Theory of the firm: opt-in initiatives

I’ve become adamant about making internal initiatives opt-in for the following reason: it brings more information to bear.

For example, at Stack, I started something called “Ask a Nerd”. The goal is to create a channel of communication between our sales people and our developers.

Now, I might easily have pushed for compelling all developers and sales people to participate. It stands to reason: if it’s a good idea, everyone should be part of it. It’s a company initiative.

But I didn’t push in this way. Rather, I communicated the idea and made it opt-in on all sides. This has several advantages.

First, it allows the initiative to get off the ground with as little drag as possible. Had I wanted to compel participation, I’d have needed more permission and consensus.

Second, it’s an ongoing test. Growth, or lack thereof, is apparent in the participation numbers; participation becomes a proxy for value creation. The onus is on me to improve the product and sell it.

Third, it selects for people who are interested in the idea. It reveals hidden leadership and undiscovered skills.

And fourth, frankly, it’s safer. It’s allowed to die at a small cost, whereas a mandatory initiative risks being propped up to prevent embarrassment.

Had participation in the initiative been mandatory, a lot of information would have been muted. We’d have optimized not for creating the most value, but for having a successful initiative. See the difference?

Put another way, mandatory participation becomes a test of a fairly static a priori idea. Opt-in means we start from a kernel, and evolve.

Related: Google+ had this problem

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Published by Matt Sherman on March 8, 2015