s both within, and outside your corporate walls. Sometimes having an outside meeting facilitator or guest speakers provides enough of a dynamic charge to strip away the constraints of hierarchical structures and turn an event from a meeting into a rallying cry.

Don’t Confuse Setting Objectives With Building Vision
Initiating swarms is hard work, and swarms don’t happen unless participants feel a part of the process. A swarm leaders job is to create vision, participants will take that vision and turn it into objectives, measures and plans. Vision is something bigger than your revenue/fund raising goal. Vision is bigger than your 12 month road map. Vision is inspiring and often even appears to be an unattainable rallying cry. Vision can be articulated in simple terms. If you constrain your swarm to thinking about specific goals you miss the opportunity to tap their passion and instead of a swarm, you have a management team. Not a bad thing, but certainly not a living, breathing entity that will shape the future of something big. Whatever difference you want to initiate, whatever swarm community you need behind you – it happens by unlocking desire, not by dictating objectives.

Swarms come big and small. From initiating transformative business change like Microsoft is making as a result of increased pressure from Google; to my neighborhood parents instilling healthy living habits in our elementary students. It could even be a short term swarm designed to rally your team to kick butt at an industry trade show. Wherever your passion leads you next, remember the power of people and you’ll be more effective, and perhaps have more fun along the way.