Are you being commoditized?
The nature of work is evolving and we must respond by changing the way in which we approach our careers. Failing to react to these circumstances is choosing to acceptance the consequences. Discounting the forces which drive them is either an act of willful ignorance or something worse. Consider yourself warned.
I’m preparing a talk which is designed to help early career professionals shorten learning curves so that they might be more deliberate, purposeful and productive in their work. A big part of that talk will focus on the case for individuals to consider becoming radical intrapreneurs. As I see it, carving out a niche in this manner is a path towards crafting a bit of security amidst a growing, turbulent sea of precarity.
Gary Hamel’s Hierarchy
One of the key ideas I’ll be using to make that case is Gary Hamel’s Hierarchy of Human Capabilities at Work; which unveils the implications of an increasingly educated and connected global workforce. The model includes six elements: Obedience, Diligence, Intellect, Initiative, Creativity, and Passion; it’s split in two with the lower half being viewed as table stakes. The upper section consists of traits that are believed to be differentiators.
This model is aimed at the folks who are running organizations, but it ought to be a wake-up call for business professionals. Most of us have been taught to aim for the first three layers of this hierarchy as our school systems are geared to instill a measure of obedience, diligence and intellect.
Follow the rules. Don’t color outside the lines. Sit still. Stay focused. Don’t look out the windows. Do your work. Quit daydreaming. Solve the problem.
So we arrive in our careers ready to do as we’re told, work hard, and solve problems. And that’s becoming a problem.
Think of it. Workers perceived as commodities. Human beings treated as widgets.
If this sounds like the talk of a couple of misguided Cassandras, I should point out that Professor Hamel is cited by the Wall Street Journal “as one of the world’s most influential business thinkers,” Stowe Boyd is the well-respected lead researcher at Gigaom, and Harold Jarche is a thought leader in the areas of personal knowledge management and workplace transformation, so if I’m woefully misguided on this, at least I’m in great company.
Assuming these ideas are on the right track, it seems that most of the world’s business professionals have put in an awful lot of work, while often taking on copious amounts of debt, as the returns seem ever less certain. Much like buggy whips, and slide rules, we may still find a place in the business world, but if this is where we’re headed, are our days of prominence already behind us?
The era of lifetime employment is over
Imagine your career as a brisk, steady walk down a straight and narrow trail.
Get the job, show up, keep your head down, crank out work, collect your gold watch, and receive your pension.
Does that sound like the path you’re treading? As you’re reading this, I’m guessing the answer to that is a resounding “No.”
The company man had a good run, but his pine box was nailed, lowered, and covered a while ago. Rather than a long amble down a well-worn path, I think the experience feels more like a frenetic swim upstream wherein the waters are murky, the current is ever accelerating, and dangers lurk at every turn.
[bctt tweet=”The company man had a good run, but his pine box was nailed, lowered, and covered a while ago.”]
Does that sound a bit more familiar?
Let’s briefly consider that earlier era before we leave it behind for good. Once you had relatively secure employment, you could then choose between putting your feet up, relatively speaking, or if you were fairly ambitious you could go back to school for an advanced degree and really differentiate yourself.
Today’s version of this story hearkens back to Professor Hamel’s point about commoditization. As the graph below shows, the number of graduate degrees awarded by business schools has increased nearly an order of magnitude over the past forty years. (Double that to approximate the number of Bachelor’s degrees awarded.) If you think that doing the hard work of earning a master’s degree will separate you from the pack, this may be a bit hard to swallow, but yesterday’s differentiator has become today’s commonality. That said, I’m absolutely not advocating against them. Formal education is still one of the best routes available for improving ourselves. I just want you to see my take on the current reality so that you might review your expectations and consider what you might add to your plans in order to achieve success.
From pigeonholes to widgets to obsolescence
I have addressed the perils of a growing, highly-educated, global workforce up this point, but there’s more than that to worry about. Concerns over technological unemployment have been with us since at least the time of the Luddite Rebellion, but the current trends portend job destruction which is greater than anything we’ve seen before. We’re used to the idea of robots taking the place of people on farms and factory belts, but are we ready for the driverless car revolution where all driving professions are at risk?” While that could have far reaching impacts on the economy at large, you may be thinking that a degreed professional has some insulation from such changes, but before you bet the farm on that notion, are you’re aware of the robots that are learning to perform general surgery? Worse yet, there’s the recent Oxford Martin School study which suggests that nearly half of total employment is at risk of computerization. Stowe Boyd asks, “What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?”
So, is there any hope?
What bargaining power do you think you would have if there were thousands (millions?) of others who were viewed as equally capable of performing your duties? What hope would you have of paying off your debts, and having something left over for a simple retirement (much less of improving your lot in life), if workers were forced into a wage-based race to the bottom?
Fortunately, Professor Hamel provides some hope with the upper layers of his hierarchy (Initiative, Creativity, and Passion). He cites these traits as being the ones which can help workers stave off commoditization. Harold Jarche is instructive here, “This Creative Economy requires more independent workers (like musical productions) with traits that cannot be commoditized: Initiative; Creativity; Passion. So “knowledge workers” had best ensure that 1) they have more Task Variety than Standardized Work and 2) they are valued for skills that cannot be commoditized.” He further states that, “being able to fill a job is not enough, even if it is an honest day’s labour. The capitalist system is designed to screw labour. But it’s more difficult to screw talent. If we want to help people, we need to help each person become Talent. That means emphasizing creativity, complex problem-solving, and innovation.”
As Doug Sundheim notes, “Successful innovators care about solving interesting and important problems — innovation is merely a byproduct.” Passion is fuel which drives us in this regard. We often seek engagement, but engagement is a state of being which is not self-sustaining. I equate being engaged with the state of Flow studied by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It’s fantastic to be there, but it’s not a place you’re likely to arrive at by accident. Passion, on the other hand, is a driver. Passion is the force which can help you achieve and maintain engagement. Don’t aim for engagement. Find your passion and you’ll arrive at engagement.
[bctt tweet=”Passion is the force which can help you achieve and maintain engagement.”]
Updating Hamel’s Hierarchy
I really like Professor Hamel’s hierarchy, but I think there are a few additional elements (Relationship Building, Adaptability & Openness, Divergent and Integrative Thinking, and Purpose) which might help us fit the model to radical intrapreneurs.
- Relationship Building – You may run into the occasional opportunity where you can affect meaningful change on your own, but you’re typically going to need a tribe to do it. Moreover, there will be ups and downs and moments when you’ll be ready to throw the idea out the window. In these moments, you’ll be glad you’ve got a tribe to pick you up and dust you off.
[bctt tweet=”You may occasionally be able to affect change on your own, but you’ll typically need a tribe to do it.”]
- Adaptability/Openness to Experience – Given the ever-changing circumstances of our constantly evolving business environment, being able to roll with the punches seems a pre-requisite. How could you lead change if you were simultaneously whining about the unapproved re-positioning of your cheese? (Do you even have a 27b/6?) I’ve lumped in openness to experience here as I see it as the other side of the change coin. As one side refers to the ability to handle change as it comes at you, the other deals with willingness to seek it out. Arthur Schopenhauer famously stated, “Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.” Genius hits that target because it’s ever searching for it. Otherwise, we’d be talking about a blind squirrel scenario. Having an infinite number of monkeys type a bit of Shakespeare isn’t genius; it’s dumb luck. If you want to hit the target that others aren’t aware of, those are your choices. You can either fire arrows randomly into the sky (Please don’t!), or you can work for it. Genius isn’t a form of magic. It’s generally the result of hard work. If you want to get in on that game you’ve got to continually seek it!
[bctt tweet=”Genius hits that target because it’s ever searching for it. “]
(Update: 11.18.2014 – An editing fail on my part led to the omission of the following point from the original version of this post.)
- Divergent & Integrative Thinking – As we move away from the era of short-term, profit-maximization, we’ll need to learn to seek possibilities via divergent thinking. We also need to learn to use integrative thinking to combine disparate concerns to afford a unified approach to decision-making. The idea of optimizing performance along what may seem to be opposed lines may feel cognitively dissonant at first, but this is purely a matter of perspective. Once you take stock of this framing, a few real-life examples of a different model can quickly cement a new way of perceiving the world. I recommend digging in on Roger L. Martin’s writing on the latter of these two ideas.
[bctt tweet=”As we move away from short-term, profit-maximization, we need to seek possibilities via divergent thinking.” via=”no”]
- Purpose – As passion fuels engagement, purpose maintains it. So how do we get it? Aaron Hurst, the founder of both Taproot and Imperative, states that purpose is something we get from relationships, doing something greater than ourselves, and personal growth. As radical intrapreneurs will take their share of lumps (change leaders always do), they’ll need the support and sense of belonging which good relationships can provide. I can’t count how many times I’ve “had it up to here,” when a peer has reminded me how far we’ve come and how close we are to achieving our goals. Giving up partway leaves our projects from coming to fruition and it might also leave pitfalls for the next folks who want to give it a try. So we must be sure we’re ready, willing, and able to commit to our causes as we’ll surely have to persevere through unforeseen challenges. (And there are so many causes in need of champions that we have really no choice but to grab the helm.)
[bctt tweet=”As passion fuels engagement, purpose maintains it.”]
All of these traits, from Obedience to Purpose, combine with their knowledge, skills and experience, to form a unique offering that only that person can provide. I think of this in terms of Nilofer Merchant’s idea of “Onlyness,” which she defines as “that thing that only that one individual can bring to a situation. It includes the journey and passions of each human. Onlyness is fundamentally about honoring each person: first as we view ourselves and second as we are valued. Each of us is standing in a spot that no one else occupies. That unique point of view is born of our accumulated experience, perspective, and vision. Some of those experiences are not as “perfect” as we might want, but even those experiences are a source for what you create.” I fully agree with Nilofer’s belief that we all have something special to bring to the party, if only we choose to believe in ourselves and cultivate these gifts.
If the lyrics of N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” are a reliable indicator, it would seem Dr. Dre subscribes to this concept as he stated, “It’s crazy to see people be what society wants them to be, but not me.” That approach has worked out pretty well for him.
The dustbin of history has scant sympathy for the plants and animals which don’t adapt to the evolutionary forces of their environments. The same goes for us.
Don’t allow yourself to be “buggy whipped.” Don’t be what society wants you to be.
Be different. Be the person that only you can be. Be a radical intrapreneur.
This post originally appeared at GlobalCEO.com.