An Agilist at WIRED25, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I described the recent WIRED25 Festival that I attended in San Francisco. Part celebration, part keynote, and all geek, this festival covered four days, Friday – Monday. For a working weekend, it was among my favorites.

As in Part 1, I’ll review how the big social media companies like Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn view the past, what they might see coming in the future, and highlight what lessons Agilists might glean from them.

Logistically, this event was much different than the Agile conferences I’ve been to. First, it was over a weekend, which made the overall vibe more relaxed. Secondly, rather than vendor booths or an expo hall, there were site visits and activities that took place all over the city. I’d never gotten this much practice using Uber!

Friday was mostly site visits, starting at WIRED Headquarters and then moving on to the offices of a host of innovative companies. I was able to see where the magic happens in the offices of Marble.io, HP/WeWork, and our own Accenture. Saturday and Sunday included panels on topics like “Networking for Introverts,” and the first ever Robot Petting Zoo, which I’ll cover in Part 3. Monday was Summit Day, where leaders from across Silicon Valley and beyond were interviewed by WIRED staff.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the social networking companies were asked about their impact on society, as opposed to the space exploration or military contracts that Google, Amazon, and Microsoft were asked about. So, what are the leaders of LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube doing to make the Internet a better place and how are they “responding to change” over “following a plan”? Read on.

What are the leaders of LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube doing to make the Internet a better place and how are they “responding to change” over “following a plan”?

Part 2 – Social Networks and the Power of Emergence

LinkedIn CEO, Jeff Weiner

LinkedIn

The CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, spoke about diversity in the workplace and expressed concern that his own company could be “reinforcing self-fulfilling networks” that enable companies to hire people only like themselves. For example, when you get a LinkedIn request, the algorithm indicates whether or not you know people already in their network. To counter this, LinkedIn created the Career Advice Hub, which “enables any member of LinkedIn to raise their hand and ask for help, and others to volunteer to mentor them.”

The conversation moved in a new direction when Weiner asked the crowd, “What are the most sought-after skills from employers?” The answer was not the obvious one. While people still require basic digital fluency – how to send email, work a spreadsheet, and do word processing – it isn’t the technical abilities that are missing, but the soft skills. Business leaders claim a deficit of skills in, “written communication, oral communication, team building, people leadership, collaboration.”

Agilists might recognize or even cheer that many of these are skills we teach through our coaching and training. For example, when discussing the structure and purpose of user stories, we leverage the three C’s – Card, Conversation, and Confirmation. (For more on this, check out this Agile Amped podcast on “User Stories.”)

If we’re to make our teams and organizations better, we need to focus on the soft stuff. As Mike Hammer, author of Reengineering the Corporation, said, “The soft stuff is the hard stuff.”

Twitter

Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey

No one had a more challenging interview, in my opinion, than Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. WIRED’s Nicholas Thomson started with this: 

“I want to start with free speech, which is one of the issues that will divide this room. There are people who believe that Twitter has abdicated the role that it used to stand for regarding free speech… Others think that there are tradeoffs between safety and privacy… and that Twitter isn’t in the right place on this issue.”

Fastball! Mr. Dorsey handled the challenging question with nuance: “One of the most interesting things about Twitter is that everything we benefitted from – the hashtag, the retweet, threads – have been invented by people that aren’t us… It’s interesting to see what Twitter wants to become. Our superpower is around conversation and to serve that public conversation.” 

Notice what Mr. Dorsey said: the hashtag, among other things, was not a Twitter innovation. It was suggested by a user and only when it “stuck” did Twitter support the functionality. It was emergent, driven by users’ need to tag content. Even more than pivoting, the hashtag is an example of emergence and of harnessing change for competitive advantage. Imagine if Twitter pushed back against the hashtag or decided to develop their own tagging system? It would likely have been slower and less effective. 

The hashtag is an example of emergence and of harnessing change for competitive advantage.

Twitter lived up to its “superpower” of enabling conversations by allowing the hashtag and other features to emerge out of their communities’ actual behavior. Guided by that vision, leadership showed business agility by allowing the solutions to emerge, and then “amplified the attractors” in a positive direction. In the case of the hashtag, the result was enormous – a major addition to the world’s Internet vocabulary.

Instagram 

The co-founder of Instagram, Kevin Systrom, who recently left Facebook, stated that they were not free of the toxicity of social networks, despite the perception that they are the “friendly” social network. However, he did claim that the company worked hard on the issue. “[Instagram] developed some machine learning algorithms to identify bullying. We’ve also allowed people to turn off comments, despite its negative effect on engagement. Give people tools to do things, and generally they make the right decisions.” 

Instagram is one of the few social networks that allows the disabling of comments, which I found an interesting way to differentiate their platform from others, and a gamble that seems to have paid off. Comments drive engagement, which is the bread and butter of social networks, yet this company bucked the trend to create a whole new user experience.

YouTube

YouTube CEO, Susan Wojcicki

Instagram and LinkedIn were not alone in leveraging AI to make online experiences better. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, who owned the garage Google started in, was upfront about the challenges of keeping people safe on a video-based platform. With 400 hours of video uploaded every minute to YouTube, you would have to watch for 2.74 years to catch all the videos uploaded in one hour! According to Mashable, more video content is uploaded to YouTube in a 60 day period than the three major U.S. television networks created in 60 years. Not surprisingly, many of the videos uploaded are not for broad consumption.

“Google is committed to… trust and safety [for our users]… In Q2 we removed ten million videos. 70% of that is with machines [artificial intelligence]. Of that, 75% very quickly, without a single view… Openness has to be balanced with the right level of responsibly.”

Closing Analysis

YouTube’s Wojcicki said that they’re “no longer a child” and are now in the growing up phase. And this seems an appropriate way to sum up social media in general, as well as many Internet giants. The scale of these companies is so vast and beyond what their creators could have possibly imagined. This future we’re living in, 25 years since the creation of the WIRED Magazine, is not a grand vision of some super smart technologists, but an emergent new world that we collectively create, for good and bad. 

Much needed meditation chairs

These social platforms have morphed and changed, moving far away from their initial intention. Instagram was to make photography better. Twitter was to share messages with each other easily, YouTube for home videos, Facebook (first called facemash) was created (infamously) to decide if a person was “hot or not,” and Google was a research project that they tried to sell for a mere $1 million dollars to Excite. (Remember them? Me, either.)

The message that emerged for me is what responsive product development and business agility looks like. One of the reasons these companies are still around is that they were incredibly attentive to their user base. Twitter, for example, allowed their user base to invent the “hashtag.” Facebook moved quickly to realize that everyone wanted networks, not just college kids. YouTube promotes content creators with good incomes, clearly not the same as sharing videos with friends and family.

One of the reasons these companies are still around is that they were incredibly attentive to their user base…

How can more organizations learn quickly like these ones have?

How can more organizations learn quickly like these ones have? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

Is your organization leveraging big data and good product ownership to listen and understand their customers? What about your internal users? Are you allowing your users to innovate with you? If your customers had a great suggestion, how would you listen? What’s the mechanism? How long would it take? Finally, is your vision grand enough, and specific enough, like Twitter’s “Enabling Conversations,” to inform what you do and do not do for your users? 

I’m reminded of an old Danish proverb: “ It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.” If companies are to live to see the future, they’ll need to continually hone their product management strategies and skills and leverage business agility to develop 21st century solutions.