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?

  • K-eM

    I work on a large team of linchpins.

    Our way of handling it is to allow each person to be the expert in their area. If someone has an opinion, idea, or solution that applies to another person’s expertise it is customary to offer it while acknowledging the expertise. We all realize that none of us has the monopoly of good ideas in our area and that often a combination of expertise results in the best solution.

    In that way we give each other value but also keep the interchange of ideas and solutions productive.

    The times we have problems is when those few people who think their way is THE way assert their ego, regardless of their expertise.

    • apingel

      I’ve had similar experiences: respectful discussion of ideas leads to great results; egotistical statements of will lead to a huge mess.

      What systems/methods/traditions do you have in place to help keep everything productive? Have you found good ways to prevent people’s asserting THEIR way, or heading off the ensuing brawl when/if it does happen?

      • K-eM

        We’ve been learning to develop productive relationships and are still working on it. But I think that 2 things have contributed to our positive advancement.

        1. This one is KEY! Our agency director and senior manager both model the concept at its best and encourage managers/supervisors to follow their example. We did have a couple people unwilling to take up the challenge and so they were encouraged to go elsewhere. That’s made it a lot easier.

        2. The results have been so dramatic and so positive compared to how it used to be, that those of us who have been around awhile are desperate to keep it moving in a positive direction. By working this way it has made each one of us look better individually because we all work better together as a team. Before we were fairly silo-ed.

        Needless to say, by following the direction of our leaders we’ve gone from almost certain death as an agency to one that people are excited about using.