By David Belden
I am sick of hearing about the new normal. I reject the idea that companies need to do more with less. These are both ludicrous clichés that provide easy excuses for doing nothing or clinging to the past … a past that is more myth than reality. The vast majority of the companies I work with are doing well. They are successful because they are doing things differently, and having fun making the changes.
For the past 12 years, I have had the great privilege of working with some of the most adaptable and progressive companies in the country. As a Vistage Chair, I facilitate monthly meetings of 16 CEOs / Presidents / Business Owners / Managing Partners in a peer-group think tank setting. I also meet with each of them individually for a dialogue beginning with some variation of the question “What’s the most important thing we should talk about today?”
During that same 12 years, I have worked with five or six companies every year to facilitate the complete restructuring of their organizations. As a Professional Outsider with ExecuVision International (www.iexecuvision.com), I lead a series of retreats for the senior leadership of companies, focusing on working at a very deep level to mold highly functioning teams.
What I have written above is no surprise to anyone in the business community. Skilled practitioners have facilitated retreats and mentored executives since at least the time of Sun Tzu. What I believe is different today, however, is illuminated by three recent books and two very different military models. Each of these events individually are important; taken together, they represent a new model for organizing the chaos of the world around us.
The three books are Daniel Pink’s Drive, Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, and Seth Godin’s Linchpin. In the first, Daniel Pink describes the transition from Information Worker to Conceptual Worker. The basic premise is that we are finished with just throwing more and more mediocre workers at every challenge that comes along. Successful companies have realized that we need to hire fewer and fewer people at a higher and higher level.
The undeniable truth of this insight is the basis of the jobless recovery. Of course it is jobless! The fact is that production no longer requires significant numbers of no- or low-skilled workers. What Pink demonstrates is that information workers fall into this category right along with factory workers. In good times, when money is flush, we tend to simply throw more and more people into the fray, hoping that somehow they will finally get the job done. No longer, says Pink. What we require are conceptual workers who can envision the larger issues, and devise (and implement) a plan to address them holistically.
Clay Shirky adds insight about the astounding number of hours people are willing to volunteer on projects outside of their boring, pay-the-bills job. He cites Wikipedia as the premier example of global collaboration by a large group of very intelligent people to create a useful tool where no one is paid for the work. This same phenomenon is alive in the non-profit as well as the for-profit world. Shirky’s observation is important to all of us concerned about the state of business organizations today. The tragedy is that we are leaving huge, untapped intellectual and creative manpower to the vagaries of internet contribution, rather than creating organizations that fully utilize this energy.
Finally, Seth Godin weighs in with Linchpin. He makes essentially the same case that Pink does in Drive, but from a different vantage point. Drive is written more from the business owner’s perspective. Pink asks the question, “How do I motivate my employees to use their creative problem-solving skills to help this organization?” Godin asks, “How do I find an employer who values my creative problem-solving skills?” For Pink, the quest is identifying conceptual workers. For Godin, it is becoming a linchpin for change in whatever situation you find yourself. For Shirky it is the challenge of creating an organization that allows people to contribute at their highest level of ability.
All three authors focus on the most important question anyone running an organization must answer today: What kind of organizational model will help me find the best people, and allow them the freedom to use all their talent in creative and productive endeavor?
Counter intuitively, the answer may just come from the military. Until recently, the military has seemed to be the least likely model for adaptive change. Ever since WWI, and particularly since WWII, companies were structured around the traditional military model of chain of command. This made perfect sense in a world where information was not easily accessible.
I remember my first managerial position in a large Danish company. My department consisted of five people. I was, as the supervisor, the only one of us who had all the information from our small unit. I reported that information up to my manager, who reported it to a vice president who reported it to the president. It all made perfect sense. It was orderly, static, reliable…and totally boring for all concerned, because the president was the only one who had access to all the information.
The advent of relational databases in the 1970s changed the need for the hierarchical structure forever. It has taken us more than 30 years to even begin to come to grips with this reality. Access to information is no longer a problem. Instead, the overwhelming volume of available information now threatens our ability to make decisions. Progressive and successful companies work comfortably with this new paradigm.
The military faced the same challenges in a very different way. During the Korean War, military leaders realized that the military structure that had served them well for a couple of hundred years was no longer working. A new approach was needed. The creative use of Special Forces was born. In Vietnam, and now in the global war on terrorism, the use of Special Forces has increased to fight a new type of enemy.
The amazing success of the Green Beret model is based on the characteristics of the team. First of all, only the very best candidates are even allowed to participate in an assessment of their abilities. Second, once the few who make it through the assessment have completed it, they peer review each other. They must answer one question about the other survivors of the assessment: Would this man keep me alive? As my son, an active duty Green Beret (15 years in the Army, 11 in Special Forces) explained to me, “Dad, this is not about ability. We know that anyone who made it this far has the stamina and the skill. It’s not about skillset. It’s about mindset. It’s about trust!”
What further makes the Green Beret model so extraordinarily successful is this summary of features:
- Clarity of purpose
- Mission first
- No emphasis on rank
- Flexible function (all members cross-trained — my son is both combat medic and sniper)
- Utilizing existing infrastructure for support
- Self-directed teams
These teams fully embody Pink’s and Godin’s ideas of conceptual workers and linchpins in otherwise staid institutions. The Army has seen the necessity of maintaining a static organization for their normal functions, and enabling a small group of exceptional people to achieve phenomenal results. They also embrace Shirky’s emphasis on allowing employees to participate at their highest level of ability to resolve immediate challenges.
The second military model that has evolved to meet modern challenges is the Marine Corps. The Marines are not Special Forces. They are, rather, an assault force. Their structure was altered over ten years ago to focus on “the strategic corporal”. The idea, of course, is to push decision-making down to the level where the action is actually taking place. This is a new twist for the static organization – dynamic capabilities to respond to the actual situation.
These two models together offer us a solution for business. We create and maintain an infrastructure for existing business that pushes customer response down to the lowest level of the organization. We create a second group of strategic thinkers who are also tactical implementers. The two work in tandem to embrace the most innovative solutions to constant and unexpected developments caused by a rapidly changing world.
In 2010, I have received more and more requests to help companies redesign their organizational structures to address new realities. The most frequent push-back I experience is executives telling me that they don’t have any Green Berets, and that their corporals are not capable of being strategic.
Two thoughts on that belief:
- How do you know that it is true?
- If it is true, who was responsible for hiring mediocrity?
To answer the first question, we have to take a risk. Let’s find out how innovative people can be. To answer the second question requires accountability at the highest level of the organization.
Of the companies I have worked with this year, three have gone virtual, reducing staff numbers from a high of around 50 to now from 1, 5 and 15 respectively, while increasing revenue…and, of course, profitability. With the added benefit of reducing stress! Another company is managing $40million in revenue with 31 employees, six of whom do not live in the employer’s state. Another company has embraced a bifurcated organization: the “regular Army” manages $40 million of commodity revenue, while the “Green Berets” generate and manage $20 million in new business.
To me, these are the most exciting and dynamic times imaginable. We are in an exhilarating time of growth, connectivity, virtualization, and interdependent globalization. We have moved rapidly from the Information Age (1960) to the Knowledge Age (2000) and have just entered the Conceptual Age (2010). Pink, Shirky, and Godin offer some unique perspectives that, taken together, can help us enter this age with confidence and enthusiasm.
Indulge yourself with the fantasy that you have a Green Beret team of conceptual workers. Imagine that you have linchpins constantly and consistently providing insights and plans for implementation of great new strategies to embrace an ever-changing world. What would it take for you to create that team? Do you have the courage to begin? Welcome to the conceptual age!
A 12-year Vistage Chair, David Belden is the founder of the facilitation and executive development company, ExecuVision International. Educated in Denmark, David has 30 years of experience in international trade, garnered while living abroad and focusing on purchasing, importing, exporting and creating new operations in foreign countries. Follow David’s Twitter feed here.
Originally published: Jan 19, 2012