Tag Archives: talents

Working with multiple linchpins

Recently I spent a day with a team I work with, while they prepared for a performance, and observed the following incident:

One woman made a joke about having a problem. Some people nearby didn’t realize it was a joke, and rumors started to spread that she had such-and-such problem. Solutions started to filter back through the crowd. She got angry because she didn’t need solutions – she didn’t even have a problem. Others got angry because they were only trying to help and got anger in return. The end result was a pretty major blow-up over an incredibly minor thing.

Yikes! What happened!

The problem is, this group is chock full of what Seth Godin calls Linchpins. The opposite of the mindless, replaceable cog-in-the-machine called for by factory-style corporations, a linchpin is a person who takes responsibility, who pays attention and thinks, who sees a problem and tries to solve it. A cog takes out the garbage every evening; a linchpin notices that the garbage is overflowing by noon and arranges for a larger trashcan.

In this case, we had a bunch of linchpins, who saw a problem and tried to solve it. Only we ended up with too many solutions, and not enough problems to go around.

Now Seth Godin would have you believe that linchpins are the wave of the future: mindless-cog style jobs will soon be done by robots and computers, and only linchpins will be employable. In the world he imagines, then, every organization will be chock full of linchpins. It sounds like a wonderful thing: all your employees thinking for themselves, solving their own problems? How marvelous! It’s only in practice that you realize why corporations like to hire mindless cogs: it’s a lot quieter.

How do you work with a bunch of linchpins?

I think Godin’s analysis is more or less correct, and that one way or another, we’re going to have to be linchpins to survive. That necessarily implies that we’re going to have to learn how to make large groups of linchpins work together. It’s not impossible: Google hires an extraordinary number of linchpins, and retains them pretty well, with pretty decent financial results at the end of it. DaVita Inc (a provider of dialysis treatments) calls each branch a “village” and expects its employees to take pride in their work, their village, and each other. So what does it take to make it work?

I don’t have all the answers, since this question just occurred to me this weekend, but these are the things I can think of to start:

Mutual Respect

As soon as someone says something that means more-or-less “That’s a stupid idea, and on top of that you’re ugly!” the conversation proceeds immediately down the tubes. There are lots of ways to say it (“Well I won’t do it that way” “Um… sure….” “Oh thank you Margaret dear, we always welcome your contributions!”) but they all mean that nothing productive is going to happen from here on out.

A problem-resolution method

In a group of linchpins you’re less likely to get an argument of “not my job” and more likely to get an argument of “I’ll do it, OK?”, but you still need some way to determine whose job it is. Depending on the size, dynamic, and goals of the group, this could be determined by public vote, by private vote, by a no-holds barred live debate, by quiet mediated discussion, by playing rock-paper-scissors, by having a leader who makes the final decision, by having designated areas of responsibility and whoever’s the expert in that area makes the final decision (plus a knock-down drag-out fight to determine in whose area of responsibility this problem lies). Google simply agrees to let their employees do their stuff 20% of the time if they’ll do Google’s stuff 80% of the time.

A clear mission

Even with a designated problem-resolution system, it’s still easy to get into irresolvable, foolish arguments if different people have different ideas of what constitutes a “good” solution. The only way to solve that one is to make sure we’re all agreed on what “good” is. Is it products that delight our customers? Is it a high profit margin? Is it being error-free? Is it making sure all of our members are as good as they can possibly be? What are we trying to accomplish, here? Then, during your live debate or quiet discussion, you have some standard to which you compare each proposed solution.

Commitment to the good of the group

In the end, I think this matters most to the long-term prospects of any sort of group. Which is more important: helping this group prosper, or winning the argument? Will you accept the results of the problem-resolution system, even if you think they’re stupid? Will you contribute to the solution even if it’s not the one you proposed? When everyone in the group agrees that the group’s needs supersede the members’ preferences, you can’t help but eventually find a solution.

What have you found helpful in dealing with multiple linchpins? What problems and solutions have I missed?

Are your weaknesses actually your talents?

Figuring out your talents is hard. Crucial, but hard. Especially your major talents, the ones that aren’t just, you know, “I happen to do this pretty well” but that are “Oh my gosh! Did you really just do that? That’s amazing!” — the ones that you can make a living off of because you do them better than almost anyone else.

And the really frustrating thing is that your major talents may be the things that you think are weaknesses.

Let me ‘xplain….

A semi-irrelevant book reference

I’m was reading my copy of The Gammage Cup (not an affiliate link because this isn’t really a recommendation, just a point of reference. Although it is a lovely children’s book, and certainly wouldn’t be a waste of your time, if you’re into children’s books). And the main character, Muggles, is kind of the town dunce. Everyone’s very kind to her, of course, because it wouldn’t be polite to taunt someone who’s simple-minded.

…except, as you read the book, you realize that she’s not, despite what everyone, including her, thinks. She’s very practical and thorough, and has a great talent for metaphor and simile that makes her advice very poetic. The problem is that no one else in the village is used to thinking in terms of metaphor or allegory. So when she says (in relation to the puffed-up village leaders in their fancy clothes) “A trout made into fish cakes is still trout” — everyone just thinks that she’s stating the obvious, and sympathizes with her foolishness. And when everyone you know tells you that you’re foolish, well, of course you’re going to believe it.

Do you think you’re bad because you are? Or because they say you are?

Many times, when someone says that you did badly, what they mean is that you did it differently than they would have. The question is which method is better, theirs or yours?

In many cases, this is obvious. If someone says that you threw a free-throw badly, it’s pretty clear whether it was bad or not: if it missed the basket, you did it badly.

But in many cases, it’s not obvious. In writing. In relationships. In business. Elvis Presley was kicked out of his high school’s glee club because they said he’d ruin their sound. And it’s entirely possible that he would have — he does have a very distinctive voice, which wouldn’t necessarily blend well with others’ voices. But does that mean Elvis’ music is bad? 147 best-selling albums say it isn’t.

What works better?

Of course, just because no one understands you doesn’t mean you’re an artist. But even in cases where there’s not a clear objective test, you can still watch for tendencies.

Do you have an easier time writing emails than the person who’s criticizing your writing? Who has more miscommunications? Who takes more back-and-forth iterations to get their point across? That person’s probably the worse writer.

Who spends more time fighting with their friends or family? Who has more friends? Who has closer friends? If your relationships are more successful than theirs, why are you listening to their advice?

What you have to remember is that most other people don’t know what they’re talking about any more than you do.

Homework: figuring out what to do

The common way to live, where you graduate high school, go to college, graduate college, get a job… in that model, picking your career is fairly easy. At least for most people, it goes like this:

You pick some stuff that looks interesting in college, possibly relating to what you did in high school or what your friends are doing. Maybe you change majors a few times.
Eventually you get sick of being in college, so you stick with your most recent choice, and graduate with a bachelor’s in that field.
Then you run searches on Monster.com, Craigslist, and whatever network you have, searching for jobs that relate to your degree. Someone offers you a job (maybe in that field, maybe not) and you stick with that career forever because you don’t know how to get out of it.

Sure, maybe it’s not fun. But you didn’t ever have to think really hard, and that’s the main thing.

Monetizing yourself is harder. Like Seth Godin, I believe that you’ll be safer, happier, and wealthier in the upcoming decades if you do something remarkable, that no one else can do. Which means you need to find that sweet spot of happiness in business: the intersection of what you like, what you’re good at, and what you can get paid for.

How do you do that? It’s kind of an iterative process: you try something and see if it works. If not, you see what needs to change and try again. It won’t come to you in a revelation, but if you keep thinking about it and pursuing it, a clear picture will start to emerge.

Your Assignment

(also called action steps, if you feel like being fancy)

Journal daily (at least 1 page) on any or all of the following topics

  • What I really enjoy doing

  • What I wish I could never do again
  • What feels “right” or “meaningful” to me
  • What I wish I could do better
  • What I think I do well
  • What I did today that I enjoyed
  • Why I enjoyed those things
  • Which of the things I did were of value to others
  • How I could monetize that value

Who’s the Best?

There are lots of things in life where you can clearly state what is “best”: in class, whoever scored highest on the test is the best student. In soccer, whoever won the World Cup is the best team. There are enough of them, in fact, that we frequently forget how many things in life cannot be clearly defined to be “best”.

Most pertinently, “best” can almost never be determined in business. When I was in college, “best” to me meant cheapest. When I graduated and got a “real job”, I was able to afford more expense, and “best” included durability and quality and price per unit (Now that my graduate student loans are coming due, “best” may go back to meaning cheapest.) If you’re handling neurotoxins, “best” means “safest”. There are lots of ways to define best, which means there are lots of ways to be the best.

If you can’t be the cheapest, can you be the fastest? If you can’t be the most insightful writer, can you be the funniest? Use what you do best.

How to Invest

In a forum I hang out in, I recently received a private message from another user, asking about investing. He had $100/month to spare, and wanted to make good use of it. My advice to him follows:

Hey, John:

Sorry about the delay; I haven’t logged into the forums much this week. I’m not a certified financial advisor and I don’t know the details of your situation, so just be aware that what follows is generic rather than specific advice, and you should ignore anything that doesn’t sound like it applies to you.

Stock Market

How best to invest depends a lot on what your goals are for yourself and for your money. When most people think of investing, they think of the stock market. There are 2 smart ways (and a whole bunch of stupid ways) to invest there:

1) You don’t want to have to mess with it. If you invest $100/month at (an average of)10% interest for 30 years, you’ll have invested $36,000 but you’ll have an account worth $226,000. If you’re just looking for something to keep you off the street in your old age, this is a good method. You set up an account to automatically withdraw $100 from your checking account and invest it some index fund — it really doesn’t matter which — and forget about it.

2)You think business and finance is awesome, you love analyzing financial statements, and you have several hours per week to spend on analysis. In that case, you may enjoy investing in individual stocks. The stock market is full of stupid and emotional people, and there are plenty of stocks out there that are massively over- or under-priced. But you have to be willing to read — really read — a document 1/4″ thick, look at all the numbers, compare them to the numbers from last year, figure out how the company’s doing, keep up on news and trends that might affect this company, etc…. for every company you want to invest in. It can be cool, but it can also be a full-time job that takes training. If it interests you, I’d recommend investing the first several months’ worth of money in books on accounting and business and stock-market terminology. You can call any company and get their prospectus — that’s the 1/4″ document with lots of small print — for free, so look it over and practice your business analysis.

Anything between these two extremes, I’m going to say is stupid. I’m willing to entertain suggestions on what someone thinks isn’t stupid, but unless and until I see it, I feel pretty comfortable calling them all stupid. If you aren’t willing to put in your hours of analysis, it’s dangerous and risky to buy stocks & bonds; you’re putting your money into something with no safeguards, with no idea what’s actually going on. If you’re going to go in mutual funds anyway, then any time spent analysing is a waste: mutual funds all go up and down together, in sync with the market, and professionally-managed mutual funds often under-perform monkey-with-a-dartboard-manged mutual funds. Pick one with low fees and forget about it.

Real Estate Investing

Another place people often think of is real estate. Real estate investing can also be very cool, and your analysis doesn’t necessarily have to involve long columns of tiny numbers. There are lots of ways to make money in real estate: buy-rent-hold, fix-and-flip, short sales, lease-option, etc. Short sales and lease option are making good money in this market; if you have the credit to afford a property right now, you can get good deals for buy-rent-hold. Again, if this interests you, I would invest the first several months’ worth of money in education, and I would see if I could find a current real estate investor to help me out.

Invest In Yourself

Next possibility: invest in your own brand. The internet has made it totally possible for people to make a living doing things they (at least kinda) enjoy. You might want to start your own business, or make crafts and sell them online, or run a website on a topic that interests you, or write a blog, or make videos, or whatever. If you have something that you’ve been thinking of doing, use your money to buy business cards or a domain name or materials for your business. (If I had $100/month to invest, I would use it to try assorted advertising campaigns for my partner’s business, to figure out which are the most effective.)

If you don’t have an idea of what you’d like to do, but the build-my-monetization-potential sounds good, then I’d put the money into something low-risk/low-yield, like a short-term CD, a government I-bond, or just an interest-bearing Paypal account. My extra monthly money goes into my Paypal account, and I just save it up for use when I want to develop a new income stream; that’s what made it possible for me to start up my website when Steve Pavlina pointed out SBI as a good method. So save it up while you study possible monetization plans and make decisions about what you want to do.

Another possibility in the investing-in-yourself line is to look at what you want to do. Would you like to get into management in your company, but don’t have the necessary degrees? Go back to school. Would you like another career entirely, but don’t have the necessary skills? Look into workshops or training-style classes you can take. Do you have a hobby that you think you could make a business? Read some books on starting a small business.

Investing Summary

So, I realize that it’s probably not the “Go here, do this” answer you were looking for, but the long and the short of it is that step 1 has to be deciding what you want. I would put the money in a savings account until you know what your goal is, and then you’ll have it ready and waiting for you.