Saturday, March 3, 2012

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? By Seth Godin

In Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, author Seth Godin assembles a surprisingly large collection of ideas, tips, strategies and anecdotes about becoming a linchpin, the person that an organization can't do without. Although many of his examples are targeted at the business environment, Linchpin is also about life strategies that can be applied to nearly any undertaking. The book is filled with so many thought-provoking ideas, many almost at the level of one-liners, that it would not be surprising to have separate readers come away with significantly different impressions. I will be highlighting the points that I found most interesting, rather than giving a thorough summary.

My principle takeaway from Linchpin is that creative, non-linear results delivered consistently and with humanity is the secret to becoming indispensable. Godin calls linchpins "artists", and points to three critical characteristics:

1. They give a gift. Some exceptional part of what they do is above and beyond what they expect in return.
2. They produce results that cause change in the world around them.
3. They ship. They prepare their work, but then share/publish/give it so that other people can use/appreciate/consume/benefit from it.

Godin explains that your work as an artist is to simply ship things that make change. Everything else is unimportant.
Linchpin begins with a relatively pessimistic assessment of the state of the business environment. Godin argues that many of our business practices originate in the assembly-line management style that emerged from the industrial revolution, when one of the primary goals was to break down production into a series of simple, largely repeatable tasks that could be performed by mostly interchangeable workers with specific but limited training. An employee's value to the business was confined to the income they generated minus the wage they were paid. By mechanizing the steps, businesses could achieve economy of scale and the emphasis was on decreasing the cost of labor by simplifying the requirements for any particular task. Today, even though there are still companies that are succeeding with this type of business model, there are a very limited number of them in each industry, and they are very price and cost-sensitive. The business ecosystem supports a variety of other approaches, however, and many other businesses succeed by providing better service, more flexibility, creativity and competing on other factors other than price. As he points out, retail businesses don't try to compete with Walmart on price, that battle is largely over. Instead, businesses that depend on any of those other non-price factors need employees who show superior initiative, creativity and/or people skills. Unfortunately, he argues, our education system is still oriented to producing factory workers who are able to follow instructions, master a body of existing knowledge, work hard at clearly defined tasks, and expect that over time, their diligence, hard work and obedience will be rewarded. The harsh reality is that because of a variety of factors from globalization to the continued factory mindset, these types of system-educated workers are more likely to become low-cost, outsourceable cogs than someone highly in demand. For example, is a transcription service that uses Amazon's mechanical turk to break audio recordings into small chunks that are transcribed by a fleet of low-cost typists distributed all over the world, thereby providing quality transcriptions at a fraction of the cost (and employee wages) of a traditional service. However, after painting a pretty grim picture of the existing environment, Godin begins to point to a number of opportunities to adapt and thrive within this difficult ecosystem. One of the points is that knowledge work has transformed the balance of power from the factory owner to the factory worker. Previously, the factory required a huge capital investment, and it was far easier for a factory owner to replace a worker than it was for the worker to create a new factory where his skills could be applied. However, with knowledge work, the "factory" is often the mind, or the mind + a computer, and so it is now easy for the worker to "build their own factory". 

The concept of shipping is critical to the linchpin mentality. Part of the discipline (and the point) of creativity is sharing. As you force yourself to ship, to finish something and share it with others, you enable the artistic process (both giving and receiving) to happen. Develop the discipline of getting things to a shippable state, and then pull the trigger. Sometimes this can simply involve shipping whatever you have at a fixed cutoff, and making that commitment to yourself and others. For example, Saturday Night Live must ship. That's the point, and it's built into the show. Over time, you will become better at producing higher quality results when you ship. A common fear barrier ("the resistance") is that we don't have a good enough idea, or enough good ideas. Godin argues that it's far more effective to attempt to generate lots of bad ideas, and *ship* them than to obsess about finding the one good idea. With practice, good ideas will emerge from the discipline of preparing bad ideas for release, and bad ideas that ship have an infinitely better chance of creating positive change than good ideas that never get implemented. As an additional strategy, Godin suggests putting aside ideas that don't quickly take shape, where you aren't able to make rapid, concrete progress and complete them. This technique requires some finesse, however, because it's important not to avoid everything that is difficult, while at the same time avoiding the trap of not shipping because it's too hard to get things "ready".

Linchpin takes the bias towards action to a whole new level with the idea that there is only minimal difference between knowing and not knowing when you begin something. Progress has three states: inaction, action, and completion. While this is another idea that requires considerable finesse to be practical, the takeaway is that progress is made by doing, not by waiting until we have everything just right so that we can start with a clear plan.

Godin also devotes considerable attention to describing the importance of the "gift" exchange. As mentioned above, giving is a critical part of being a linchpin. Because of the power of internet communications, there is a new class of people who are not friends but "friendlies". If you spend too much time attempting to market and sell to people you don't know, you are likely to cause strains and your art will suffer. However, if you spend time attempting to give "gifts" to your friends AND friendlies, you will likely see that your circle expands and opens new opportunities. It may turn out that there is no clear economic benefit to giving your gift, but often being true to what you want to do is rewarding itself. 

One of the more surprising ideas in Linchpin is that asking for permission to do something new and risky is largely a cop-out. "I want to do something, but my boss won't let me. Of course she won't, because it means that if it fails, she gets the blame, but if it succeeds, you get the credit." If you believe in something, take the risk to make it happen, accept failure on your own shoulders and be very quick to share the credit if you succeed.

Learn to depersonalize: people tend to have a much easier time not blaming others when events are random or the result of forces we can't really change, like the weather. However, we have little actual ability to change the people around us, and should learn to treat events caused by others just as impersonally.  Switching to "wow, I wonder why that happened" instead of "How dare he!" is the first critical step to being solution oriented. As an example, Richard Branson, when faced with a canceled flight out of the Caribbean, didn't spend time fretting about the problem, but instead went immediately to inquire about a charter flight, and then put up on a board, "flights home, X dollars" and was able to fill the charter and get home on time.

Another technique is "if only". Learn to say to yourself, I could do this "if only". Then address the specific issues. Don't treat this an an excuse, but rather as an empowerment technique that can isolate limiting factors in a specific and actionable way, moving from a blockage to the idea that you could succeed given a few tweaks. Naturally, it helps to identify things that you can control or influence as part of the "if only" condition.

One of the ideas that was most controversial to me was about avoiding thrashing. Per Godin, as a project progresses, it becomes important to limit the number of people who can change the final result. The cycle of see, change. debate, consider, build, see, change is important to have early on, but once the direction has been established, if that sort of change happens closer towards the end, it can delay or sink the entire project. So attempt to have a single person with go/no-go authority, and present them the choice of shipping on time, or accepting/handling lots of late-stage feedback. I tend to agree that it's very easy for lots of late stage changes to create thrashing, but building iteratively with shorter release cycles seems to be a better approach. Perhaps, though, shorter release cycles are really just another way of decreasing the amount of required/available late-stage input.

Another key concept in Linchpin is the idea of "the resistance". The resistance is a general term for the forces of fear, uncertainty, doubt, inertia and overt hostility that conspire to block change. Many times these forces are internal, while another times they are actually external. Godin points to anxiety as an extremely useless part of the resistance. Fear is productive, it warns you away from danger, while anxiety is imagining what could go wrong. He uses the example of a driver who, when spotting flashing lights in the rear view mirror, begins to imagine a traffic stop, misunderstandings, resisting arrest, being jailed and eating prison food. Learn to recognize the signs of the downward spiral of anxiety, and abort it at an early stage. As a personal example, I have found that my tendency to replay arguments in my head, and in particular to imagine the actual dialogue for the "rematch", is a particularly useless cycle. It allows my anger to escalate nearly unchecked against the mental strawman, while the actual conversation with a real person always diverges radically from the first word of the imagined script. I can break the cycle by recognizing the pattern and focusing on the key points of how I feel and what needs to change, not the intricacies of scoring points in an imagined contest of verbal swords. 

I would definitely recommend reading Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?. There are a  multitude of ideas, and you are sure to find a few that will inspire, challenge and provoke you. I listened to the Overdrive unabridged audiobook version from the San Jose Public Library. 

Rating: 4 stars

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