Nina Simon and the Wisdom of the Crowd

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First we want to thank all of you interested in women’s issues for helping us break a record at the end of March. Four hundred and fifty people read our March 25 post. So for all of you interested in women and work, here are two links that may prove significant:

Amanda Hess’ article “Maybe It’s Time for Employers to Stop Being So Sexist When Women Ask for Raises”  (Slate.com, March 28, 2014)

Aine Creedon’s “Three Strategies for Women who Want Raises” (Nonprofit Quarterly, March 28, 2014)
And for those of you in possession of the double X chromosome remember, April 8 is the day we catch up with our male counterparts, so we hope you took your BFF out for a drink to celebrate.
So now, let’s talk about what being a visionary gets you. As many of you know, we divided the 36 leaders interviewed for Leadership Matters into four groups–self-aware, authentic, courageous and visionary. Not that each of our interviewees doesn’t possess all four characteristics in abundance, but dividing them allowed us to highlight how each is important in for leadership.

It’s no big surprise that the smallest group in our book is the visionaries. How many of you know a truly visionary leader? As we’ve said more than a few times on these pages, organizational vision is about possibilities, not about maintaining the status quo. If you want the same-old, same-old, then visionary leadership isn’t for you. Visionary leaders see not only possibilities, they articulate them in such real and compelling terms that their followers see them too. Once their dream is articulated, visionary leaders create pathways to make it real. These definitive, decisive steps are what set true visionary leaders apart from dreamers who never quite make their ideas come true.

We knew before Leadership Matters was even outlined that we wanted to interview Nina Simon. Nina–in case you’ve somehow missed her out-of-the-box career path–was once an unknown blogger, commenting on the museum world from the vastness of cyberspace. Today she’s the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. And she’s a visionary. But interestingly, she’s a humble visionary. At some level, Nina’s leadership can be summed up by her need to check in with all of us–with her staff, with her community, and with her internet followers through her blog Museum 2.0.

Which brings me to NPR’s recent story, “So You Think You’re Smarter Than a CIA Agent,”. In the story, NPR’s Alix Spigel interviews a pharmacist named Elaine Rich who, along with 2,999 people is part of something called the Good Judgement Project. One of the points Spigel makes in describing the Good Judgement Project is that counterintuitively if you average a large number of predictions together, the errors cancel each other out and you end up with a more accurate guess. She adds that a large crowd of different people with access to different information who pool their predictions are in much better shape than a single very smart person, or even a small group of very smart people. There is a lesson here, one that Nina Simon got to before any of us.We could call it the lesson of not living in a vacuum; the lesson of not cooking up exhibits and programs deep inside the museum and then being surprised when the public doesn’t love them. In the museum world, Simon figured this out a long time ago. Even before she became a director, she was all about the wisdom of the crowd.

Unlike the Good Judgement Project, Simon is not trying to predict whether North Korea will test another missile. Instead, she is interested in how participation–whether by community, artist, staff or individual–changes things. But here’s the dicey bit, and maybe it’s what makes Simon a visionary. Not only was she among the first to bring the wisdom of the crowd into her museum, she’s comfortable with it. And maybe that’s something all proto-leaders need to ponder. When you ask the crowd what it thinks, you have to be prepared to live with the answer even if it changes things fundamentally. There is a pay off though. The crowd is right there with you. It sees Simon’s museum as its own because she constantly asks for thoughts and opinions. And she (and her staff) are prepared for instability and change based on what folks say they want.

Not all of us are visionaries. And that’s probably a good thing. But as you think about leadership, think about your willingness to trust the crowd, to change mid-stream, to adapt. That’s the Simon lesson and it’s part of great leadership.
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