Indispensibility and Organizational Change

Seth Godin‘s recent book throws out the challenge to its readers to be indispensable in the jobs that they do. This is a tall order for most, but Godin points to ways of thinking, approaching problems and examples of how even the most mundane, mechanical jobs can be more when we bring the best of ourselves to what we do each day — no matter what the job is. He wants us all to reclaim our genius. The message is an unusual one in that it applies very well to individuals — you and me — but is a lot harder to apply at the organizational level. This is an important issue for those wanting to create better, healthier systems and it is here that the role of individual and system can get confounded.

Mike Myatt, from Blogging Innovation, wrote a critique of the indispensibility position in terms of its implications for organizations. His post, a fair and appreciative one regarding Seth’s position in many areas, is nonetheless critical of the idea of fostering indispensibility in firms:

A well managed company does not allow itself to become dependent upon the performance of any single individual. Those individuals who attempt to hoard knowledge, relationships, or resources to attain job security should not to be valued or viewed as indispensable, but should be admonished as ineffective and deemed a liability. Corporate talent that cannot be shared, duplicated, distributed, or leveraged is not nearly as valuable as talent that can.

It is here that I first disagree. Godin is not advocating for valuing the hoarder, rather he is suggesting the opposite: unparalleled sharing and generosity. Someone who hoards will not advance system change: period. Systems rely on exchange of information and intense conservation of knowledge or information reduces the response capacity of a system (which could be an organization). An organization that relies on a hoarder for survival hasn’t been paying attention or created processes of openness that allow information to move through the system. If you have a hoarder, one needs to ask: how did we create an organization that enabled that person to become so important? How can we transform it so that person’s unique talents can come out and that knowledge that is sharable and distributed gets to whomever it needs to when its needed?

I would like to address two of Myatt’s issues:

Myatt goes on:

In fact, I would go so far as to say that anyone who sets out to make themselves indispensable would be the one committing career suicide for two reasons:

  1. Anyone who is “perceived” as indispensable in their current role completely eliminates any possibility of promotion
  2. Any good leadership team who finds themselves dependant upon a linchpin will immediately move to mitigate the risk of finding themselves in such an untenable position

Regarding point 1: What would one promote themselves to? This pokes a hole at the dominant model of organizational development that suggests that promotions work vertically (including the entire thinking about why we need directions to move, embedded in the term “promotion”). When you’re the best salesperson on a team doing something you love and are good at and you get a “promotion” does it mean pulling you off the sales team into a management position, which may rely on a completely different skill and mindset? Does this really make sense?

Regarding point 2: If you have a real linchpin, your task is creating a dynamic, exciting environment to let them do their thing well. After all, they are linchpins precisely because they are good at what they do. You’re always in an “untenable position” of not being able to replace them because they are, by definition, unreplaceable. Do you have a work culture that brings in unique talent and nurtures it to allow it to succeed or do you try to create positions that are defined by a set of duties that can be done by anyone?

Myatt’s argument is counter to what Linchpin is all about in its approach. If you create standards and clearly defined roles and evaluate solely based on those standards, which is the position that is being argued from, you will suffer under a linchpin promotion strategy.

Maybe. At least, your business model will suffer.

But that misses the bigger point: Why build an organization around such a model to begin with? Maybe the system needs to change as much as the individuals within it. Maybe then, a linchpin promotion strategy doesn’t look so strange or problematic.

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