Think Independent!

Tom Peters

Independent contractors (free-lance journalists, software programmers, gardeners) wake up knowing that before sunset they must (1) re-prove themselves with clients and (2) learn a new wrinkle to up the odds of survival. But the self-employed are not alone. I contend everyone—bellhop, computer scientist, boss—had best achieve the mindset of an independent contractor.

“People do realize that job security is gone, but many don’t realize what it’s been replaced by,” says University of California at Berkeley Professor Homa Bahrami. “The driving force of a career must come from the individual, not the organization.” To support her point, Bahrami quotes a saying at perpetually volatile Apple Computer: “Your sense of job security lies in your employability.” All this represents a cataclysmic shift from yesterday’s implicit labor contract (“mind your manners and you can stay here for life”).

Career-development expert Bill Charland claims every position must be created from scratch, a far cry from filling a set job description. “Given the reality of today’s entrepreneurial economy, there are few jobs awaiting any of us out there,” Charland writes in Career Shifting (published by Center for the New West). “Instead, most good jobs are co-created. Jobs are joint ventures (with an employer) in problem solving. They are strategies to solve pressing problems in organizations.”

As Charland sees it, work is quickly becoming a string of projects executed in conjunction with different colleagues from different places. Perhaps the best advice for anyone (receptionist or chief): If you’re not working on a project—and creating or getting recruited for future projects—you’re headed for trouble.

First, then, you must do something concrete, finite and measurable in the eyes of internal and external customers and your teammates. (Teammates are growing ever more important, since it’s mostly your network of peers that gives you word of mouth credibility, on or off a payroll, and determines whether you’re recruited for new projects.) Second, you must look ahead toward inventing or signing up for the next project, or joint venture as Charland would label it.

Moreover, you can’t ignore the requirement to move horizontally and pick up new skills. “Careers are continuing education,” Charland writes. That’s true on a payroll, and even when looking for one’s first job. “The point is to hire on and learn the ropes in a good learning community,” Charland urges neophytes. Again, the shift is monumental: How many have historically chosen a job based on whether or not it provides an attractive “learning community”?

When we turn to bosses, the story stays the same. Writing in Management Review magazine on the pitfalls of “empowerment,” my colleague Oren Harari discusses a boss who couldn’t let go, until a family crisis forced him to plan on leaving the company in six months. Since his boss decided not to replace him, he had to turn over managerial responsibility to his subordinates. When family circumstances changed, he found out he didn’t have to leave. But with no job, he could only stick around if he conjured up something new (which he did). Hence Harari’s advice to all bosses: “Pretend you are leaving the company in six months with no replacement, overhaul your organization and train your people to take over your job, and then find a new way to add value. And be prepared to repeat the cycle, over and over again (maybe with different employers), until you retire.”

Scary? Yes. But imperative.

“Think independent” also has a place in overall organization design. Corporate architects might imagine companies as collections of independent contractors. Writing in The One-to-One Future, Don Peppers and Martha Rogers describe changes underway at IBM. One manager, Jim Reilly, says the lumbering firm is dealing with “the impediment of structure” by trying to make everyone an entrepreneur—that is, “turning the whole company into a type of franchise organization in which there is a more direct economic connection between tasks and rewards.” Similarly, Charland proposes we think of organizations as diamonds standing on end, and consisting of (1) a tiny upper tip of managers, (2) a large central core of entrepreneurial service providers, and (3) a small clerical support group at the bottom tip. (The support group may disappear entirely—Charland points to several firms that have eliminated secretaries, for example, and folded all support tasks into the service providers’ jobs.)

Contrast the independent contractor’s mindset with this common experience: Following a last-minute change of plans, I phoned a hotel early one morning for a reservation. I was disconnected, put on hold, etc. Finally I reached a living person at the front desk. He flatly declared he couldn’t help me. When I asked why (calmly), he responded (calmly), “I’m not a reservationist.” Nor is he long for the world of the employed.

(C) 1993 TPG Communications.

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