Twitter: A model for a people focused business strategy?

I am truly impressed with the way Twitter combines a very rigid constraint with an incredible amount of openness to create a hugely flexible service that gets better and better through the combined effort of many creative and devoted users and developers. (To be clear, I’m talking about Twitter the application/service as opposed to Twitter the company.) I wonder if such a nicely blended mix of rigidness and openness is just the right recipe for developing the type of business strategies that best leverage the power of people in an organization.

Twitter’s one rigid constraint, of course, is the 140 character limit for any one tweet. It’s an incredibly strict and inflexible constraint, but it’s well-defined, easily enforced and easy to remember. Beyond that single constraint, though, Twitter the company is extremely open about letting users and developers work within that constraint to improve the service. And improve it they have. Here’s a quote from co-founder Biz Stone’s recent blog post:

“Twitter began as a rudimentary social tool based on the concept of status messages but together with those who use it every day, the service has taught us what it wants to be. From features invented by users to applications built on the platform, we’re still discovering potential. Twitter has moved from simple social networking into a new kind of communication and a valuable source of timely information. Also, it’s fun.”

Developers have used Twitter’s APIs to create excellent applications like Tweetdeck or capabilities that have transformed the service like Summize, which created an ability to search through all tweets. (Twitter ultimately purchased Summize and created Twitter Search.)

Users also developed great innovations. The ability to search inspired someone to start including hashtags in messages to make it easier to find conversations of interest, and apps like Tweetdeck created columns devoted to search terms to make it just as easy to follow topics as it is to follow people.

And that 140 character limit? TinyURL, which to be fair was already in existence, exploded when people began to realize it could help them post URLs within the confines of the Twitter character limit.

So what does all this have to do with developing business strategies?

Over the years, I’ve seen and written all kinds of business strategies of varying levels of detail and sophistication. I’ve come to realize, though, that the most effective and executable strategies are those that have the following qualities:

1. They are easy-to-understand, support and communicate
Twitter nails this one with the simple idea that the service be used to communicate short bits of info to followers. Business strategies should do this with a clear and simple statement of purpose. This statement could be called a mission or vision statement or something else altogether, but the key is that it be clear, simple and easy to remember. Clear objectives for the strategy should also be stated, so that those who execute the strategy know what they’re working towards. For example, objectives could be increase conversion, increase market share and maximize profitability. I’ve found that three clear objectives are about as much as anyone can reasonably remember.

2. Have clear boundaries
Twitter’s 140 character limit is a very clear boundary. Business strategies can create these boundaries with clear constraints. I believe it’s OK, and sometimes even desirable, for objectives to contradict each other to some degree as a form of balance. Without the “maximize profitability” objective mentioned above serving as a constraint, we could easily spend our way to increased conversion and increased market share, but that spending could be very unhealthy for the business. Conversely, by stating that we want to maximize profitability, we are also opening the door to making all investments necessary to gain the most possible profit with our various tactics.

3.    Allow for flexibility and creativity by those executing the strategy

Twitter opened up their service via APIs and allowed anyone to improve upon the service. Businesses can do something similar by doing what I call “matching the A’s,” which are Accountability and Authority. By clearly defining accountabilities for each member of the team, and at the same time assigning matching authority, businesses can truly unleash the creativity and power of the organization to maximize the objectives. Giving members of the team closest to the actual work the authority and accountability to perform as they see best can produce excellent results. While this is easy to say, it’s difficult to do. A lot of forethought needs to be applied to ensure accountabilities are well-defined, and a conflict resolution system needs to be defined to deal with the inevitable clashes that will occur when teams with dependencies have different priorities. I’ve seen great strategies fail because effort wasn’t put into carefully defining and matching authority and accountability, so I strongly believe serious effort is required here.

So is it as easy as 1…2…3? Definitely not. Designing “simple” strategies requires an incredible amount of effort and thought, but the effort is worth it if the end result is a highly functioning, effectively executing organization. Twitter is proof-positive that a well-designed structure can enable the power of the people to elevate good ideas to incredible results.

What do you think? What types of strategies have you seen work? Do you agree that Twitter represents a good model for people-powered strategies, or do you think strategies can and should be more complex?


  • By Gino, August 4, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    Kogi BBQ, most famous in Los Angeles, keeps people updated on their next location via Twitter. That is brilliant. And I would say that Dell’s use of Twitter has paid off handsomely. Less so for using it as a kind of customer service as Comcast and DirecTV have done. Not sure about that use yet.

  • By Jay Konigsberg, August 5, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    The writing of API’s has a very long and proud, if tattered history that ties in with the Open Source movement and modular programming (something difficult even today). While you seem to have only brought it up to highlight your point about matching Accountability and Authority, it is really no more than an interesting byproduct of what is clearly well thought out and implemented software.
    Such software can only be created one of two ways: when it is a labor of love (such as the initial releases of gnu C, or Linux), or when management actually understands how software is meant to interact with the world and provides their developers with the vision and authority necessary to do the job. In the case of Twitter, I suspect it is both, which is a rare and beautiful thing.

  • By Kevin Ertell, August 6, 2009 @ 1:15 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Gino. I’ll have to check out Kogi BBQ. I agree that Dell is doing a very nice job. I just saw a presentation from Dell’s Liana Frey on the topic at eTail East yesterday, and it was very impressive.

  • By Kevin Ertell, August 6, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Jay. I was using the API comment as a metaphor for the Accountability and Authority point, but your comments tie in nicely. Clear and well-thought-out strategies can apply to software as well as overall business strategies, and the value of allowing people closest to the product, service or business to have a significant amount of input on the end result is equally powerful.

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