Seth Godin wants you to become indispensable

When I was young, I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark with my mom. At the conclusion of the opening sequence, as Indy’s escape plane flies away, my mom leaned over and said, “Oh my God. Is the whole movie going to be like this?” I had a very similar feeling when – on page 20 of his new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?Seth Godin asks the reader for “one last favor before you start…”

“Before I start? Is the rest of the book going to be like this?!?”

Divided into 13 chapters, each chapter is made up of a large number of small sections, very few of which are longer than a page; one section clocked in at just one word (even though the section title is 52 words long). Though related to the chapters that hold them, these little sections seem almost like a stream of consciousness of questions and answers, insights and mandates. To risk another pop-culture metaphor, I felt at times like I was inside a Robin Williams improv routine; as soon as one idea comes out, another is liberated and thrown out into the mix.

I like this book. Or, more accurately, I like the ideas in this book. On my first read through the book I chose to dog-ear pages instead of my usual of writing in the margins. This picture shows the results of my dog-ears.

In just over 200+ pages, Seth Godin asks, explores, and answers many of the ideas questions that have been on my mind lately, especially as it relates to work and the possibility of work as art. I’ve been considering this not just for myself but for my sons, one a junior and the other a senior in high school. This book is a must read for anyone considering their own future, or what to tell their kids about how they can live their own lives.

There are many themes and ideas within this book that different people will lock onto. I have the feeling that I will be exploring the ideas in the book for many weeks to come. For me, though, the two that jumped out were the discussions of “Indoctrination: How we got here” and “The Resistance”.

The former explains how we have all – or nearly all – become “factory workers” and compares this with what we are capable of – art. The latter exposes the “scaredy cat” (my term, not his) inside our brains – our lizard brains. This part of our brain was very effective – and very essential – in our survival and evolution, but now is getting in our way. The key to overcoming any adversary is a knowledge of that adversary, and he gives us an excellent understanding of this particular one.

Earlier I mentioned an especially short section with an unusually long section title. As it turns out, that section – title and all – really sums up the entire book for me:

“Wait! Are You Saying That I Have to Stop Following Instructions and Start Being an Artist? Someone Who Dreams Up New Ideas and Makes Them Real? Someone Who Finds New Ways to Interact, New Pathways to Deliver Emotion, New Ways to Connect? Someone Who Acts Like a Human, Not a Cog? Me?”

Yes.

By the time you finish reading Linchpin, you will believe that you can do all of this. All you have to do, as Seth reminds us again and again, is to make the choice.

Who is working for whom?

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, Dan Pink‘s new book Drive touches on something that I’ve been thinking about for many years: the role – or lack thereof – of mastery in the workplace. I’ve been going through my archives pulling together my thoughts on the subject over the years and found the following, originally posted in April 2004 under the title “Employee-Employer Relations in a Knowledge Based Economy”.

I’ve long believed that the prevelance of knowledge work in organizations today will (eventually) fundamentally shift the employee – employer relationship. In many ways, knowledge workers will come to be “self-employed” in the sense that they are working to improve themselves and to make an impact on the world at large and not just within the company they happen to be “working for” at the time.

With 401k plans allowing for retirement planning independent of a specific job or pension plan, and for various other reasons that are well documented elsewhere, knowledge workers don’t seem to be staying in the same place for their entire careers anymore. With retirement taken care of, other things today’s employees need to consider include health/life insurance, etc. A truly self-employed knowledge worker also has to worry about the business end of things, such as billing’invoicing, taxes, payroll, etc. etc.

By working “for” a company, knowledge workers are in many ways simply out-sourcing the business end of being self-employed so they can focus on the job itself.

This obviously raises some interesting questions for organizations….

And interesting questions for individuals. Many entrepreneurs have trouble with their fledgling business because they started the business to do what they love to do, not to “run a business”. Finding a company that supports your desire to learn and grow and do what you love while taking care of the business side for you is a good deal.

I don’t think it was a very practical option back in 2004, at least not a widespread one. And it may still not be a practical option for everyone. But I have hope that it is spreading more and more and that companies, as well as individuals, are recognizing the value in this kind of relationship.

How do you see your relationship with your company? With your employees? In your organization, who is working for whom?

Some new thoughts on “my dad is a knowledge worker”

Several years ago (has it really been almost 5 years?!?) I wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek blog post entitled “My dad is a knowledge worker“:

While I was reading Martin Roell’s Terminology: “Knowledge Worker”, a TV commercial I saw a while back came to mind: elementary school students were telling the class what their dads did for a living, and after a couple of well defined jobs (policemen, construction, etc.) were announced one boy proudly stood up and stated, “My dad’s a pencil pusher!” I don’t remember what the commercial was for, but the imagery stuck with me I think for the same reason Geoffrey Rockwell, as described by Martin, doesn’t like the term “knowledge worker”: the job title gives you no real idea of what the job is.

Apropos of what I’m not entirely sure, but this old post came to mind earlier today when I was thinking about some ideas related to Work Literacy.  It occurred to me that calling someone – say a Systems Engineer like me – a “knowledge worker” would be like calling Albert Pujols an “athlete”.  (Not that I’m comparing myself to Albert!)

Sure, he is an athlete, but he is a very specific type of athlete, in a sport that requires a very specific set of skills and experiences. You can not get across what he does, or what he must be able to do, with a generic description of “athlete”. Like all athletes, though, there is a core set of skills and abilities that Pujols must have simply to be able to consider participating as an athlete in his specific sport. Fitness, endurance, flexibility, etc., all things common to most athletes.

In the same way, each individual knowledge/concept worker is a very specific type of k/c worker, requiring a very specific set of skills and experiences in order to do the work they do.  But like athletes, there is a core set of skills and abilities that anyone who would be a k/c worker must have. And that core set of skills and abilities is, I believe, what the term “work literacy” should encompass.

The question then, of course, is what makes up this core set of skills and abilities?

(As you may be thinking, I am not the first to raise this question – visit WorkLiteracy.com for more on the subject. On completing this post, I realized that it was simply my way of putting the question into a context that made sense to me.  I hope it makes sense to you, too.)

Technology makes it easy to ‘remember,’ the trick is learning how to forget

As a follow up to my last post, The importance of forgetting, it seemed appropriate to republish the following, which I originally posted in March 2007.

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A blog post I wrote a year ago. Playing around with David Allen’s Getting Things Done. A recent article in Fast Company. Reading Steven Johnson’s book Mind Wide Open over Thanksgiving. Autism.

All of these things came together in my mind over the past few days. (If the internet is a global cocktail party, and blogs are its conversations, I’m the guy who takes it all in and thinks of something to say as he’s driving home from the party. At least that’s how it feels sometimes, especially with topics such as this one.)

Just over a year ago, I wrote the following:

My early days in Knowledge Management included a lot of time developing, deploying, and getting people to use “knowledge repositories.” (At least trying to get people to use them.) A worthwhile endeavor in some regards, I’ve always had misgivings about the whole idea, at least how it has been implemented in most cases. The cheapness of mass storage these days, and the way we just keep everything, has nagged at this misgiving over the past couple of years.

I finally realized one day that the problem has become not, “How do we remember all this knowledge that we’ve learned?” but rather, “How do forget all this knowledge we’ve accumulated that we no longer need so we can focus on what we do need?”

This same question has come up, albeit in a different context, in that other domain in which I blog: autism.

MOM – Not Otherwise Specified recently posted a very interesting piece about the role of memory, and the inability to purge it, in autistic behaviors. In her post, she quotes Paul Collins’ book The trouble with Tom:

Memory is a toxin, and its overretention – the constant replaying of the past – is the hallmark of stress disorders and clinical depression. The elimination of memory is a bodily function, like the elimination of urine. Stop urinating and you have renal failure: stop forgetting and you go mad.

This also plays on my long-held dislike of best practices, at least how most people implement them. If you are so caught up in what has happened before, it is hard to get caught up in what is to come.

In the context of mastery, especially of something new, it is sometimes hard to know when to forget what you’ve learned. You have to build up a solid foundation of basic knowledge, the things that have to be done. And at some point you start to build up tacit knowledge of what you are trying to master. And this, the tacit knowledge that goes into learning and mastery, is probably the hardest thing to learn how to forget.

Sometimes, though, it is critical to forget what you know so you can continue to improve. Witness Tiger Wood’s reinvention of his swing, twice, and Neil Peart’s reinvention of his drumming.

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The importance of forgetting

Yesterday I mentioned that one of my key mind mapping tools is Personal Brain.  If you’ve ever used the Brain, you know that “mind map” is a bit of an understatement of its capabilities and how easy it is to accumulate a lot of knowledge and interconnected information.  Over the past couple of years my work project brain has proven invaluable for me and my team as a way to collect important information, documents, and – best of all – connections between the disparate parts of the project.

I’m at a point now, though, where the project is going through significant changes, almost to the point of being a “new” project. My dilemma: How to “forget” the parts of the old project that are no longer important and start with an “empty mind” to build up the new project without the baggage of the old.

In his book Brain Rules, author John Medina writes, “It’s easy to remember, and easy to forget, but figuring out what to remember and what to forget is not nearly so easy.” Later in the book, Medina describes why forgetting is so important:

The last step in declarative processing is forgetting.  The reason forgetting plays a vital role in our ability to function is deceptively simple. Forgetting allows us to prioritize events.  Those events that are irrelevant to our survival will take up wasteful cognitive space if we assign them the same priority as events critical to our survival.

This is no less true in the context of knowledge/concept work.

Fortunately, the Brain allows you to forget “thoughts” without deleting them altogether.  Unfortunately (for some), the Brain doesn’t offer any help on which thoughts to forget and which to remember.

That’s completely up to me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Lessons from mind mapping the cars of the world

A mind map is a great tool, and mind maps should be a key part of any knowledge/concept worker’s tool kit.  To supplement the hand drawn maps that are scattered throughout my notebooks and across whiteboards, I primarily use two pieces of mind mapping software:  MindManager (Pro 6) and Personal Brain (5).  (In the interest of completeness, Inspiration also has a home here in the Miller household, used by the boys for their school work.)

Recently I’ve been working on a mind map of the Cars of the World (personal, not work related). When I first started the map, in Mind Manager, it seemed like it would be a pretty straightforward exercise. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this might not be as straightforward as I originally thought.

My original intent was to simply provide a kind of “quick reference guide” for my son to the makes and models of cars typically seen in the US. I envisioned what would essentially amount to a big poster of cars, and chose MindManager to execute.  My first thought was to have countries as the first sub-topic level, but a quick hand-sketched map convinced me that I should have the continents as the first level with the countries at the second level, and the car make/model falling under that.

Here’s a snapshot of part of that map so far (it is, to put it mildly, a work in progress). Click on the map for full-size image, or here for the MindManager .mmap file:

cotw-snapshot

As seen in the snapshot above, I started out by simply listing the various brands of cars associated with a given country. For the European brands, this worked out OK since no one country has an excessive number of unique car brands.  This is not the case, however, in the United States or Japan where there are many (many) different car brands. Subsequently, the list of brands shown on the map under the U.S. and Japan were quite lengthy. Having lived in the U.S. all my life, it was easy for me to further divide the various U.S. brands into parent companies, I’m sure the same can be done for the Japanese brands.

The snapshots below give an idea of how the two options look on the map.

cotw-north-america-and-asia

Of course, once you start bringing the actual car companies into the discussion the question of how to represent takes a whole new turn.  For example, Chrysler is indeed a US company, but as a result of recent events is now owned by Fiat, and Italian company.  Obviously it doesn’t make sense in the context of this map to move Chrysler and its brands under Italy on the map, any more than moving the Opel (Germany) or Holden (Australia) brands to the U.S. because they are owned by GM (at least, I think GM still owns them).

Mind Manager does have some tools that allow you to connect and establish relationships between individual topics, but I found that to really track and display a large number of relationships and groupings of topics The Personal Brain is a more useful tool.  I threw together a quick brain showing some of the relationships I’ve mentioned, unfortunately my Brain 5 trial has expired and it looks like I’ll have to either reinstall v4.5 or buy 5 before I can export to HTML and post it here.

Like I said at the beginning, mind maps are an effective tool.  As this “simple” project shows, though, you still need to put a little bit of thought into exactly which type of mind map tool you use and how you actually use the tool to come up with your desired product.

Cynefin, concept work, and the role of deliberate practice

Over the past week or so there have been several blogs that have helped me pull together a bunch of things I’ve been trying to connect in my mind for a while.

First was Harold Jarche’s post Working Together, in which he looked at Shawn Callahan’s ideas on group work against the backdrop of Tom Haskins discussion of the Cynefin and TIMN frameworks. Next was Tony Karrer and Ken Allan‘s discussion of the role of deliberate practice in the development of skills less than that of an expert, based on Tony’s question:

Any thoughts on how deliberative practice relates to becoming something less than an expert.  It seems it should be applicable to all levels of achievement, but everything I’m reading is the study of becoming an expert.  Is that just aspirational, or is deliberative practice also studied for quick attainment of proficiency?

Read Tony and Ken’s posts, along with the comments, for all the discussion including my comment:

…the application of deliberate practice is not the most efficient way to achieve basic proficiency, even though it would be effective. As proficiency turns into literacy and then mastery, I think that deliberate practice becomes not just the most effective way but the most efficient as well.

After some thought, and several pages of scribbles, scratches, and doodles in my notebook, I put together the following table that pulls together several different topics using Cynefin as a guide.

cynefin-concept-work

The first two columns come directly from the definition of the Cynefin framework. I had just a bit of trouble in the third column, primarily in trying to figure out what the best term would be to carry out “simple” work tasks.  I’m not completely happy with the term “assembly line”, but I think it gets the idea across. I am open to any suggestions to improve this.

I was also not quite sure about the use of the terms in the “Skill Level” column, specifically the order of “fluency” and “literacy”.  Again, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.

The heart of the table, especially as it applies to the original question that Tony asked, is the column “How to Achieve”.  Various levels of deliberate practice could have been included in each row, but in looking at each level of complexity as a stand-alone level it seems to me for the “simple” and “complicated” tasks that deliberate practice, at least as defined by Geoff Colvin in “Secrets of Greatness” and the more in-depth Talent is Overrated, is overkill. And probably an unreasonable expectation to have of people who just want to do their job and go home, which is more typical of those performing this type of work.

It is once you move into the area of complex and chaotic work that the benefits gained from deliberate practice are needed, in fact necessary.  Not only must you be able to apply what is already known in ways that have already been identified, you need to be able to learn new things and figure out how to apply them in new ways. That is the nature of mastery, and the ultimate result of deliberate practice.

Do you have a coach? Do you need a coach?

If you ask a competitive athlete if they have / need a coach the answers will likely range from “Yes” to “Of course” to “Are you kidding?”. If you ask a knowledge worker, or concept worker, the same question the answers will likely range from “No” to “Huh?” to “Are you kidding?” Obviously, the “Are you kidding” answer has very different meanings in the two different contexts.

I’ve often wondered why this is: why is it acceptable, expected even, that athletes have and need coaches but considered a luxury if someone has a work/life coach and actually a detriment – a sign of weakness – if someone wants or needs a work/life coach?

The discussion around a recent question on LinkedIn got me thinking about this again:

Q: If you can’t afford a coach, what are you doing to support your professional growth?
A: I love (?) the assumptive nature of this question: that everyone needs a coach;…  Do professionals need coaches? No, certainly not.

The answer I quote above is just part of one response, but nearly all of the answers (so far) seem to dismiss the idea that a professional coach is desirable or needed.  The alternatives range from talk with friends, study the success of others, and read and continue to develop your knowledge on the subject of your job.

Going back to the world of sports, such an approach would be a sure path to the loser’s circle (unless you are Roger Federer, of course).  What is it about our work as professionals in business that makes us different from the work of professionals in sports?

From knowledge work to concept work

The nature of knowledge work, and the value of the term itself, is a much discussed question.  See, for instance, this conversation on the nature of knowledge work from earlier this year.  Although I don’t believe that the term “knowledge worker” is irrelevant, I do share Tony Karrers’s unease with the almost generic application of the term:

I’ve often been a little bothered by the fact that we categorize the a person working in a call center handling customer service requests in the same category as an engineer working in R&D – they are both called knowledge workers. That’s not as helpful as it should be.

To make the distinction more useful, Tony prefers the term “Concept Worker”.

That’s why I’m liking the idea of referring to work that involves figuring out unknowns as concept work and the people doing this work as concept workers. This more succinctly and clearly differentiates the issue for me.

I like it, too.  (Except for the “worker” part, of course, but I think we are stuck with that for now.)