Linchpin

In early April 5th, I had the chance to participate in a free webinar with Linchpin author Seth Godin, thanks to Polar Unlimited’s service readitfor.me.  Although I haven’t read the book, the webinar gave me a good feel for the book and the author.  Here is what was discussed:

What is a Linchpin, and why do we need them?

Godin believes that in organizations worth doing business with or worth working for, each has at least one person who shows up to make a difference.  In a car, the linchpin is a tiny piece of hardware that holds the wheel onto the axle of a vehicle.  He has been studying successful people and organizations for over ten years, and based on that research, he believes that we are experiencing a shift in the way our economy works, a shift from the industrial age.  I didn’t get a chance to ask him how he defines successful (I’m sure he explains it in the book), so I couldn’t help wondering if his definition of success might predispose his research towards a certain type of individual.

Godin said that he was seeing via email and other sources that people were in pain, because they did what they believed they were supposed to be doing to achieve professional growth.  In large part, he believes those individuals are suffering because they were anticipating having the career of their parents, and that’s no longer the case.  We have the choice to fit in or stand out, and  fitting in is a race to the bottom.  Godin says that the days of Taylor and Ford are gone, and that we are not working for speed and volume any more.  Rather, we are working towards what he calls “a linchpin economy”, where people who choose to make a difference will be rewarded.

Why write this book?  Why now?

The flip side is that this new work context affords opportunity.  If you want to be a coal miner, you can start your own coalmine or go work for someone else.  Very few owners work in their own coalmines!  Godin argues (as many before him have) that owning the means of production changes the game for all of us.  What has shifted now is that you can own your own laptop, your own blog, your own TV station, etc..  Therefore, people who do the work can own the system.  If you can get out in front, the world will come to find you, not the other way around.  Ten to twenty years from now, people will kick themselves because this is when the doors are open, and people are finding their seats at the table.

What is the resistance, and why is it so strong?

If the world belongs to people who do art, who lead, who invite interactions … everyone doesn’t do it because we’re scared.  We evolved that way.  Our prehistoric brain (sometimes called the lizard brain) is the basis for reproduction, fear, anger, revenge.  That is the one that doesn’t want to be last, it’s the one that panics about turbulence when you’re in an airplane, it’s the one that keeps you from stepping forward to shaking someone’s hand at a trade show.  There is a book called The War of Art which addresses this nicely.  In short, there is a voice of resistance inside of us that says … maybe I’ll do that tomorrow, the economy is not very good, this is not the right time … and that gets amplified by school, by your boss, by your mother-in-law.  In other words, your lizard brain is pushing you to do the opposite of what will work in today’s economy.

Why do you believe that people who use social media are giving in to the resistance?

Godin argues that there is the risk of abuse or addictive behaviors with these technologies.  He says that you can write the email that will change everything or write a tweet.  It makes you feel like you are busy as you move through the day, but that hour or two or three a day took up the time of something else.  What did you give up?  Many people use the tools well, but others use it to avoid scary tasks.  Godin says that “the bravest thing you can do is put yourself on a diet” by abstaining or limiting your use of these technologies.  Do the difficult work, the things that will get you in trouble.  What would happen?!

“The challenge, then, is to create an environment where the lizards snoozes.  You can’t beat it, so you must seduce it.”  How do you seduce the lizard brain?

In turbulence, the lizard brain wins.  In fact at any time, the lizard brain is better equipped to win.  So, use it as a compass for what is important, and what is not.  His friend John was terribly frightened by turbulence, but he also noticed that planes generally don’t crash due to turbulence, so he smiles when his lizard brain panics.  It is futile to try to shut those emotions down.  Rather, anytime the lizard brain tells you what to do, acknowledge that it won’t go away, and focus instead on the emotion to understand what’s happening.  A great visual artist like Picasso, he didn’t paint like Dali, he did work that got him in trouble.  Bob Dylan was booed offstage in the 1960s, and at other times too.  One of the costs of ignoring the lizard brain is that those things might happen.  If you are not willing to be laughed at, you have signed up for a life of mediocrity.

What did the resistance take over your life?  Can you give some concrete examples?

The entire goal of public school is to get you to fit in, and Seth Godin says he fell victim to that.  Kids make fun of your outfit, what you said in class, doing the drill wrong at practice.  He wasn’t good at fitting in.  His English teacher said that she was the bane of his existence, he wasn’t going to amount to anything.  But the world has changed now, and the people that challenge the status quo are the ones being successful.  He does still encounter vague feelings of fear.  As he was working on Linchpin, he deleted parts of the book, put it away for periods of time … but in the end he finally got it done.

Why did  you turn off the comments off on your blog?

He has written every day for 8-9 years, and when he had comments on the blog, he found the comments were for the most part the 1% of people who didn’t like what he had to say.  They would criticize it loudly and angrily, and so he found himself writing and re-writing what he wanted to say.  Two paragraphs became five paragraphs, and in the end, the people that didn’t like him were taking the fun out of his posts.  Maintaining and responding to comments was also difficult if he wanted to keep up with sharing his own ideas.  So it was either stop dealing with the comments, or stop writing completely.  He felt that for himself and the other 99% of readers, the choice was to write.  Making that decision has freed him.  He hasn’t read the comments on his book on Amazon.  He reads and writes back to 100s of people a day via email, but he doesn’t want to respond to angry anonymous people to explain and justify his writing.

Explain the concept of shipping, and why it is so important …

That is my slogan – I ship.  The lizard brain doesn’t have issues with you writing long impassioned letters and never sending them.  The closer to ship, the more meetings, the more lawyers to polish off the rough edges.  The answer is simple – because the closer you get to shipping, the more you thrash.  Early on, Seth figured out how to trash at the beginning rather than at the end – by planning for the thrash at the beginning rather than at the end.  There is no project that he has tried that he hasn’t finished.

Godin provided a specific example.  At 24, he was responsible for managing a line of computer games.  He put some of his ideas out there, and he managed to get 40 engineers out of 60 to work on his project.  He had seen the VP of Marketing and VP of Engineering wait until the end of projects to look at the work in progress, and then require a bunch of adjustments at the end that would result in significant changes and/or delay the shipment.   His solution was to meet with David, the CEO.  He shared the script, the art, etc., and said that the team would not start programming until the CEO signed off saying he wouldn’t change it later.  He had 15 engineers standing around outside out of the CEO’s office, so the CEO understood how much time was being wasted.  So the CEO spent an hour, and Seth saved the company.  In short, figure out what what the most important decisions are, and MAKE THEM NOW.  Making them later costs too much.

“In the Linchpin Economy, the winners are artists who give gifts.”  Can you explain what you mean by this?

In the 1600s, it wouldn’t have been easy to explain the Industrial Revolution.  He describes art as a human being doing personal work for others.  If you do more than you are paid for, doing work without a manual – that is art.  Louis Hyde The Gift explains why art must be generous.  If you do it just for money then it becomes a transaction.  Generous gifts change the other person and bring us closer together.  The iPhone is designed better than what we paid for – art in the generosity in the detail of the design, so the designer is acting as an artist.  Which, yes, has now generated revenue.  Art is a thank you note to someone.  It’s a gift from one human being to another.

Apple has 7% of the marketshare, but 35% of the profits, are there any lessons learned in that?

Yes.  The race to the bottom will be won by the cheapest.  Because there is no art at Dell, why not just buy a generic personal computer?  Apple wins because there is no easy substitute.  Can you eliminate easy alternatives?  Cheaper is comodified.  There are always going to be people who will insist on paying less, either because they don’t value it or they don’t care. Do you want to pay $29 for a copy of the Mona Lisa, or $1B for the original?  If you’re going to be an artist, you want to be original!

The book describes seven key abilities of a linchpin.  Godin made clear that it’s not an exhaustive or definitive list, but rather that it was intended as a guidepost, and described a few of them:

  • Ability #1: Create a unique interface between members of the organization.  It’s not necessary to be Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.  Are you the person that keeps the system working?  Are you aware of what is going on?  Are you emotionally and spiritually connected to the organization.  Be the human glue.
  • Ability #2: Delivering unique creativity.  A whiteboard session offers common creativity … we have six colors, we need a seventh.  Unique creativity changes the game, goes to the edges of the box.  Most people are afraid to say things out loud that may change everything.
  • Ability #3: Managing a situation or organization of great complexity.  The key to art is that you can’t follow paint by numbers. If you can write down the steps, I don’t need you.  The problems that we face, the things we make are way more complicated.  The more complex things get, the more we need someone to deal with that complexity.  Guts, insights, vision.  Step into a complex problem and tame it.

Audience questions:

Q – I and some of my peers are out of work at 50.  This is a common theme for C-level executives, finding it hard to find a new job.  What advice for those who have been put out to graze?
A – Why are you looking for a job with someone else to tell you what to do?  That comes with so many strings and boundaries.  It will get you to where you were before.  Now you can be the CEO of a three person company, and you can make more money.   It is not trivial to hire or organize a group of designers and send a new product to China to have it built and sent back.  As another example, he has a friend who would go to Macy’s and other places to distribute goods for others.  When she was let go, she created her own product, she tapped into her knowledge of that production and distribution chains to get it to market effectively.

Q – Do you think that a linchpin can make a difference in a big company like IBM?
A – A friend was at IBM, he led the charge that helped the the company transform from one kind of company to another.  At the time, IBM was very bureaucratic.  There very early web projects in White Plains where the teams we working long hours, and he had to go to the CEO’s office to get approvah order in pizza, because it was against the company’s rule.  He pushed and pushed, and eventually helped the company generate multi-billions worth of revenue.  So … the voice of resistance tells you that you can’t make a change in a big company.  Either manufacturing or the boss grinds you into the dirt.  There is a way to be more human, and to make a difference. The floors need to be swept, but it doesn’t need to be you.

Q – How to become a linchpin and stay one?
A – It’s difficult, and in reality it may not be possible.  Mick Jagger is not the heart and soul of rock-and-roll any more.  Over time, re-inventing yourself gets tiring.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.  It will get harder, but you’ll also have more resources.  Harder, but it’s still worth it.

Q – Three most important things to focus on now to be a standout linchpin in the 3-5 years.
A – (1) Make a decision, decide it’s important.  (2) Become more generous, figure out how – by default – do more for the market and for the people you work with, (3) Ship.  Get it done and get it out the door.  You will be so far ahead of others.

Q – Anything going on that we need to know about it?
A – It’s not what’s going on with me – it’s what’s going on with you, the audience.  There is a lot going on, you shouldn’t settle!  Ship, and do work that matters.

In summary

I enjoyed hearing about Godin’s new book firsthand, and I definitely recommend the webinars by  Polar Unlimited readitfor.me as a way to learn quickly about new management literature.

In the early 1990s, Tom Peters wrote an article in Fast Company entitled A Brand Called You, which was a call to action to take responsibility for managing our personal brands and careers.  Seth’s presentation triggered some old ideas for me about marketing discourse and how we (as employable people) are being forced to get increasingly sophisticated in seeing ourselves as a marketable commodity in a free market system.  In my dissertation I wrote a chapter about the ways in which marketing and branding expertise emerged in response to a set of social conditions, and described how those forms of expertise were being turned on individuals.  As the company I was working for became more market- and customer-centric, I saw that type of discourse beginning to appear in my workplace at the time.  I described some of the ways that these practices were encouraged through and embedded in HR and other practices internally.  As the idea of personal branding continues to get more refined and more widely understood, I think there is more to be said.

BUT … that said, it’s probably too much to get into here!  So stay tuned for a couple of new posts that will attempt to provide an anthropological perspective about marketing discourse, as well as the ways that this growing discourse on personal branding and career opportunity taps into the ideology of the American Dream.

One Comment on “Linchpin

  1. Pingback: The Daily Grommet « Natalie Hanson, PhD

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