One Thousand People, One Thousand Careers

Tom Peters

While wandering through Munich’s Alte Pinakothek in pursuit of the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, I thought about several friends and imagined what they might have done with a free Sunday 3,000 miles from home.

One would doubtless have mounted a birding expedition, be hefting 100 pounds of photography equipment through the nearby Alpine foothills. Another would almost certainly have played anthropologist, proceeding from coffee house to public house, striking up conversation after conversation in his passable German. And a couple might have headed for Oktoberfest (I’ve put in some time there myself). I was reminded of the obvious, that each of us, though pals engaged in somewhat similar professional pursuits, is very different from the others. So what?

The age of mass production is fast fading. The emerging economy is based on knowledge, imagination, curiosity, talent. What if, I wondered as I later roamed the streets of Munich, we could learn to tap the wonderful, rich differences among people?

The conclusion was obvious: Wouldn’t a corporation that could exploit the uniqueness of each of its 1,000 employees (or 100 or 10,000) be phenomenally powerful? Put negatively, isn’t a corporation that doesn’t figure out how to use the curiosities of 1,000 people headed for trouble?

Hence, the idea of 1,000 people, 1,000 career paths. Peter Drucker hinted at something like this when he declared, in the September-October 1992 issue of the Harvard Business Review, that “the relationship between knowledge workers and their organization is a distinctly new phenomenon.” The key to dealing with today’s knowledge worker, Drucker added, is turning him or her into a “volunteer.”

Apple CEO John Sculley suggests as much in his book Odyssey (with John Byrne). “You are asked to pour a part of yourself into the success of the company,” he wrote. “In return, you should get an experience that sharpens your instincts … shows you how to become self-engaged in your work, gives you new ways of looking at the world. … I’m not asking for open-ended loyalty. … I am asking people who are at Apple to buy into the vision of the company while they are here.” The new social contract, per Sculley, is that we’ll offer you an opportunity to express yourself and grow, if you promise to leash yourself to our dream, at least for a while.

The grand viziers of this concept are Professors Ed Freeman and Daniel Gilbert. In their book Corporate Strategy and the Search for Ethics, the authors propose “the personal projects enterprise strategy.” The corporation, they write, is a “means to facilitate the realization of the projects of corporate members. … Persons are only passing through corporations on the way to their respective ends. … Corporations are fictions that stand for the interests of the members.” In a world where success depends upon knowledge and curiosity, the self-managed growth of the individual becomes paramount, and the corporation becomes a tool for achieving such growth. Both the firm and its temporary constituents benefit.

But what are the practical implications? Among others:

* Organize everything into projects, and allow members to assign themselves to those projects. This is the congenital style of the professional service firm, and it’s beginning to spread to traditional companies. At Denmark’s Oticon, the world’s leading manufacturer of hearing aids, the organization chart has been torn up and functional distinctions erased. Everyone performing service activities (marketing, R&D, administration) is now part of one big talent bank that effectively organizes itself to create and tackle whatever projects need doing. Surprisingly, the majority of employees quickly took a shine to this approach, and performance (e.g., shorter product-development cycles, greater market orientation) spurted overnight. Now the freestyle structure, which President Lars Kolind calls the “spaghetti organization,” is even spreading to the factory.

Make no mistake, the unusual Oticon process is highly disciplined. As Kolind says, if you can’t gain support for your idea (as a would-be project leader) or can’t find a project team that wants you (as a prospective member), your days at Oticon are numbered. The discipline, then, is the self-interested self-discipline of the independent professional making his or her way in the world. It is the antithesis of control imposed by a passel of self-important hierarchs.

* Allow careers to unfold as they will. At Oticon, a secretary might decide to make a “career” of advertising—and then proceed to do just that. Why not? Allowing—and encouraging—literally everyone to go where their curiosity takes them is important. Charting your own course can even include compensation. At Royal Trust, a Canadian bank, many staffers determine how much of their pay to tie to performance-based incentives vs. what share to draw as straight salary. Most have been aggressive. Some have not. Vive la difference!

I have one nit to pick with Peter Drucker. “Curiosity is more important than knowledge,” Albert Einstein once said. Though it has barely left the station, I suggest we get off the faddish “knowledge worker” express train. How about “curiosity worker” instead? It’s a bigger, and more important, idea. All aboard?

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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