Creative Self-Destruction at Humanity+ ?
Call it the Success Paradox. When an organization reaches a new stage of growth, it may experience cataclysmic internal turmoil.
The Success Paradox happens to startup ventures that lack a cohesive management structure: when the company makes a growth leap, say, from 25 to 50 employees, or from 100 to 200 employees, the shift always comes with a good deal of attendant trauma. The camraderie and enthusiasm of the rapid growth phase wanes, replaced by politics, drama, turf wars, infighting, restructuring, disorientation, even disillusionment. Some people depart for greener pastures, others jockey for position in the new organization, and the rest grumble and return to the engine room.
Sometimes, the organization is damaged by the chaos. But sometimes, a new and better-structured organization emerges from the chaos. In other words, the stresses of growth trigger a seismic shift that may cause the whole edifice to tumble down… or end up more stable.
During the past couple of weeks, Humanity + has been experiencing something akin to the Success Paradox. For years, this group has existed as a fanclub for those who support “transhumanism” (which is an inelegant word to describe the extension of human capabilities through technology). Humanity+ wasn’t very big, it wasn’t particularly ambitious, and it did not have much influence on public policy, academic research, funding, public awareness or any other outside group. It was not controversial, nor did it achieve any notoriety or acclaim in the outside world.
During the past year, however, the arrival of a new Executive Director, Alex Lightman, injected energy and greater ambition into the organization. Alex organized summit events in Irvine and in Cambridge, which gathered leading research scientists together with thinkers from other fields. Although some of the core scientists were surprised by the introduction of newcomers from outside the domain of science, the cross-pollinization was a smart move. Alex raised the profile of the organization, and thereby brought it to the attention of policy makers, media executives, marketing whizkids, IT industry, bloggers, pundits and others who, in turn, spread the word to their networks.
The timing was good. Humanity + was bouyed by a rising tide of awareness about the Singularity and the now-daily advances in the fields of robotics, nanotechnology, anti-aging, and artificial intelligence. The organization was positioned at the forefront of this trend, and as a result, Humanity + suddenly was on the brink of becoming relevant to a much broader group. Following June’s H+ conference at Harvard University, the group set its sights higher, on matters of public policy, culture & morality, and the issue of managing growing public perception of the radical scientific breakthroughs.
Suddenly, H+ mattered. Or at least it looked like it had a chance to matter.
And then, just like clockwork, the whole thing exploded.
In recent weeks, three members of the board of directors abruptly resigned. Then Alex Lightman resigned from his executive role in order and decided to run instead for a board seat. And then, last week, the Chairman of the Board at Humanity + issued a message to members instructing them recommending they not vote for Alex but instead direct their votes to a slate hand-picked by him. The jockeying continued over this past weekend. Others are calling upon friends from the past to fill the void. Dark allegations abound about ethical lapses, cronyism, mischief, board-packing.
If this continues, whatever consensus and goodwill existed in June will probably dissipate within a few short weeks. The current Chairman of the board has suggested that he and other board members would resign en masse if they don’t get their way.
Wallace Stanley Sayre once quipped that “The politics of the university are so intense because the stakes are so low.” The same can probably be said of politics inside a bubble where geeks posit hypothetical scenarios for human evolution.
The question remains whether this is merely self-inflicted destruction, or possibly creative destruction. Can Humanity+ recover from the conflict? Or will the organization fall apart?
At the moment, it looks like it could go either way.
Half of the candidates for the Board seats are longtime members of the transhumanist movement, including one person who claims to have coined the term (not something I’d want to take credit for, since it is an ungainly phrase… but then again it is probably better than its precursor, “extropian“. No surprise that this group had a small following in the early days when it bore that Mondo-2000-esque moniker).
Many of these retro candidates have the support of current board members. Which is no surprise, because they represent voices of the past. Familiar names and faces who can reliably be counted upon to help the project revert to the familiar confines.
On the other hand there are some intriguing newcomers who might be able to inject the organization with the DNA to evolve and grow into a new evolutionary niche. These candidates include legendary publicist Howard Bloom.
What determines the fate of organizations who suffer from the “Success Paradox”? In my own experience, the key determinant is whether or not the organization is open to change. Big change. Not just rearranging the deck chairs, but retooling the entire enterprise on a bigger scale. Are people in the organization prepared for new roles, a new focus, a new set of priorities, possibly a completely different organization?
The first question to ask is: is the current leadership even qualified to manage such a massive transformation?
Often what happens in a startup company is that founders exit to make room for professional managers. Or they accept a subordinate role (in R&D, for instance), relinquishing the top role to a new CEO. But this requires humility, self awareness and an ego that is under control. As well as the confidence to turn the controls over to somebody new who may be better equipped to guide the organization through a new phase of growth.
What never seems to work, in my experience, is when a founder or board member attempts to seize control by resisting the new management who have been brought in precisely for the purpose of growing the venture. The result is almost always destructive, and not in a creative way. Once an organization commits to growth, you can’t revert back to the cosy past. You can’t put the toothpaste back into the tube. And you can’t re-bottle the change genie.
For Humanity+, this election is a question of whether the organization seeks to embrace the future or cling to the past. New directors with new perspectives could aid the organization by opening doors to new alliances, new partnerships, new constituents and potentially new sources of funding. H+ is on the verge of becoming relevant to a broader group, and thereby the organization could exert influence far beyond its size, setting forth a rational logic for adopting the new technologies that will guide human evolution. That’s a exciting mission, and a message that is sorely needed in today’s fractious, polarized political landscape.
For an organization that is so clearly committed to a vision of the future, this decision strikes me as a no-brainer.
UPDATE: I got feedback from H+ board members, past and present and future (?), about what they perceived as inaccuracies in this post. I’ve made a few revisions above, which should placate them. However, the bigger story occurred in the comments below, where long-simmering tensions between the board and the executive boiled over into a spectacular row. Had I known that there was so much background tension, I probably would have selected a different example to write about. But in some respects, this outcome illustrates the very point I was trying to make, perhaps more eloquently than I did in my initial post. H+ just hit a speed bump, and it lost a few hubcaps. But the car didn’t veer out of control. At least, not yet.