The Startup of You v2.0

Through my blogs on startups, meetups and portfolio careers, I was recently interviewed by Peter Judd from News Corp., who is trying to bring the discussion on entrepreneurship, startups and innovation to a wider audience, particularly people who may be looking at a career change. (We both agree that the National Innovation and Science Agenda is not cutting through to the general public.)  Apart from being an advocate for portfolio careers, I also pointed out that entrepreneurship or working with startups is not for everyone. Instead, it may be possible to change your current role to the one you want. Alternatively, taking a new look at your current circumstances can provide some fresh perspective on finding your dream career.

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Francis Kenna: The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing (2016) [Photo by Rory Manchee]

The impetus following the 2012 publication of “The Startup of You” has done much to fuel the current entrepreneurial phenomenon, combined with lean startup business models and agile product development processes. The drive for innovation in response to digital disruption and lowering technology costs also means that launching your own venture can be increasingly de-risked.

For example, I recently saw some data by Ian Gardner from Amazon Web Services, that showed the “cost of failure” has come down from $5m to $5k, in just 15 years. This is based on a comparison between what it typically cost to launch a new business at the height of the boom/bust in 2000, and what it costs today. With a mix of open source tools, cloud computing, APIs, SDKs and social media platforms, launching a new business has never been cheaper or easier.

Of course, there is a paradox here: if an increasing number of people, especially younger graduates and new entrants to the workforce, are more interested in doing their own thing and less interested in joining large or established organisations, it’s going to get harder for employers to attract and retain the best talent; on the other hand, without appropriate experience, on-the-job training and personal development, how do these aspiring entrepreneurs acquire the necessary business, technical and leadership skills to succeed in their own ventures?

For some people, it may be appropriate to take their entrepreneurial spirit of adventure into a “traditional” role to test some of their ideas, as well as build networks and get some practical experience. Equally, I can see a huge opportunity for companies to create the right opportunities to engage employees for flexible roles aligned with specific projects or objectives (rather than plugging them into org charts). Companies are also finding new ways of tapping into their existing workforce to identify hitherto hidden and unknown skills and knowledge. Many employers also recognise that leadership roles will increasingly be filled by people who are comfortable with rapid change, increasing complexity and heightened uncertainty, as well as having enhanced soft skills. (There’s even some current thinking that utilising “rebel talent” is a good thing.)

Whether you are starting out on your entrepreneurial journey, looking to reboot your career, or searching for meaningful work that aligns with your values and purpose, there are numerous opportunities (via meetups, hackathons, pitch nights and networking forums) to explore your options before you make a decision. And for companies looking to re-invigorate your workforce and unleash hidden talent, there are many ways to experiment through taking informed risks, by building in-house innovation hubs, running consultative and collaborative workshops, and inviting ideas and inspiration from your existing people, who are familiar with the challenges you face.

Next week: Banksy – an artist for our times?

The changing economic relationship of #work

Whether or not we are comfortable with the notion, the work we do can come to define us. In some societies, family names are derived from our forebears’ occupations or professions (Butcher, Baker, Smith, Cartwright, etc.).  The rapid shift to the knowledge economy is challenging our traditional economic relationship with work, and what it means to be an employer or employee. For example, the idea of a “job for life” within the same industry, let alone the same company, is no longer the norm.

Workers leave Waterhouse Mill, Bollington, Cheshire, UK (1959)

Workers leave Waterhouse Mill, Bollington, Cheshire, UK (1959)

“Welcome to the working week”

This past week I have been listening to the latest thinking on the nature of “work”, from the perspective of technology and its impact on task-based activity (courtesy of Donald Farmer from Qlik), and from the perspective of organizational culture and its importance in motivating knowledge workers (courtesy of Didier Elzinga of Culture Amp). If you are not familiar with either of these thought leaders, than I thoroughly recommend them to anyone interested in organisational behaviour, career development, business transformation and lifelong learning.

Technology and changing demographics require each of us to reframe our ideas about work as a homogenous lifelong activity, because the economic bargain between employer and employee is no longer as simple as a 40 hour working week and a regular paycheck.

Reframing “employment” #1:

By 2020, average job tenure will be 3 years, and around one-third of the workforce will be employed on a casual basis (part-time, temporary, contractor, freelance etc.). The proliferation of services such as Freelancer, O-desk/Elance, Sidekicker, 99designs, Envato and Fiverr are evidence of this shift from employee to supplier.

“The Dignity of Labour, Pts. 1-4”

Around 200 years ago, at the height of the Industrial Revolution in England, the typical worker was employed in a factory or mill, lived in housing owned by the employer, and was paid some or all of his wages in the form of vouchers that could only be spent in shops also owned by the employer. A hundred years later, my grandparent’s generation were still exposed to the practices of indentured labour (“master and servant”) or the idea of “going into service” (as domestic workers). My father’s generation is certainly the last in my family to have had a 30-year salaried career within the same organisation.

So, in just a few generations we have transitioned from the idea that employment provides for all our needs, to the increasingly common perception that every worker is in fact a micro-business, supplying their labour to multiple employers or clients via fee-based services. (The potential irony here is that in a world of freelancers and contractors, the time-based or task-linked approach to employment pricing starts to resemble Marx’s idea of the labour theory of value…..).

“Cottage Industry”

It’s also interesting to note that before workers were employed in factories, and as agrarian labourers transitioned from toiling in the fields to working in manufacturing production, they were hired on piece-rates, working from home in the form of (literally) cottage industries. Of course, this was not exactly self-employment, as their tools (looms and lathes) were probably provided by their “client” who also set the prices (for raw materials and finished goods), had exclusive rights over the finished goods, and determined the number of units required. But, within the constraints of meeting target numbers and societal norms such as Sunday observance and customary holidays, these labourers were “free” to work for as many hours as they wanted, and at times that suited them. So, like many contemporary issues we still seem to be struggling with, flexible working arrangements are nothing new….

“Work is a four-letter-word”

Aside from connecting with your purpose, understanding your personal value proposition and knowing what you are “worth” in the market, one of the biggest challenges I see for employees/workers is the paradox between shorter careers (witness the increasing unemployment rates among older workers) and longer working lives.

Thanks to medical advances, we are living longer, but there is a mismatch between workforce participation rates and increased welfare and social security costs, leading to continuous policy tinkering on pensions, tax and superannuation.

As individuals, we need to build up sufficient financial assets to sustain us both post-retirement, and during erratic periods of personal income. As “free agents”, we have to learn to live with:

  • increasing job insecurity (companies continuously de-layering and restructuring)
  • significantly different career paths (compared to personal aspiration/expectation)
  • rapidly changing working environments (hot-desking, co-working spaces)
  • greater self-reliance (“bring your own device”) and
  • heightened resilience (“shape up or ship out”)


The good news is that the model of portfolio, portmanteau and protean careers means that new jobs and new forms of working are emerging all the time – and with personal resilience etc., come flexibility, adaptability, knowledge sharing, skills transfer and new opportunities for personal development, along with self-defined roles, self-directed learning, self-managed performance and self-determined accountability.

We are no longer defined just by what we do, but how/where/why/when we do it.

Reframing “employment” #2:

A friend recently asked me for some advice on how to transition from “employment” to “self-employment”. She has regular part-time work with one organisation (which she views as employment), but wants to find more of her “own work” with other clients. She does not want to give up the part-time gig just yet, but feels that it is preventing her from growing her own business. So I suggested that she should see herself as being self-employed already, and that the part-time work is her first client, allowing her to build a portfolio of new business.  

“Earn enough for us”

What does this brave new world of work mean for employers – in particular, what is the new economic bargain organisations need to have with their workers?

If companies are no longer willing/able to offer long-term, permanent employment opportunities, how do they manage their labour requirements, attract and retain the best talent (when they need it), and engage highly motivated and skilled people?

First and foremost, the idea of workplace flexibility has to be truly reciprocal – but obviously aligned and clearly articulated – to be of any real benefit to both parties.

Second, if employers are increasingly reliant on freelance resources, this does not obviate their obligations to invest in their workforce – whether that includes benefits, training or rewards and recognition – the same as they would have in their employees.

Third, companies will need to do an even better job of attracting and retaining the skills and knowledge they require – and be willing to offer different kinds of incentives (e.g., opportunities to work on engaging projects and to collaborate with interesting people) beyond basic pay and conditions.

Fourth, employers may have to adjust to the idea of “syndicating” their talent resources (“it’s the shared economy, stupid”) not just within their own workplaces, but across their client organisations, suppliers, service providers and other collaborators – sometimes, even their competitors. Employers can no longer expect to have a total monopoly on their workforce talents, unless they make it really interesting, financially or otherwise…

Fifth, if companies continue to espouse the message that “our people are our best asset” then they need to update their asset management model to demonstrate they mean what they say. For example, more needs to be done in helping employees to retrain and up-skill (for jobs and roles that haven’t yet been thought of), even if that may mean employees are more likely to move on. The amount of goodwill that this will create in the wider community cannot be underestimated.

Reframing “employment” #3:

Employers and HR managers are re-assessing how they evaluate employee contribution. It’s not simply a matter of how “hard” you work (e.g., the hours you put in, or the sales you make). Companies want to know what else you can do for them, how you collaborate, do you know how to ask for help, and are you willing to bring what you know to the role?  

Finally, rather like their employees, employers are increasingly expected to connect with their purpose and to align their values with their objectives. New entrants to the workplace are better informed about the organisations they work for and want to work for, because free agents know they have a choice.

Next week: How to work with Boards

Why #collaboration is not simply “working together”

Along with productivity, innovation and employee engagement, collaboration is fast becoming the new mantra for businesses seeking growth and/or competitor advantage. But while collaboration can take many forms, the mere act of “working together” does not of itself lead to sustainable collaborative outcomes.

The theme for last week’s inaugural class of Melbourne’s Slow Business School was “How to collaborate effectively with other businesses”. Hosted by Carolyn Tate and facilitated by Richard Meredith, the class did not arrive at any prescriptive processes or techniques for collaboration. But, as one student wryly observed, our discussions took the form of a dance without choreography, which is perhaps the highest form of collaboration. However, we did identify a few core attributes without which successful collaboration would be unlikely, if not impossible:

  • Shared values among the players
  • Defined roles
  • Common purpose or vision
  • Mutual trust between all participants
  • Voluntary (i.e., parties choose to be here)
  • Equitability (e.g., recognition of each contribution)

I would also add that from my experience, collaboration does not happen unless there are opportunities for the participants to be co-located at least some of the time.

Which leads me to those activities that are NOT collaborations:

  • A routine or regular project (“BAU”)
  • Outsourcing
  • Commissioning
  • Remote teamwork
  • Shared services
  • Trading transactions

For example, if I commission an architect to design a house, even if I am intimately involved in all the detailed decisions about materials, specifications and aesthetic choices, it is not a collaboration – it’s a transaction between client and professional. However, if I was a heating engineer, and I used my knowledge and experience to work with my architect to come up with some new energy-saving solutions (that could be used in future projects) that would be a collaborative outcome.

Collaboration certainly cannot happen if organisations operate within silos, but nor does it come about by happenstance – there has to be a deliberate and conscious decision to collaborate, even if at the outset there is no specific product or solution in mind other than a desire to collaborate (“Let’s see where the dance takes us”).

One aspect of this approach is “co-creation”, where companies embed themselves in their client’s world to identify what problems they can work on to solve together. In this way, collaboration leads to the outcome. Clearly, to be effective, co-creation would be backed by some formal product development or service design techniques, agreed ground rules and even a game plan – whether that is a lean canvas business model methodology, an iterative prototyping process, or a defined supply chain framework.

In any collaboration, one party may try to force the pace, but if this is not reciprocated, the mutuality will be lost – it becomes just another transaction (or a series of mis-timed steps). The best partnerships and joint ventures are founded on the commonalities of purpose, process and participation. Further, a successful venture will know when it has run its course – even if this means having those “difficult conversations”, which the class felt were also a vital feature of the best collaborations.

By strange coincidence, the same day Slow Business School was in session, Deloitte Access Economics published a research report commissioned by Google Australia. It concluded that greater collaboration by Australian companies could be worth $46bn to the local economy, based on increased productivity and reduced costs/wastage. Although the report reads more as an OD approach to collaboration (linked to the productivity, employee engagement and innovation mantras) it nevertheless offers some empirical evidence that companies who get it right will see benefits across a range of KPIs. If nothing else, employees who are given more opportunity to collaborate will display greater job satisfaction (this is part of the philosophy behind etaskr, about which I have written before).

For me, there are a few interesting data points in the Deloitte report:

  1. While technology has been important in enabling increased collaboration, the right workplace culture, management structure and team members are seen as paramount.
  2. Although “shared electronic resources” were seen as the single most important tool for effective collaboration, “common areas for staff to socialise” was not far behind, and “more meeting rooms” scored higher than “open plan office”, while having more technology solutions (collaboration software, video conferencing facilities and social media) all rated lower.
  3. Finally, just over a third of respondents reported that “collaboration helps them work faster” (and nearly a fifth said “their work would be impossible without collaboration”), but nearly a quarter felt that collaboration meant their work took longer.

So, a paradoxical interpretation of the report could be:

  • fewer open plan offices (but more meeting rooms);
  • more technology (but not just productivity tools); and
  • more teamwork (but not at the expense of getting my own work done).

A final thought: If we think that the prerequisite for collaboration is the “willingness to co-operate”, then this can get murky, as participants will only be prepared to operate at the level of trading favours (and only because they’ve been told they have to play nicely) rather than entering into the venture with enthusiasm and without ulterior motives.