Chris Grams

Chris Grams is President & Partner of New Kind, where he builds sustainable brands, cultures, and communities in and around organizations. He is the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World and is the Community Guide on the Management Innovation Exchange (hackmanagement.com).
Chris Grams has written 264 posts for Dark Matter Matters

The innovative power of communities


I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past few years discussing how organizations can more effectively engage with the communities to which they belong. And one of the things I often mention is the role of a community ambassador—a person who represents the organization or brand in communities outside its own walls.

This month, I’m playing a bit of a community ambassador role myself. I wrote an article entitled The Innovative Power of Communities that appears in the July Edition of T+D Magazine. The magazine is a publication of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), an association with more than 38,000 members in 100 countries.

I haven’t historically been a part of the training and development world, but I’m hoping this article becomes the starting point for a conversation with folks in this field about how we might enable our organizations to better collaborate with the communities that they interact with.

Check out the article, and let me know what you think.

Final report from the the Management 2.0 Hackathon now available


This morning, we published the final report from the Management 2.0 Hackathon on the Management Innovation Exchange website.

Click here to download the Management 2.0 Hackathon Report

You can read Jonathan Opp and my blog post announcing it here.

Or download the report directly as a PDF here.

This was a fun process. Since beginning in November of last year, the hackathon had about 900 contributors from six continents. I’ll be in Boston on Wednesday at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference highlighting some of our favorites hacks to come out of the process.

So read through the report and if you find some innovative ideas for hacking management in it, or if you are inspired to attempt to hack management yourself by what you read, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it!

Want to increase autonomy in your organization? Consider a freedom / accountability swap


As you walk the halls of your organization and talk to fellow employees, do you ever hear complaints like these?

“I feel stuck because I can’t make decisions on my own.”

“I know what we need to do, but no one will listen.”

“I have little say in how I spend my time each day.”

“I’m waiting for someone to give me approval before I can proceed.”

Most of us know these feelings very well, and most of us have personal experience in what I would call a low autonomy organization like this one.

If autonomy in this sense refers to having the freedom to determine your own actions and behavior, a low autonomy organization is one where decisions are handed down from above and employees are expected to follow instructions, rules, or guidelines that limit their ability to think or make decisions for themselves. The end result is often a stifling bureaucracy where people are afraid or unwilling to take risks and managers wonder why nothing ever gets done.

Not only does this sort of environment sap morale and reduce efficiency and innovation, but it also makes it incredibly difficult for the organization to attract young, talented employees who have grown up in the freedom-based culture of the Internet and demand more autonomy than most organizations today are structured to provide.

But even if changing your overall top-down, bureaucratic corporate culture is beyond your control, you may be able to increase autonomy in your own corner of the organization through an informal process I refer to as The Freedom / Accountability Swap.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap

The Freedom / Accountability Swap is a simple, yet very powerful way for individual managers and employees in traditional control-based organizations to “think locally” and create islands of autonomy within their own teams by setting up freedom and accountability as a transaction to be negotiated.

The swap is not designed to reinvent the organization or management structure overnight, but instead is more of a stealth effort that allows you to build elements of a high autonomy culture without the core management philosophy of the organization being visibly threatened. In this sense, it is a relatively “safe” experiment for traditional organizations to try.

The hope is that if enough islands of autonomy are created within an organization, and the groups where autonomy is high are more passionate, motivated, and successful than those where autonomy is low, then the entire culture of the organization could become more autonomous over time.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap is based on a simple equation, born out of my experience working at open source technology leader Red Hat (you can read the full story here), that looks like this:

freedom + accountability = a culture of autonomy

In other words, in order to create a high autonomy culture, any increase in employee freedom must be matched by an increase in employee accountability for the actions and decisions they make with their new found freedom.

Give more freedom. Ask for more accountability in return. Simple!

So how would the Freedom/Accountability Swap work? Here’s one practical way to get started:

1. INITIATE THE SWAP Once a year, perhaps as part of an existing yearly performance or compensation review process, each employee and manager would schedule a meeting in which they would discuss that year’s Freedom/Accountability Swap (some organizations may want to do this conversation more often than 1x per year).

2. SHARE IMPRESSIONS Ahead of the meeting, both the employee and manager fill out a simple survey. An employee would report where they feel they have a lot of freedom and where they have little freedom. They would also report where they feel they are highly accountable for the results of their work and where they are less accountable. The manager would complete the same exercise, and employee and manager would share their answers with each other prior to the meeting.

3. MAP THE GAPS At the meeting, the manager and employee each share their impressions of where they see things differently when it comes to freedom and accountability. For example, are there projects, tasks, or deliverables where:

  • the employee thinks they don’t have enough freedom and the manager feels they are less accountable?
  • the manager thinks the employee has a lot of freedom, but the employee doesn’t agree?
  • the employee thinks they are highly accountable but the manager doesn’t agree?
  • the manager thinks they are highly accountable, but the employee doesn’t agree?
  • both sides perceptions of freedom and accountability match well?

As they have the conversation, they “map the gaps” on a sheet like the one below so they can see where to focus their discussion:

The conversation should not just focus on where there are perception gaps, but should also cover the places where freedom and accountability are already the highest. In places where both are high, what is the reason why the “swap” works better? In places where the employee perceives freedom as low and the manager perceives accountability as low, what could be done to grant more freedom to the employee and what could the manager ask for in return?

Be sure that accountability is looked at from both the manager’s perspective and the employee’s perspective. It is just as important to discuss whether the manager is being held accountable as it is the employee—accountability works both ways—this is at the heart of the “swap.”

4. THE SWAP At the end of the conversation, the manager and employee should analyze each key project, task, or deliverable they’ve discussed and come to an agreement about what each side can offer that will increase freedom AND accountability for both sides.

5. REVIEW Over the course of the year, the employee and manager can use the language they developed in the swap as part of an ongoing conversation. This language may make it easier to discuss freedom / accountability issues as they arise in daily work.

Some organizations may want to take the Freedom / Accountability Swap even further beyond individual manager and employee relationships. It could easily be modified to work as a tool to create better relationships between groups in an organization as well as within groups. Leaders representing each group could have a similar dialogue, resulting in a Freedom/Accountability swap that improved the working relationships between these teams and increased autonomy on both sides.

Sound interesting? If you get a chance to try out a Freedom / Accountability Swap in your organization, I’d love to hear how it goes.

The Freedom / Accountability Swap was originally designed by Chris Grams, Susanne Ramharter, Laurence Lock Lee, Josh Allan Dykstra, Aaron Anderson as a “management hack” for the Management Innovation eXchange (MIX). You can read the full hack here. This post was originally written for the Human Capital Institute and is published here.

The Ad-Free Brand on The New Media Radio Hour


A few weeks ago, Rey Ybarra of The New Media Radio Hour conducted an interview with me about The Ad-Free Brand. If you want to check it out, you can listen to it here.

In other news, Susan Cain, who I wrote about a couple of weeks ago in my post about introverts, had a nice “behind the scenes” piece about the prep she did before her TED talk in the New York Times Sunday Book Review yesterday. Very interesting. Check it out here.

That is all.

Brand tip: call a duck a duck, and a giraffe…uh… Giraffey?


If you’ve spent any time in the technology industry, you’ve probably come across some seriously bad brand names. And what has always particularly bothered me is that many tech companies can’t just stop with one bad brand name—they attempt to create new brands for every single product, service, or sub-brand in addition to their corporate brand.

benjamin with animals

My naming genius nephew Benjamin with Giraffey (the giraffe) and Tigey (the tiger).

Take this to it’s extreme and you end up with something like:

TotalLogic™ Cloudweave™

or

Biotron™ Selectronix™ with SignalBoost™ technology

or whatever. I’m sure you’ve seen worse.

I say stop the madness.

The reason this doesn’t work is because getting people to understand the meaning behind one brand takes time, effort, and money. Every brand name that you add dilutes the time, effort, and money you can spend educating people about any one brand.

This is why technology companies end up with lots of sucky, worthless brand names that no one knows, understands, or values. Fortunately, I have a simple tip that can help you focus your branding energy and get you better results:

Call a duck a duck.

Here is what I mean: when it comes to creating brand names, focus your energy on one or two key brands, then choose simple descriptive names rather than creating a new brand every time you create a product or service. In other words:

STOP NAMING EVERYTHING.

(You can check out what I’ve previously written on the subject here and here.)

When I was at Red Hat, this meant keeping naming mind-numbingly simple. In most cases “Red Hat” was the brand. Almost every other brand name was a simple descriptive name (an example: our flagship product, “Red Hat Enterprise Linux” was… you guessed it, a version of Linux made for enterprise customers).

Whenever someone would tell me how boring this naming strategy was, that they wanted a name that was more “fun” or “exciting,” I would tell them we already had one—Red Hat—and, by ensuring we didn’t name every single product we created, we would make that one brand even more fun and exciting (and more valuable in the process).

The thing that inspired me to write this post today was a conversation I had with my sister a few weeks ago. She was telling me how my nephew Benjamin (who is 3 1/2) names his stuffed animals.

He has a tiger. Its name is “Tigey.”

He has a giraffe. Its name is—you guessed it—”Giraffey.”

She tells me he also has “Pandy,” “Lioney,” and several other similarly-named animals.

I knew that boy was a genius.

By naming things exactly what they are, he makes it incredibly simple for us to know which animal he is talking about. We will never confuse “Giraffey” with “Tigey” when he is telling us stories about their adventures.

If a 3 1/2 year old understands the value of keeping a naming strategy simple, why is it so hard for thousands of trained marketing experts in the technology world?

If his mom lets him, I might start bringing Benjamin in on consulting projects around naming.

I’ll just have to make sure they are scheduled to start after his afternoon nap.

How do you collaborate without leaving introverts behind?


Last week, I watched The Power of Introverts, an excellent TED Talk by Susan Cain (she also has a book out on the same subject called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking).

In her talk, which has been viewed almost two million times since it was posted last month, Susan makes a compelling case that the open, collaborative world we embrace today is not always set up to harness the best work from introverts.

As we’ve moved toward more open office plans, collaborative processes like design thinking, and into a digital world now dominated by the word “social,” Susan wonders who is looking out for the introverts? Should introverts feel guilty about wanting to do their thinking and working alone? And can introverts do great work in group settings?

I spent more than a decade working in the inherently collaborative world of open source software. I regularly lead brand positioning and strategy projects as open, collaborative, social exercises involving entire communities of people in the process. So Susan’s talk made me ask myself a tough question:

By emphasizing a collaborative, social process am I risking leaving introverts—and their best ideas—behind?

It’s no secret that I am a life-long introvert myself. I am much more comfortable writing or reading a blog post in my living room and discussing it via comments or Twitter than I am sitting and talking about it with someone over coffee or, worse, at a social gathering like a party or a conference.

So I get where Susan is coming from. Deeply.

In her TED Talk, she at one point pleads, “Stop the madness for constant group work.” When she said this, it hit me pretty hard. The first thing that came to my mind was the one gazillion design thinking ideation sessions I’ve either run or participated in over the last 7 or 8 years.

I’ve personally never had much trouble speaking up during ideation/brainstorming sessions. But I also suspect I am a relatively mild introvert compared to others I know. I started to wonder what the hard-core introverts were thinking during these sessions (and if you were one of them, feel free to tell me below in the comments).

Did they feel like they were being talked over by extroverts? Did they feel like they were out of their element, or needed more time to process their thoughts before blurting them out and having them recorded on the wall? Would they have preferred to contemplate on their own instead of thinking socially as part of a group?

Then another thought stuck me: I’ve met a lot of software engineers over the years, and while not all of them are introverts, many of them are. Frankly, I don’t think too many extreme extroverts could stand to sit in their office and stare at a computer screen all day. But for some introverted software developers, this is bliss.

Yet open source software is developed in a collaborative, social process… run in many cases by introverts.

Why does that work?

For me at least, the answer comes down to the difference between virtual and in-person collaboration. Open source software developers do much of their collaborating online. Often this is because they are geographically dispersed around the world. But I’ve also seen developers sitting two feet away from each other communicating via instant messages or email.

Online collaboration has two key advantages over in-person collaboration for introverts:

1) It allows them to avoid stressful in-person social interactions.

2) It allows them to take their time, contemplate, and think deeply before responding.

Over the past two years at New Kind, I’ve personally been doing less and less in-person design thinking ideation sessions, instead hosting more open, collaborative sessions online. Sometimes they are efforts like the hackathons I’ve run for the Management Innovation Exchange that involve hundreds of people collaborating from all around the world. Other times they are client projects where the collaborating happens via Basecamp or another online tool.

I’ve found I enjoy facilitating sessions online much more than in-person sessions, and I think it suits my personality better. Because the collaboration happens asynchronously, I can take my time crafting thoughtful responses and generating ideas. I can wait until I’m in the right frame of mind to participate, and most importantly, I can work with others, yet be alone at the same time.

I suspect some of these same advantages also translate to participants in online group sessions as well. And for this reason, perhaps many introverts are more comfortable in collaborative projects online than in person. Some of the best ideas I’ve seen emerge from online collaborative exercises come from people who usually remain completely silent in meetings.

In many cases, online collaborative projects provide the best of both worlds—you can collaborate and build off the ideas of others, but still take the time to process your thoughts before you add them (and as a special bonus, you don’t have the stress of in-person social interaction).

If you consider yourself an introvert, I’d love to hear about your experiences participating in collaborative projects online vs. in person. Do you agree with Susan Cain’s assessment that collaborative group projects are not designed to get the best out of introverts? Do you find yourself making better contributions and contributing more in online projects? Or are online collaborative groups just as bad for you as in-person sessions, and you’d rather just work completely on your own?

I’d love to hear what you think.

A new point of view on why (brand) nations fail


A new book comes out tomorrow entitled Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty, by MIT professor of economics Daron Acemoglu and Harvard professor of government James A. Robinson.

In the New York Times Magazine yesterday, Adam Davidson wrote a great piece about it. I pre-ordered the book and look forward to reading, but in the meantime, the New York Times article hints at some key conclusions the authors reach. From the article:

“…the wealth of a country is most closely correlated with the degree to which the average person shares in the overall growth of its economy… when a nation’s institutions prevent the poor from profiting from their work, no amount of disease eradication, good economic advice or foreign aid seems to help… If national institutions give even their poorest and least educated citizens some shot at improving their own lives — through property rights, a reliable judicial system or access to markets — those citizens will do what it takes to make themselves and their country richer.”

A relatively simple concept: Nations that give citizens opportunities to improve their lives—to create value for themselves—give them the incentive to create value—both for themselves and for the nation collectively.

According to the summary on the authors’ website, the book highlights examples of the theory in action around the world and throughout history, “from the Roman Empire, the Mayan city-states, medieval Venice, the Soviet Union, Latin America, England, Europe, the United States, and Africa.”

So how might this theory apply to the study of how organizations can build passionate and sustainable brand communities? If we think of brands as nations, what might make them fail or see great success?

Michael Porter wrote a now-famous piece in HBR last year entitled Creating Shared Value that to me articulates the business equivalent of the principle. Here is how Wikipedia describes Porter’s concept of creating shared value:

“The central premise behind creating shared value is that the competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are mutually dependent. Recognizing and capitalizing on these connections between societal and economic progress has the power to unleash the next wave of global growth and to redefine capitalism.”

I think there is a strong connection here, and I would frame it as simply as this:

Brands (and nations) that exist only to extract value from their communities are, in the long run, less competitive and less sustainable than brands (and nations) that exist to create and share value with their communities.

Think about the brands you interact with on a daily basis:

- Which of them are clear value extractors (i.e. they unabashedly exist in order to extract as much money as they can)?

- Which of them are extractors in “shared-value clothing” (i.e. they hide their true selves behind a veneer of shared value)?

- Which of them truly create and share value with the communities that care about them?

If you are like me, some specific organizations immediately come to mind when you see the three categories above. Humor me for a second as I remix the quotes I shared from the New York Times article earlier, but putting them in a brand context:

“…the strength of an organization’s brand community is most closely correlated with the degree to which the average community member shares in the overall success of the organization and community… when an organization prevents the average community member from profiting from its work, no amount of PR, advertising, or charitable giving seems to help… If organizations give even their average community members some shot at becoming more successful — through providing innovative products, experiences, and connections to new people or opportunities — those community members will do what it takes to make themselves, the organization, and the overall brand community richer.”

I suspect that organizations interested in building passionate brand communities have a lot to learn from Why Nations Fail.

And I’ll let you know what I personally learn once I’ve had a chance to read it.

Thanks for reading my blog… wherever you are… and an update


I haven’t been very good about updating my blog over the past month. Turns out we have a big project we’ve been working on at New Kind. While I always try to set aside time for writing, this particular project is very important to the future of my home state of North Carolina, so I’ve tried to spend as much time as I can on it.

Yet the dark matter of organizations keeps on, well, mattering in the meantime.

Speaking of dark matter, my friend Laura Hamlyn recently pointed me to some interesting findings regarding the search for dark matter in the universe.

NPR has a great interview here with an astrophysicist named Andisheh Mahdavi, who was part of a team that recently observed a massive collision between two enormous galaxy clusters. According to Dr. Mahdavi, the dark matter in this particular collision acted much different than any collision that has been observed before, and in a way that doesn’t align with many of the current theories about dark matter. The scientists are so far at a loss to explain what is going on.

In completely unrelated news, WordPress.com recently launched a new feature that allows you to see a map showing where visitors to your blog are coming from. Here is what my map looks like:

I thought this was kinda cool. The darker the color on the map, the more visitors. So, no surprise, most of my readers live in the United States, but I also have quite a few visitors from India, the UK, Canada, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. And I couldn’t end this post without a shout out to the folks who clicked on this blog from Kazakhstan, Qatar, Moldova, Guinea-Bissau, Cyprus, Bolivia, and Timor-Leste—I’m glad to have you here as well.

Such a small world. I’m honored to have anyone at all reading this, so thank you.

And don’t forget, if you live somewhere cool (or even not-so-cool) and are willing to take a picture of my book The Ad-Free Brand in your town, I’d love to see it and post it on the blog. Here are the full details of what I’m looking for.

Finally, I promise we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon!

Update from the MIX Management 2.0 Hackathon


Over the past year, I’ve had the fun job of being the Community Guide on the Management Innovation Exchange  (we call it the MIX). It’s a great gig because I have the opportunity to meet and collaborate with smart folks from around the world who are interested in improving the way our organizations work.

Over the past few months, we’ve been running an effort we call a “management hackathon.” We ran our first hackathon experiment last year, with a small group of about 60 management innovators attempting to uncover how to enable communities of passion in or around organizations (if you’d like to read the report highlighting our findings, go here).

Our newest effort is called the Management 2.0 Hackathon, and for this one we’ve gone much bigger. This hackathon is a collaborative effort to come up with innovative management hacks based on the principles that have made the Web one of the most adaptable, innovative, and inspiring things humans have ever created. Our goal is to take the best lessons from the Web’s success and apply them to reinvent management practices in organizations.

There are now over 750 contributors taking part from six continents. For fun, here’s a map showing where our participants live and work:

Over on the MIX website, I’ve written a few blog posts highlighting some of our recent accomplishments.

Here’s a link to a post about the navigator tool we created, highlighting examples of organizations that are already using the principles of the Web to innovate today.

Here’s a link to a post I just wrote late last week with some of the most innovative hack ideas that have been suggested by contributors.

Sound interesting? If you’d like to participate in the Management 2.0 Hackathon and share and help develop management hacks with us, it’s not too late. In fact, we’ve had almost 50 new participants join in the past week alone.

If you want to start hacking with us, go here to create your account and read the instructions for our current sprint. It’d be great to have you on the team!

What ‘default to open’ looks like at New Kind


Over the last few years, I’ve written quite a bit about the concept of defaulting to open, which was one of the major things that drove the culture at Red Hat and was an honest extension of the philosophy behind the open source movement. The term ‘default to open’ was also recently expanded upon by Google SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock in this article from Google’s fantastic Think Quarterly online magazine.

The other day I was sitting in the New Kind office, and was inspired to take the picture you see here. I thought it did a nice job capturing what ‘default to open’ looks like at New Kind.

The first thing to notice when you look at this picture is that everyone is sitting in the same room together.

No one at New Kind has an office. We all share a big open space. Now having said that, what you see here—everyone sitting at their desks—is pretty rare. While we are together by default, if someone gets a phone call or has a meeting, they typically get up from their desk and head into one of our dark conference rooms for privacy and to ensure they don’t annoy everyone else.

With the exception of our big collaboration space, all of the conference rooms at New Kind are gloomy rooms with no outside windows, so unless folks are on deadline and trying to escape distractions, they are not places to linger longer than necessary. That’s a good thing because it tends to keep us together. And if we are sitting at our desks and trying to avoid distractions, headphones are our friends (In fact, I’m writing this at my desk while listening to the new Sleigh Bells album).

Not only does everyone—including our Chairman and CEO—sit in the same room together by choice, but as you can see from the picture, everyone also has the same inexpensive IKEA desks and file cabinets. Yes, we have titles at New Kind so that we can interface successfully with the outside world, but they sure don’t get you much inside the office.

The last thing I’d like to point out that really shows what we mean by ‘default to open’ is that there are two people sitting in this picture, Adrienne and Billy, who are not technically New Kind employees, but do work with us regularly. Adrienne is a fantastic designer and the genius behind the amazing food blog AdrienneEats. Billy is a writer and social media expert with a Klout score second only to Nation of the people in this picture (impressive!). Neither of them is in the office every day. In fact, some days you’ll see other people sitting in those seats or elsewhere in the office with us.

When we first formed New Kind, we had a vision of the company as a community. The core concept behind New Kind was very simple:

We wanted to

1) do meaningful work
2) with people we like.

That’s it. So we regularly invite people we like to sit in the office with us, whether they are New Kind employees or not. New Kind is a community, open to those people who share our worldview. Often the folks who work with us in the office are collaborating with us on projects. Sometimes they are working on projects for other clients. We don’t really care, we just like having them around.

Do you have a similar setup and philosophy in your office? Tell me about it!

Hey, I Wrote a Book!

The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World

Available now in print and electronic versions.

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