THE BLOG

Do You Have What It Takes to Crowdscale?

03/29/2013 09:17 am ET | Updated May 29, 2013
TEDxParis

I recall that momentous day four years ago, when the lights went down and the curtains opened to a full house of 1,200. We were launching the first ever TEDx event, TEDxUSC, and the stakes were high. We were pretty sure the show itself would rock the house, but our ultimate dream was to create a model that others could replicate.

We had no idea the worldwide phenomenon that would be unleashed.

You may have heard about TEDx: independent organizers apply for free licenses to organize their own events in the spirit of the exclusive annual TED conference, whose motto is "Ideas Worth Spreading." To be honest, at the time I thought a hundred TEDx events would have been a success. But under the visionary leadership of TED, more than 6,000 similar events have taken place worldwide and 25,000 talks and performances have appeared online in just four short years.

But TEDx is more than a series of events. TEDx is a community, a movement, and a powerful tool for the TED organization -- and a demonstration of a phenomenon I call "crowdscaling."

Like crowdsourcing, crowdscaling taps into the energy of people around the world that want to contribute. But while crowdsourcing pulls in ideas and content from outside the organization, crowdscaling grows and scales its impact outward by empowering the success of others.

It is a business strategy that, instead of using a top-down, command-and-control approach for growth, builds on the nature of today's hyper-connected, open, and globalized world to leverage customers, partners, even competitors. Organizations can achieve enormous scale and influence by creating the platform on which others can build, and aligning stakeholders so they feel partial ownership of the movement.

While the approach requires only modest investment, it does need a large commitment from the top. It can make typical leaders very uneasy, because they are no longer in complete control. (Imagine having over a thousand volunteer teams, who aren't employed by you and can't be fired by you, creating events around the world in your name! That's enough to give a typical corporate executive night sweats.)

Although organizations are only now truly exploring the power of crowdscaling, the roots go way back. After World War II, Tupperware empowered women to become their own bosses and become the vast distribution network for the company. Decades later, in the early 1990's, my first startup benefited from an early version of crowdscaling when Microsoft opened up and encouraged independent companies to build and sell "custom controls" that added functionality to their Visual Basic development environment. This enabled Microsoft to dominate the world of development tools quickly, and startups like ours prospered in their powerful ecosystem. More recently and in much the same way, Apple has created a thriving ecosystem around iOS.

While many of the ideas behind crowdscaling aren't new, globalization and the Internet are enabling companies and non-profits to empower constituents like never before. This opens the door to crowdscaling on a massive scale, and TEDx is one of the best examples.

Since our first TEDx event on March 23rd, 2009, TED has developed a large community of organizers that play the roles of evangelist and entrepreneur, each creating his or her own event and being responsible for its success. Certain rules are strict to maintain alignment with TED's credibility and values; for example, events cannot generate profit, ticket prices and branding are strictly controlled, and all of the talks must be videotaped and made available to the public. But within these guidelines, organizers have a large amount of autonomy.

This autonomy has been fantastic for innovation, with several "experiments" happening daily around the world. But this autonomy has also led to some significant challenges for TED. Because there are so many TEDx events and the quality is variable, some TED supporters worry the program dilutes the TED brand. In two recent incidents, talks fell so far short of TED's standards that they were moved off of the YouTube channel and into a special section of the website where people could discuss the talks in the context of the concerns. In both cases, an intense social media fracas broke out, making some people question whether the risks of TEDx outweighed the benefits.

But considering there are several events a day and tens of thousands of TEDx videos online, it's amazing that the system has seen so few issues. Part of the reason is the underpinning of mutual trust that the head of TEDx, Lara Stein, has masterfully built with organizers. Over the last four years she has aligned values, developed channels of communication with and between organizers, listened and adapted the framework, and empowered organizers with a great deal of responsibility.

It has been no small feat, and as a result, TEDx organizers really feel like they are TED. They try hard not to betray the trust, and the tribal bond leads organizers to "self-police" when they sense another organizer is out of line.

The other key reason for TED's enormous success is the daring vision and fearless commitment of Chris Anderson, who heads TED. The world is rapidly becoming increasingly globalized, connected, and open. Most executives fear and resist these changes, because it threatens disruption to their business models and practices. But where most would have retreated at the first sign of risk, Chris has embraced radical openness and has doubled-down on his commitment to it as a business strategy.

Clearly crowdscaling requires resources, agile leadership, and sometimes even nerves of steel. But the benefits can far outweigh the risks; as a result of crowdscaling, TED has arguably become one of the most powerful media organizations in the world.

(Happy Birthday, TEDx!)