TED’s stage of growth

As I've written about in a previous blog I'm speaking at a TEDX conference soon. So my eye was caught by an article in the Financial Times I was reading while sitting on the flight back to DC this week. It was called 'Life After Ted'. It's mainly about Richard Saul Wurman who first hosted a Ted conference in 1984 and in 2001 sold to the concept to the Sapling Foundation which now runs the events. The article reports that the TED events have 'developed a cult status' and 'TED Talks, a series of lecture videos posted online, have received more than 800m views to date.'

Wurman is of the view that as far as TED goes 'Now every speech is auditioned, rehearsed, edited, rehearsed again … the spontaneity has gone. TED today has become over-orchestrated, too 'slick'." His antidote to this is to put on WWW 'an exercise in improvisation through conversation'.

A couple of people I've talked to about TED (and the various TEDXs) share similar views – that it's a good concept that has peaked. The article notes that 'TED is running out of speakers to invite and, therefore, running out of big ideas'. It has now 'resorted' to auditions to identify speakers for future events. The article also mentions the paucity – although, for the WWW event – of women speakers, and I recall that one of the reasons I was invited to the TEDX Columbus was because they needed more women speakers. So I had a go at checking out the TED ratio of women to men speakers.

I didn't have time to call up TED directly to answer the question (and couldn't find a detailed answer on their website) but I did find a Huffington Post article (2010) that said

"Over the past two years, TED Conferences have featured 30-40% women speakers. This isn't ideal, but it's actually much more balanced than many other, similar conferences, and obviously a priority for them. "

And related to the ratio of women to men speaker question, there is, on the TED website, the question Is TED elitist? With the answer

"In a nutshell, no. It certainly attracts people who are regarded as elite in their area of expertise. But the word 'elitist' implies exclusionary, and there have been numerous steps in recent years to open up our conferences to as broad an audience as possible".

The page goes on to list these steps including (among several), "We've expanded significantly … the number of women."

Wondering about whether TED has had its day was partly triggered by an email from a colleague who emailed me earlier in the week saying,

"About 25 years ago, I read an article by a German economist who proposed that corporations have organic limits to growth. Despite best efforts, organizations cannot sustain beyond a certain rate of growth. They will outstrip the ability to grow and integrate the necessary infrastructure. The inevitable consequence of growing too quickly will be a collapse of the organization as it becomes unable to manage itself. The author proposed that limit was at best, 15% per annum, based on his analysis of international companies over the past few decades. Does any of this sound familiar to you? "

What it called to my mind was an article by Larry Greiner called 'Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow'. It's an old, but now classic, article first published in the Harvard Business Review in 1972. In it Greiner proposes five stages of organizational growth – creativity, direction, delegation (in a later version he changed this to decentralization), co-ordination, and collaboration. Greiner suggests that "evolution is not an automatic affair; it is a contest for survival," and asked the question "And what about very large organizations? Can they find new solutions for continued evolution? Or are they reaching a stage when the government will act to break them up because they are too large?" (He did not ask 'are some organizations too big to fail?' which was the 2007-8 question.) He suggests that to move from one stage to the next requires 'revolution', saying 'these periods of tension provide the pressure, ideas, and awareness that afford a platform for change and the introduction of new practices."

So going back to the TED Talks – are they in one of the 5 phases of growth? Looking at the Greiner article maybe so. TED could be described as being in stage 4 co-ordination, and I'm wondering if it is too far-fetched to say that TED, is on the cusp of its 'revolution' to move from co-operation to collaboration. The thing about the co-ordination phase is that it is characterized by the introduction of formal systems and processes which, if they get out of hand result in what Greiner calls a 'red-tape crisis', which is typical of a bureaucracy.

One of the outcomes of TED is that its originally highly successful formula has spawned a range of lookalikes and the FT article mentions some of these. In this respect it is much like Apple and a different FT article this one on Apple has an interesting observation from Guy Kawasaki who worked there. He says:

"The irony is that today, to use the old Apple slogan, 'thinking different' means you consider things that are not from Apple, because Apple is so dominant. Once you win the revolution, you become the bureaucracy. That's an interesting transition to make."

So rather than moving from co-ordination to collaboration, is TED instead in danger of becoming a bureaucracy and then ossifying? Again, maybe so, I say this because I am, in my current role of being a TEDX speaker, having to conform to very specific requirements e.g. TED Commandments, presentation length, slide format, dress code, and so on. Of course, it could be argued that this is necessary for a good event but is it too slick? Does this TED formula have in it the seeds of its own destruction? Will it succeed in redesigning itself into effectively into collaboration? (For example, are the auditions for speakers an indicator of movement towards collaboration? )

It's difficult to say and Greiner himself pointed out that to move from one phase to the next requires 'considerable self-awareness on the part of top management as well as great interpersonal skills in persuading other managers that change is needed.'

What are your views? TED – the start of its new revolution or TED – the decline into bureaucracy? Let me know what you think.

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