"I think 'beauty' has a (prominent) place in every project." Tom Peters
*A version of this will appear in Business Week in August 2000
Loping along the bottom of the Grand Canyon in August 2000, but fretting about the progress your virtual partner in Kuala Lumpur has made in the last 24 hours? No problem! Your local KOA (Kampgrounds of America) campsite now has Internet access.
Not Your Dad's Life
Call it the New Wired World of Work. Call it intrusive. Pervasive. Ubiquitous. Call it not your Dad's life. Call it whatever. It seeps into every seam of our lives. Between Palm VIIs and pagers and cell phones and featherweight laptops and GPS devices in your car -- and now wired campsites at the bottom of the Grand Canyon -- you and I are perpetually plugged into hundreds of millions of minds and gazillions of bits of up-to-date info from every cranny on the planet.
My office in the year 2000 is often as not my knapsack -- a Hacker (what else?) from Kipling with computer-protecting pocket. (I now, of course, have become so computer dependent that I religiously schlep two Sony VAIO SuperSlims, so afraid am I of being unwired, unconnected, or unable to create yet another custom-tailored PowerPoint presentation to demo to my unsuspecting seatmate-who-might-become-my-client, on American 1038 heading for Boston.)
Work in my Dad's days, the 50s and 60s: Same office. (For decades.) Same colleagues. (For decades.) Same processes, mostly rote. (For decades.) (Former MCI chief Bill McGowan called yesterday's middle managers "human message switches.") And laughably dated information. (Month's end closing of the books of account took weeks. Customer data was non-existent, or hopelessly unreliable if it was available.)
Now: Every project calls for a new team, with specially tailored skills. Tiny company or behemoth, we will be working with an eclectic mix of contract teammates from around the globe, many of whom -- most of whom? -- we'll never meet face to face. (Never = Never.) Info that's more than hours old is viewed with concern.
Speaking of the word "team," in its common sports usage: Every "player" will be evaluated -- pass by pass, shot by shot, at bat by at bat -- for the quality and uniqueness and timeliness and passion of her or his contribution. And therein lies the rub, the peril, and the remarkable opportunity of this new weird, wired, wild, woolly, wobbly age of work.
Fact: White collar accountability has 'til now been, mostly, an oxymoron. Show up. Suck up. Bury your face in your in-box. Process your paper flow with a modicum of efficiency. And you could count on a pretty decent end-of-year evaluation, a cost of living (plus a point or two) raise, and a sure-as-death-and-taxes forty-year tenure at Desk #263 in the GM purchasing department.
Now you are indeed like a Yankees or Dodgers closer. Three blown saves in a row and your pressured teammates, more than your manager, are ready to show you the exit to the minors and professional oblivion.
In short, you must visibly contribute and stay (way) up with your disciplinary shtick -- day by day -- or you will be discarded. This holds/will hold for the 23 year old, freshly minted University of Wisconsin grad, and the 56 year old, who had envisioned himself as on a smooth, pain-free coast toward retirement and shuffleboard in Condo City, FL.
Tomorrow's Minimum Survival SkillsKit
The new white collar software, including enterprise resource planning systems and Internet-based application specific software packages, will wreak havoc on the vast majority of "staff" jobs in the next decade or so. What, then, will it take for you and me to navigate and win -- as we weather this series of Perfect Storms?
MASTERY. Starting point: To survive/thrive in tomorrow's transparent team environment (Transparent = Everyone can see and evaluate your unique contribution just as you can see and evaluate my story here), you've got to be noticeably good at some thing the world values. "HR guy" doesn't cut it. Nor does "CPA." What sub-set of, say, techie recruiting skills or international accountancy excellence makes you a clearly valued contributor? My belief: If you can't describe your distinction in the equivalent of a 1/16th page Yellow Pages ad, you are/will shortly be doomed. (Yes, doomed. Perhaps not too strong a word.)
ROLODEX OBSESSION. Call it old fashioned "who you know." But the new fashioned version de-emphasizes bosses and traditional power figures, and emphasizes peers (future project mates!) who appreciate your clear-cut contributions. I also call it New Loyalty. Not old Logo Loyalty (to GE or even Cisco), but Rolodex Loyalty, to my extended family of project workers. I consider my own electronic Rolodex to be my Extended Global University, colleagues I can call upon (and who can call upon me) to further my current and future projects. Hint: Rolodex Loyalty is tougher than old Logo Loyalty; you must constantly mind and enrich your storehouse of contacts, or it/they will not be available as needed.
FINISHING SKILLS. You gotta -- just like that major league closer -- deliver! Your work will be mercilessly evaluated by the toughest audience of all: your project-peer-teammates. As you can readily observe, I use the word "project" a lot. Projects with clients and deliverables -- not paper processing proficiency -- will be the nub/nuggets/currency of your work life. Forever. No stretch: I AM MY PROJECTS. (Big ones like books, little ones like a speech I'm to give three hours from now at the Dallas Wyndham Anatole.)
ENTREPRENEURIAL INSTINCT. Project work -- all New Work -- is entrepreneurial. You do not have to start your own business (though that's been the route of choice for nine million American women, frustrated by corporate B.S.). But, as I see it, you must -- no option -- act as if you were running your own business. Maggie Inc., who just happens to be at GE Capital at the moment. Attitude: Old fashioned-turned-new, All American Franklinian/Emersonian self reliance.
MISTRESS OF IMPROV. Speaking of Maggie, CEO of Maggie Inc., I fully expect women to dominate "managerial" roles in the future. One (very) big reason: Women tend to handle ambiguity better than we guys do. (Research fact: Guys thrive in rule-bound environments.) The new world is a floating crap game. New projects, new teammates, the constant need to tack and jibe. I.e.: Those who can adjust and turn fast and operate in the absence of laid-out metes and bounds will be the winners -- and, more important, the leaders. They may not wear chevrons of formal rank on their sleeves, but they clearly will be the Most Valued Players. (And thence the best paid.) (And thence the most sought after to take on the next cool gig.)
SENSE OF HUMOR. It's always important, but now more than ever. (And important enough to put on this short list.) We are in the middle -- actually, the opening innings -- of a world-class, unprecedented mess! We are remaking the world! Business. Politics. Social interchange. With such madness afoot for the foreseeable future, we'll all get it wrong far more often than we get it right. If we can't learn to live with egg dripping down our face and a grin to go with it, then we're in for a long, tiresome, anguished ride.
INTENSE APPETITE FOR TECHNOLOGY. Technology is changing everything. Message: Hiccups not withstanding...BELIEVE THE HYPE. IT UNDERSTATES. You need not be a technologist per se, but you must love/embrace technology. My words are chosen with care. "Coping with" technology is not enough. I repeat: Love. Embrace. Technology is your partner and your lover. Your lord and master, and your faithful if peculiar servant.
GROVELING BEFORE THE YOUNG. Youth will teach "us" (we 57-year-olds, and you 34-year-olds as well) the New Rules. Make no mistake, this Web-driven thing is a Children's Crusade. Love it -- and them -- or get quickly left behind/out.
EMBRACING "MARKETING." I have called all this the Brand You approach. What, essentially, is a brand? A shorthand for distinction. You do not have to become a shameless self promoter, a la Martha. But you must (!) get your story out on the airwaves. Do it via your personal Web site. Do it by telling your project's story at a regional tradeshow. But...DO IT. By hook or by crook. Terrified of public speaking? You needn't become a Reagan or Churchill. But you ought to join a local Toastmasters chapter. In a more self-reliant world, you must be able to effectively sell yourself/tell your unique story.
A PASSION FOR RENEWAL. It's no longer good enough to be good. (See above: Mastery.) You've got to constantly improve. And -- upon occasion -- reinvent yourself. My bread and butter -- at age 57 -- are my lectures. But I imagine that the Internet will devour many (most?) conventional meetings in a few years. Hence I am madly at work on reinvention: e.g., partnering with several groups who will deliver my message via the new technologies. My personal logic: Re-invent or die.
Speaking of re-invent or die...my colleagues have come up with a slogan -- and a symbol -- to encapsulate all the above.
The slogan: DISTINCT...OR EXTINCT. Or: The white collar paper processor is dead. Welcome the Agile Project Maniac with Clearly Marketable/Bankable Talent.
The symbol: Our new logo, a year in the making, is a bright red exclamation mark. As one of my closest colleagues says, it's as far away from Dilbert as one can get. By design.
I love Dilbert. Choke with laughter at cartoonist-social commentator Scott Adams' latest, often as not. Why? He's got it right. My problem: the sub-text. To wit: My company stinks, my boss stinks, my job stinks. If that's your take -- at this moment of monumental change and gargantuan opportunity -- then I can only feel sad for you.
I feel so damn lucky! Lucky to be around at this magical moment, when all the rules are being changed. We -- those who ply our trades at whatever over the next 20 years -- get to re-invent the world! What an opportunity! What a hoot!
Cape Poge, MA 07-12-00
Before blogging became all the rage, Tom was posting book reviews and Observations (essentially early blog posts) to this site. You can find the archives below.