You are your own, best job creator

Every time I hear someone (by which I mean politicians) use the phrase “job creator” or “we need to create jobs so people can get back to work”, I want to reach through the media and give them a quick slap to the back of the head. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Seth Godin, or Clay Shirky, or Chris Guillebeau, or Hugh MacLeod, or …., but it seems to me it is this very emphasis on telling people that someone else needs to create a job for them that limits the possibilities.

Luckily, I’m not the only one that thinks that.

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Small, a great destination

Rework - Why Grow?
Illustration from Rework

In their book Rework, the guys from 37signals make a compelling argument for staying small in a chapter called “Why grow?” My favorite quote from that chapter:

Small is not just a stepping stone. Small is a great destination in itself.

And this isn’t just empty talk from someone trying to sell books, this is how they actually run the company. From a recent article on Fast Company, here is 37signals CEO Jason Fried (@jasonfried):

I’m a fan of growing slowly, carefully, methodically, of not getting big just for the sake of getting big. I think that rapid growth is typically of symptom of… there’s a sickness there. There’s a great quote by a guy named Ricardo Semler, author of the book Maverick. He said that only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors. We have 35 employees at 37signals. We could have hundreds of employees if we wanted to–our revenues and profits support that–but I think we’d be worse off.

This is kind of a follow up to yesterday’s post, Living life for a living, which got me thinking again about the 37signals philosophy. What it really comes down to, it seems, is the difference between a businessperson – who wants to run a business that makes money; big is better – and a person in business – who wants to build a business around something they do; the bigger the business gets, the less they get to do what they got into business for in the first place.

Retaining knowledge in organizations – a contrary view

Yesterday’s #kmers chat focused on the topic Retaining the Knowledge of People Leaving your Organization.  Quite a bit of discussion around the topic, including questions about whether you should try to capture knowledge from those leaving, how you should do it, etc. etc.  Personally, I agree with V Mary Abraham (@vmaryabraham) when she says:

Ideally, move to system of #observable work. Then people disclose info & connections as they work & before they leave.

That way, the knowledge that is shared is in the context of a current action and not just information sitting in a repository somewhere.

This is a question that I – and many others – have wrestled with for many years now. Here is something I originally posted in Sep 2004 on the question. This is an unedited copy of that original post; I may come back later and give it a fresh coat.

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For many years now I’ve read about and been involved in discussions about the impending retirement of baby boomers, the effect this will have on institutional memory, and what can be done about it. Most of my interest in this at the time concerned the impact on the federal government workforce, which will be very hard hit since the retirement age is a bit lower than the populace in general.

Though I’ve not yet read it, the book Lost Knowledge by Dave DeLong addresses this problem in great detail (more on the book can be found here, here, and here). A snippet from the book’s website:

Dr. David DeLong, a research fellow at MIT’s AgeLab, has just created the first comprehensive framework to help leaders retain critical organizational knowledge despite an aging workforce and increased turnover among mid-career employees.

Like most discussions of the topic I’ve been involved in, the book seems to focus on the negative aspects of people leaving, and taking their knowledge with them. However, I have been reading James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and think that we may be missing out on an opportunity to actively reinvent the corporate knowledge as we try, probably in vain, to keep the old knowledge around.

Granted, there is some information and there are many processes that must be recorded and retained. This the basic infrastructure of how an organization functions. But if you simply take the knowledge of people who are leaving and transfer that to the people that are replacing them, you are effectively eliminating the value of the “new blood” coming into the organization. Or, in the words of Surowiecki, you are maintaining homogeneity at the expense of diversity.

Organizational memory, like human memory, can be a stubborn thing to change and often results in the this is how we’ve always done it syndrome. An excellent description of memory formation can be found in Tony Buzan’s The Mind Map Book (sorry for the lengthy quote, but it bears repeating in whole):

Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance ther will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition (original emphasis). In other words, the more times a ‘mental event’ happens, the more likely it is to happen again.

When you are trying to learn something, this is obviously a good thing. However, the very nature of this learning process makes it more difficult to learn something new, especially if it is very different (“off the beaten path”). By pointing new people down the paths of the people that are retiring, you are ensuring that the well known paths will continue to thrive and that it will be harder to create new paths through the forest.

That’s fine if your goal is to continue on the path you are on, but it brings to mind an old proverb I saw somewhere: If you don’t change the path you are on, you’ll end up where it takes you.

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Doing nothing

It is better to do nothing than to be busy doing nothing.

Doing nothing is refreshing, a chance to recharge if only for a little bit. Your mind is free to wander where it may, with or without conscious intervention. Free association of thoughts runs rampant, resulting in ideas that would never have come to you otherwise. I’m sure you’ve had these moments, where you stopped trying to solve a problem and the answer came to you, “out of the blue”.

(Just to be clear, I’m not talking about meditation or anything like that. While that is no doubt beneficial, meditation is doing something, not nothing.)

On the other hand, being busy doing nothing is mentally draining, an imposition of purposeless order on your thoughts that prevents your mind from resting and recharging.

And yet there are many people – including what I would estimate as a high percentage of managers or other “leaders” – who are made very uncomfortable just by the idea of doing nothing. Never mind actually doing nothing. Or, heaven forbid, letting their employees do nothing.

This mentality comes in large part, of course, from the factory approach to work: if you are not doing something, nothing is getting made. But that just isn’t true in many forms of work today. New, good ideas are the products of today, and these can’t be created on an assembly line.

But this discomfort with our own thoughts also comes from the anxieties and worries that we keep with us. It is hard to willingly let you mind wander when you know that it may wander to places you’d rather not go.

Alannis Morrisette describes this quite well in this snippett of song:

Why are you so petrified of silence,
Here can you handle this?
(silent pause)
Did you think about your bills, your ex, your deadlines
Or when you think you’re gonna die?
Or did you long for the next distraction?

Take some time today to do nothing. And then go out and do something.

Hero worship

Which type of person do you prefer to work with, someone who thrashes early and gets things quietly done, or someone who swoops in at the end for some last minute heroics?

Which type of person receives the most attention in your organization? Are you more likely to hear, “John was squared away and relaxed when it was time to ship” or “Did you see that incredible last push John made, working all night so he could meet ship date?”

Which type are you?

Next time you find yourself in a situation where you see some people cramming like crazy, and others sitting back apparently doing nothing, take a moment to think about which ones you’d prefer to have work with you to ship your product.

Goodbye to the weekend?

I saw a quote on a discussion board recently in a conversation about telecommuting and taking care of personal business during work time: If they want me to answer my email at night and on the weekends, they shouldn’t have a problem with me making personal calls or email during the day.

One of the recurring themes in Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin, is the idea that the way to succeed in the future is to move away from factory work – of all kinds, either physical or intellectual. In the blog post Goodbye to the Office, he makes explicit his point that the modern office is just a different type of factory. And that if you are doing your work outside the office even a little, why do even need the office in the first place?

Which got me thinking: Is there a future for the weekend? If not, is that a bad thing? A good thing? Just “a thing”?

The modern weekend, of course, is as it is based on a century of factory work, office work, and public education. The same can be said for winter break, spring break, and summer vacation. People want (need? demand?) time to get away from the grind, and expect their work life and their life work be kept separate.

But if you no longer need the factory, if you no longer need the office, do you really need the weekend (or spring break or summer vacation) to get away from it all?

Busy people

“If you really need something to get done, find someone who is already busy.”

I’ve heard this advice many times over the years, and even given it as advice a few times. I have accepted it as true, but haven’t given much thought to why it is true.

Reading Seth Godin’s latest, Linchpin, the answer occurred to me: busy people are the artists, the linchpins of an organization. The ones who actually get things done and make things happen.

On the other hand you have what I would call the “occupied” people, those who perform a specific task that was given them and then wait for someone to tell them their next task. These are the factory workers, the interchangeable pieces of the infrastructure of the company. The people who simply do things.
When I look at it this way, it’s obvious why the busy person is who you turn to when you need someone.