Cognitive Surplus in Business

Cognitive-surplus Cognitive surplus is not simply trillions of hours of free time spread across two billion connected individuals, writes Clay Shirky in his seminal book about creativity and generosity in a connected age.

Rather, it is how connections help us create opportunity for each other.

And I'm going to hit pause here because I'd like you to think about something. When was the last time you felt you had the mental space to ponder something at least a little before plowing through at work?

Have you been in any meeting that rewarded exploration and listening over assertive "here's what we do" talk?

Cognitive surplus starts accruing when there is enough time and space to actually think. Many business owners and teams feel they don't have that luxury these days — competitive pressure and a culture of doing more with less has everyone increase their commitments, or feel they have to.

Do you see how this pressure is at odds with the idea of creative collaboration? Shirky provides a convincing argument for questioning those assumptions. The trend that saw the decline of public participatory options is reversing with the blossoming of online tools.

The tools do little without people — and people do something, win over inertia, when intrinsically motivated to do so. Motivation is also triggered by relevancy and context; you tend to be more motivated when you get to open source the problem you have today, for example.

I found especially useful the principles associated with tapping into cognitive surplus Shirky outlines (in bold):

  1. start small — see if it works, first. And the best way not to have an idea killed prematurely is by testing a small version of it, then bring results to the table
  2. ask "why?" — it's still surprising how this is often overlooked. Why would people do this, whatever this is that you want them to do, over something else? Why will they choose you/this system? etc.
  3. behavior follows opportunity — can you design a system that provides opportunity people understand and find valuable?
  4. default to social — social value is stronger than personal value, so allowing people to see what others are sharing and bookmarking is a better setting to encourage adoption
  5. a hundred users are harder than a dozen and harder than a thousand — I saw that when I was working to attract a diverse membership base to the Fast Company social network; going from a very dedicated group of few to gaining scale meant balancing who was attracted to the network at any one time so that diversity was represented while we were growing. My answer was content and careful facilitation. It's hard work, and it will make-or-break your initiative
  6. people differ. More people differ more — as in they will have different behaviors, things they like to do, etc. so think about tiering levels of involvement, for example
  7. intimacy doesn't scale — I was visiting family the Christmas before last and got together with a great group of professionals I met through blogging. I did not get to speak and catch up with everyone who came; the larger group split into smaller ones. It's the same with communities; you either have large groups all paying attention to one thing, or people split into smaller active groups
  8. support a supportive culture — this taps into people's sense of fairness
  9. the faster you learn, the faster you'll be able to adapt — and the best way to learn is by watching how people behave using the tools at hand. A sidebar on organizations here. This is a really big missed opportunity to shift mindset by giving people collaboration tools and allowing them to help you see how the organization needs to be changed as a result of what gets done and who does it
  10. success causes more problems than failure — planning down to the details and potential problems you will have is a poor substitute for experience; planning won't teach you how to solve the problemthat arises while you do
  11. clarity is violence — this point is about putting process in front of experience and before its time; regulate something too soon, and you won't know what you're regulating
  12. try anything. Try everything — the applications are many. In the last year, I developed several strategic frameworks for very different organizations large and mid-sized; not two of them were the same, because the executions and applications can be so specific to the business, its go-to-market model, its culture, customer base, etc.

I met Shirky briefly in the hall at SxSW after his talk last year. The way I saw the whole conference was:

  • we had all these people there, many of them creating content during the sessions, and in the halls — conversation can also be content creation, as it often inspires thinking and doing
  • many more were busily at work taking photos, videos, sharing links — I somehow did not cross enough small groups and missed some of the links to parties
  • there was no larger initiative going on, something that would harness the collective for good — a few, branded initiatives seemed to move in that direction, each seeking an outcome for itself

Cognitive Surplus (Amazon affiliate link) is a really good thinking companion. Through stories, Clay Shirky helps you look at things from a different angle — one that broadens your horizons and inspires you to see possibilities you had not seen before. This is not an "how to" manual, however.


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