To become a better manager stop being a manager

The time is fast approaching, this author writes, when organizations will need Chief Creative Officers instead of Chief Executive Officers, and Chief Collaboration Officers instead of Chief Operating Officers. In the article, he offers the practicing manager proven, practical steps on how to become a Chief Creative Officer, and how to transform his or her organization into one capable of unleashing the power of self-organizing swarms.

Chief Creators instead of Chief Executors

The time is ripe, I believe, for a radically new style of leadership, based not on best practices, not on cookbook recipes of how to do it ONE right way, but on creativity – individual creativity, and swarm creativity. The step that I am proposing is a bold one – namely empowering individuals instead of massing all the power in the hand of the Chief Executive who is also the Chief Executor. In this new type of organization there is no longer a Chief Executor; this role has been given away to all the stakeholders in the company. Stakeholders are the employees, the customers, the suppliers, and yes, also the management of the company. The managers are not CEOs anymore, but they are “Chief Creators,” Chief Creative Officers. Being highly creative themselves, they stand out by unleashing the creativity of their swarm – their employees, their lead users, their customers, and anybody they touch through their vision and products. They gain power by giving it away. Linus Torvalds, creator of the open source operating system Linux, and leader of the community since he started the project twenty years ago, says it succinctly: “I have no authority other than the trust of the community, but having another person’s trust is more powerful than all other management techniques put together.”

If we look at the leaders who stand out today, Steve Jobs at Apple, Sergey Brin or Larry Page of Google, or Oprah Winfrey, we can see that they are all leaders of multibillion-dollar businesses that are highly resilient in today’s acid economic climate. None of them has come up the conventional management way. They were never the CEOs of their companies in the conventional sense, never the chief executors. Rather, they are the chief creators of their respective enterprises. They might have assumed the CEO title to make them recognizable in their role to the rest of the world. What they really did, however – rather than execute somebody else’s strategy – was to create radically new products, and real, sustainable value. They did what they thought would be the right thing, listening first and foremost to themselves and to their swarm.

Instead of listening to management gurus, business school professors, and strategy consultants, such leaders do not just listen, but they immerse themselves in their swarm. Leaders like Oprah or Steve Jobs are not afraid to go to the front line every day, listening to what their swarm has to say. When Steve Jobs started Apple, instead of obtaining an MBA, he immersed himself in his swarm. He first listened to what others did in the same space, visiting world famous Xerox Parc to learn about personal computers and computer mice. He got a job at a computer company to learn even more, until he had figured it out and was ready to start building his own computers at Apple.

These creators also give back to their swarm. Google famously encourages its employees to be creative, to come up with new product ideas, which are then given away for free in some form, until the company has figured out a way of making money from the idea. Google acquired picture sharing web site, Picasa, set up the social networking community Orkut, and converted a startup into Google Docs, the Web-enabled office suite, and made them all available for free to the end user. When Steve Job’s swarm of fanatic iPhone owners complained about a new price cut, he immediately gave back the difference in price to anybody who had bought the iPhone at the old, higher price.

In short, Chief Creative Officers, unlike many CEOs, immerse themselves in their swarm, share experiences and suggestions with their swarm, and go where their swarm wants to go. Just like great farmers, they are coolfarmers, who provide a nurturing environment and let the swarm do it by and for itself. By coolfarmer I mean someone who – just like a farmer who grows and nurtures little saplings until they become large trees – excels in nurturing new creative ideas by helping the creators of these ideas grow and succeed.

I think the time has come to fundamentally rethink the way we train and reward managers, to turn them into coolfarmers. My proposal is far more radical: Make managers redundant.

Making managers redundant

Let me explain what I mean. To better understand what makes up this new type of manager who makes him or her redundant, let’s look at what distinguishes managers from other types of knowledge workers.

Four motivational phenotypes of knowledge workers

When trying to understand the behavior and motivation of knowledge workers, it helps to group them into four phenotypes. These four types of knowledge workers, who differ vastly according to skill set and motivation, are: (1) the artists, (2) the scientists, (3) the teachers, and (4) the managers (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Motivation and activities of knowledge workers

Figure 1. Motivation and activities of knowledge workers

Artists want to create something new and beautiful, to touch the lives of people interacting with their art. Whether it is painters, sculptors, actors, singers, or orchestra musicians, they do what they do for the most part not because they are paid to do it, but because they love what they do.

Scientists want to discover something new, to further the state of the art in their chosen field of science. Whether it is pure science like physics or astronomy, or applied science like medicine or engineering, their goal is to create something new by taking what is there, and combining it in new, innovative ways.

Teachers want to impart knowledge to their students. They want their pupils to understand, to become lifelong learners, and to be self-sustaining members of society. The creativity of teachers consists of developing new ways and methods of conveying and transferring knowledge.

Managers want to increase the success of the organization they are leading. Their creativity consists of taking the output of scientists, artists, and teachers to make the organizations they lead succeed. The main motivation of managers, as stipulated by proponents of the free market theory, is to increase the revenue of the organization they are leading, and thus, also their own paycheck.

While artists and scientists want to create something radically new, either a new piece of art, or a new scientific insight, managers and teachers are mostly executors. Most of the time they do not really excel at creating new things, but in executing project plans or curricula. Our education system rewards teachers to produce managers, not artists and scientists.

Artists do what they do because they love it. They are the most intrinsically motivated of the four phenotypes – followed by the scientists and the teachers, who are scientists and teachers because that’s what they like being, and are not in it to get rich quick. It is very different for the managers, who most of the time chose their profession to be successful and who expect their success to be rewarded by fat paychecks and high status in society. The income of artists, on the other hand, shows a definitively “long-tail” distribution, meaning that there are very few Picassos and Brad Pitts getting rich and famous. Rather, the vast majority of artists can expect to make very little money over the course of their careers. Salaries of scientists and teachers show a similar distribution, with most of them living off quite modest salaries. Income distribution of managers, on the other hand, shows a “fat tail,” meaning that many can expect to make a substantial income, and a sizeable number can expect to make a lot of money. The most popular way for scientists, artists, and teachers to increase the size of their salaries is to accept “managerial” roles.

The key difference therefore, between managers and the three other phenotypes, is that artists, scientists, and teachers are intrinsically motivated, while managers are extrinsically motivated.

On a side note I would like to emphasize, however, that this is a discussion about phenotypes. This means that the distinction among the four categories is about oversimplified role types. Artists, scientists, and teachers don’t mind getting rich and famous, and managers might genuinely want their company to succeed in making the world a better place. Reality is never black or white, but rather somewhere in the middle, and most managers also have traits of the artist, scientist, or teacher, and the other way round.

Nevertheless, the conclusion reached by categorizing knowledge workers into the above 4 types is obvious: turn managers into artists, teachers, and scientists, just like Steve Jobs, Oprah, and Linus Torvalds. How can we do this? I do not have a definitive answer, but the COINs seminar I describe in the next section suggests some preliminary ideas on how such an education might be structured.

The COINs seminar – educating chief creators and collaborators

As an example of how this new training for managers might look, I would like to describe a distributed seminar on Collaborative Innovation Networks (COINs). For the past five years, along with colleagues, I have been teaching COINs to student management teams from MIT Sloan, design students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, information systems students from University of Cologne, and software engineering students from Aalto University, Helsinki. The goal of the seminar is to train students to become leaders of globally distributed teams with members from different cultures, analyzing and optimizing (online) social networks.

Rather than teaching best practices and cases, course participants study the collaborative innovation of communities on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other online social networks, and research the emergent behavior of their hidden leaders. In addition, by developing a mirror on their own communication behavior, students gain a much better understanding of their self-image, and become better leaders, collaborators and communicators of virtual teams (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Virtual Mirror of communication

Figure 2. Virtual Mirror of communication:  E-Mail network of students and their communication partners in the 2010 COINs class. Each dot is a person, each color is a team and each line represents e-mails exchanged. The shorter the line, the more e-mails two people have exchanged

Frequently, students team up with communities they analyze, and assist them to reach their goals. For example, studying how Greenpeace forced Nestle to switch from palm oil to milk in its Kit Kat chocolate bar — namely by running a Facebook campaign — teaches students invaluable lessons on how to leverage the power of the swarm for their own goals. In another project working with a major retailer in Switzerland, students analyzed trendsetters of LOHAS (Lifestyle of Health and Sustainability), identifying major socio-geographical demographics of community leaders such as their brand, sports, and music preferences.

In another project, students analyzed the social networks of employees at a German bank by collecting their interaction patterns by e-mail and face-to-face communication. The face-to-face patterns were collected by socio-metric badges, novel devices developed by Sandy Pentland at the MIT Media Lab, which are worn around the neck by team members. They collect proximity information by infrared and radio signals, energy levels by accelerometer, and voice pitch through a built-in microphone. Using these signals allowed us to identify communication patterns of the high-performing branch offices and most creative marketing teams. The results of this class project were so promising that the bank identified a permanent role in the CEO’s office for the student working on this project, who could continue optimizing communication for increased performance by applying the coolfarming principles described above.

In another seminar project, students were working on forming collaborative communities among patients of a chronic disease, and their physicians and researchers. The goal is to nurture COINs between these three constituencies, by connecting fragmented patient groups on Facebook to grow their community, and inviting them to share their health-related data with researchers. Again, students excelled as coolfarmers, teaming up in a COIN with researchers, physicians, and patients, developing software tools, business plans, Web sites, and communities towards achieving that goal.

The COINs course also spawned an annual conference, COINs, which for the first two years took place at SCAD, and will be held in Basel, Switzerland this year (SCAD is The University for Creative Careers). The COINs conference brings together practitioners, researchers and students of the emerging science of collaboration. It combines a wide range of interdisciplinary fields such as social network analysis, group dynamics, design and visualization, information systems and the psychology and sociality of collaboration.

The projects in the COINs course, the interdisciplinary teams, and the global COINs conference set an excellent example of collaboration among scientists, artists, teachers, and managers. It illustrates how future leaders can work much more productively by being artists, scientists and teachers instead of just being managers.

So what are my recommendations for a manager?

The answer is short: Forget about being a manager! Trust your emotions. Become an artist, teacher, and scientist. Discover the joys of creating something new, of coaching your employees and helping them grow. This will help you start doing what you love, and not what you are paid to do, becoming intrinsically motivated in your job. This will also make you happier. In short, become a coolfarmer!


COINs conference

COINs course:


  1. Gloor, P. Coolfarming – Turn Your Great Idea Into The Next Big Thing AMACOM, NY, 2010
  2. Gloor, P. Cooper, S. Coolhunting – Chasing Down The Next Big Thing? AMACOM, NY, 2007
  3. Gloor, P. Swarm Creativity, Competitive Advantage Through Collaborative Innovation Networks. Oxford University Press, 2006
  4. Gloor, P. Oster, D. Putzke, J. Fischbach, K. Schoder, D. Ara, K. Kim, T. Laubacher, R. Mohan, A. Olguin Olguin, D. Pentland, A. Waber, B. Studying Microscopic Peer-to-Peer Communication Patterns. Proc. AMCIS Americas Conference on Information Systems, Keystone, Colorado, Aug. 9-12, 2007
  5. Gloor, P. Cooper, S. The New Principles of a Swarm Business, Sloan Management Review, Spring 2007.