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:
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?