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99U Conference Recap 3: Rethinking the Way We Lead

99U Conference Recap 3: Rethinking the Way We Lead
Published May 8, 2014 by Sasha VanHoven
In a continuation of our 2014 99U Conference recaps we bring you more insights from our yearly gathering focused on idea execution. The speakers in today’s edition all challenge (and urge) us to rethink the way we lead. 

The way in which we lead our teams has moved far beyond the autocratic, dictatorships of our grandparents' workplaces. The organizations that succeed today are the ones who stay responsive, easy to scale, and adaptable. Both Oliver Burkeman and Aaron Dignan challenged us to rethink the ways in which we organize and motivate our teams using often counter-intuitive methods.


Aaron Dignan

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CEO // Undercurrent

Aaron Dignan believes that it is now easier than ever to bring new ideas to life and to scale, and that the best existing companies work in the same, responsive manner. The companies that succeed display traits of a complex adaptive system. In other words, they contain networks, have employees that self-organize, maintain a simple rule set, leverage data, and adapt often. 

  • Grow, leverage, and serve networks. Platforms and networks used to be something you first had to build yourself before you could get to the real meat of what you wanted to do. Now, you can simply find an existing one to get started on. For example, web-based startups today can spin up servers using Amazon's Web Service. This lets you move faster and scale easier, all while lowering startup costs.
  • Self-organize and empower with purpose. In the ant world, the queen issues no orders and workers only have simple signals to communicate. Yet thousands and thousands of ants are able to work together, quickly, on a massive scale all towards the betterment of the colony. It's because of these simple rules and autonomy that they're able to do so. "If we can't empower our employees to self-organize, we're always going to be too slow. And that's a death sentence," said Dignan.
  • Don't just manage your information, process it. Many companies aren't using the data that they and their customers are creating in order to help make the product better. Dignan points to companies like Spotify that learned quickly to take that data and use it to improve the user experience for their customers.
  • Generate variety and replicate what works. The main challenge of having a bigger, more complex company is getting it to move quickly. The solution is to plant 1,000 flowers and see what works. Always be working to try new things, while maintaining and building off of what works (and killing what doesn't).


Oliver Burkeman

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Author & Journalist // The Antidote 

The trend for the last few decades in self-help has been to take an overly-positive approach. We're told to think positively and good things will happen. Through extensive research, including an uncomfortable but memorable attendance at the Get Motivated! Business Seminar, Oliver Burkeman cut through the overbearing levels of optimism to find the practical, realistic methods that work.

  • "Positive thinking has its limitations." Studies have shown that mantras, or the repetition of reaffirmations meant to empower (such as "I am a beautiful light of being"), can actually have a negative, opposite effect over time. It's okay to be uncertain. "You don't have to stamp out bad feelings to feel good about where you're heading," explained Burkeman.
  • Avoid the over-pursuit of goals. Being overly ambitious can often work against you and trigger unintended consequences. When faced with any negative information or evidence, it can cause those involved to deny or even ignore any naysayers altogether, and in turn commit them even harder to the original goal. In a study, those more dedicated to win were also more likely to cheat and show inhibited performances.
  • "You do not have to feel like doing something in order to do it." There's no need to push yourself into a false sense of optimism or positivity in order to continue. Otherwise, you're now in an even worse position: not only do you still have to do the hard thing, but now you have to feel like it too. So why create that unnecessary hurdle?  

More 2014 Conference Recaps:

Part One: What Are Your Creative Values?
Part Two: Rethinking the Way We Work
Part Three: Rethinking the Way We Lead
Part Four: The Best Way to Complain Is to Make Things
Part FiveCreating a Business That Withstands the Test of Time

Part Six: Innovation Lessons from the Trenches

More about Sasha VanHoven

Sasha is the Associate Editor of 99U. You can watch her tweet here.

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