How TED strengthens its community through shared purpose

???????????????????????When you consider the impact of TED, its most impressive feat may not be its annually sold-out events at $10,000 (!) per seat. Or its star-studded audience that includes the likes of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page and Cameron Diaz. Or even its TED Talk videos with over one billion—with a “B”—views worldwide.

Enviable as those things are, the truest measure of TED’s influence might just be its willingness to turn the model over to its community through the TEDx program, which since 2009 has spawned nearly 15,000 independently organized, mini-TED experiences throughout the world.

As a brand extension, it is equal parts bold, brilliant and trusting, and it’s been a staggering success. Until, that is, a few members of the community broke the trust and threatened to put the whole thing in jeopardy.

Nilofer Merchant has an excellent article in this month’s HBR, When TED Lost Control of Its Crowd, detailing the fallout from a pair of TEDx events whose speakers and topics drew ridicule from viewers, and in the process tarnished the mother ship’s reputation for exceptional content. (The New Republic declared, “TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas ‘worth spreading.’ Instead it has become something ludicrous.” Ouch.)

TED’s leaders responded quickly and effectively, as you would expect, engaging with—and actively listening to—100 news media and online communities to address the criticism. They also tightened up the requirements for TEDx hosting (speaker selection in particular), going from a list of 10 simple guidelines to a much more detailed set of specific rules.

But what’s most remarkable to me is what the organization didn’t do.

They didn’t publicly flog the speakers or hosts, making examples of them for the sake of damage control. They didn’t react in an alarmist, defensive way when critics declared their brand to be diminished. And while they did add specificity to their expectations of hosts, they didn’t adopt a command-and-control approach to the TEDx model, taking an open system running it in a closed way.

Instead they doubled down on the one thing that made TEDx work from the beginning: shared purpose.

“To get its crowd recommitted to the objective of ‘ideas worth spreading,'” Merchant writes:

the TED team sent a lengthy letter to the TEDx community…reminding members that  the organization’s mission was theirs to uphold. … The TED team asked members of the ‘TEDx movement’ for more feedback and for help monitoring the quality of events. The team also offered help with vetting speakers. The message was clear: Spreading important ideas was the shared purpose, improving quality was a shared problem, and it would take a shared effort to fix it. (Emphasis added.)

Consider for a moment just how radical the TEDx experiment was in the first place: One of the world’s most prestigious conferences, whose success is built on exacting standards of content and production, franchises its name, reputation and format—for free!—to just about anyone, anywhere who aligns with the shared purpose.

Then consider how much confidence you’d have to have in that purpose—its rightness, its clarity, its ability to effect positive change—not only to give it away, but to resist the urge to rescind it when misused.

There had to have been some “Oh sh**” moments when TED’s name became associated with bad content, and I wonder if they considered (as I would have) curtailing TEDx for the sake of the larger brand.

But then, judging from the comments of TED curator Chris Anderson, I’m guessing not. The growth of TEDx, he says, “could only have happened by empowering instead of controlling.”

And the criticism? “Anyone wishing to pursue this path needs to be ready to take the occasional beating online, pick themselves up, and smile,” he concludes. “Because the overall impact of letting go is unbelievable.”

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