#92: Too Big to Think 🤔- Beyond The "Next New Normal"
😷Reflections on life, work and the self-employed journey
Greetings from Las Palmas. We have entered into “phase 0” and we were allowed out for the first walk in 48 days which is the first time we walked around our neighborhood (we arrived here the day of the lockdown).
#1 The emerging “indie” ideaspace
Consider two trends from the last twenty years:
An increasing number of talented people who opting-out of the default path for a variety of reasons who have a lot of time to explore ideas that interest them
Emergence of digital spaces where people can increasingly “find the others,” and test ideas through a digitally-enhanced peer-review
Depending on the niche, “finding the others” happens on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, pinterest, twitter or reddit. On Twitter the increase to a 280 character and the adoption of threading seems to have made finding other curious independents easier than ever.
Many of the self-employed in category #1 are what we might “underemployed.” Not in the sense that they can’t find a job but in the sense that many would do more if they could find the interesting projects they want to work on.
Consulting Has Become Too Big To Think
The consulting industry attracts people that like ideas. However, my desire to go deeper was one of the biggest motivators for leaving the consulting industry. I wanted to grapple with interesting ideas and spend less time on bullshit.
While I would recommend spending 2-3 years at a consulting firm to many in the business world, over time it becomes tiring if you are more excited about ideas than landing new client projects and moving up the ladder. If you spend long enough in the industry, your imagination for possibilities for the business world inevitably narrows to things that can be sold, things that help senior exec break into the next tier of leadership or make it to Davos and ultimately, things that can be quantified on an excel spreadsheet.
Almost every big company has a top 3 consulting firm on semi-retainer (really) and the kind of ideas that consulting firms push have also come to be the ideas and approaches of broader business world.
This would be great if the consulting firms were thought-leaders, but instead they have become too big to think - trapped by their own scale and success. When BCG introduced the growth share matrix and experience curve in the late 1960s these were additive innovations, but the firm was small and scrappy with less than 100 consultants. Now BCG has more than 21,000 people. McKinsey, more than 30,000.
Put simply, the biggest consulting firms are now mature large and bureaucratic organizations and the types of people that succeed in these organizations long-term are not the types of original thinkers that helped shape the industry in the 1960s like Marvin Bower, Bruce Henderson and Barbara Minto, but the kind that can push incremental change within the currently successful business model. Original thinkers still work at these firms, but they almost always leave after a couple of years.
Latent Curiosity & Collective Experiments
While self-employed, its a good strategy to never be 100% “busy” like one might be when employed in a company. Having a buffer of time and mental space both enables you to stay sane on the inevitable ups and downs of being self-employed while also quickly joining interesting projects when they emerge.
Two weeks ago I was able to use this time to quickly step up and deploy my skills to a project on an emerging community called the Yak Collective which has emerged around Venkatesh Rao’s writings on navigating life as an independent consultant.
Venkat sent out a provocation in the discord chat that we should make some sort of statement as a group of collective independents to go beyond the “new normal” narrative that the consulting firms were recycling from 2008. I quickly drafted some writing and shared it in the group. Venkat countered “I think we should do a deck.”
Say no more. Within three seconds I had fired up PowerPoint and reawakened “consultant mode.”
Within 24 hours I found myself creating a template for ideas and an initial framing of the project. Over the next two weeks I helped to corral a global group of interesting, weird “indie” consultants and helped them to frame their ideas in a way that was both provocative but also accessible to a business audience.
What resulted was a project called “Don’t Waste The Reboot.”
I’m excited about what we created for two reasons. First, it is the first time I’ve worked on a truly emergent project on my own with more than three people. I had talked a lot about working on emergent projects, but I wasn’t sure it could really be done. I resonate with what Venkat mentioned in his own recap of what went down:
It’s one thing to claim that indies operate on a faster, more responsive OODA loop than big organizations, but another thing to actually demonstrate this.
Second, in compiling a number of high-quality ideas in a short amount of time, it made it clear that there is an enormous blind spot in the thinking of current institutions.
We have only scratched the surface and we are planning on releasing several more of these compilations over the next few months. The thinking will only get clearer, bolder and more interesting over time.
Which leads me to think that the most powerful ideas that lead to shifts in business thinking will come from Academia or consulting firms. They won’t come from the business roundtable. They won’t come from the Aspen Institutie. They won’t come from Blackrock’s governance principles.
They will come from the edges - indie consultants, creators and independent researchers.
My idea, which you’ll find at #15 in the deck, is about integrating chaos theory into organizations. My claim is that a lot of the thinking around fixing organizations starts with the belief that organizations are “broken.” By starting with this frame, many of the groups that want to change the paradigm end up in a sort of nihilistic “the only choice is to burn it all down and start over” mindset.
Instead, I believe that a lot of the potential for making organizations more robust to shocks like Covid-19 and becoming healthier already exists within most firms. The problem is that instead of harnessing this energy, managers operate with simple mental models and career incentives that push them to spend their time turning this natural complex energy (the “chaos”) into complicatedness:
Complex is letting your team use their own judgement to deploy part of the budget to experiment with working in new ways with customers without approval
Complicated is introducing a formal 3-month approval process for access to the budget through multiple levels of management
When systems become overly complicated they stop innovating and become more fragile over time. This compounds when companies start shifting to status quo preservation through regulatory capture and M&A rather than increasing the dynamism in their own firms.
I’ll be diving into this further in an essay I’ve started called Integrating Chaos, where I’ll suggest a framework for how organizations can tap into the complexity that already exists in their organization. If you’d like to get involved in feedback or collaborate on this, hit the reply button.
Things Are Getting Interesting
When people ask me if I want to work inside a company again I tell them “I’m sitting on the sidelines until things get interesting.”
Part of me has felt homeless. I wish there were more interesting organizations that were pushing boundaries. When I was graduating college, I tried to break into google because it was one of those companies. A couple years ago a friend reported about google now:
“It’s the most interesting people working on the dumbest stuff”
People put up with this because of pay and status. You’d be an idiot to quit google the thinking goes. Yet more and more people are walking away, leaving McKinsey, Google, Goldman, PwC, GE and others because they want to be working on something more interesting.
I was a bit pessimistic about finding interesting organizations to engage with or finding new ways of collectively engaging with other solo creators and indies. However, this project has made me more optimistic. We are definitely in the embryonic stage of the indie-collective experiment but the goal is to not just rebuild the industry models of the past. We’re hoping that the path can be more sustainable. What that path looks like? I’m not sure…
Finally, I echo Venkat’s thoughts when he mentioned a shift from not “doing philosophy, but about doing philosophically” something I’ve tried to embody in my work by going slower, saying no to obvious money-making traps and building relationships in new ways.
All I know is things seem to be getting more interesting.
#2 🔊 Creator Corner
In the spirit of pushing more interesting voices into the fray, I wanted to highlight a number of people who have been creating in public and deserve a signal boost. I expect this to become a regular part of the newsletter:
Russell Max Simon 👉 What Really Matters
A former newspaper man and marketer contemplates what it means to get laid off and follow the self-employed path with his son while living in New Hampshire. His weekly thoughts are a must read for me.
Packy McCormick 👉 Not Boring
Seems to be having more fun than any newsletter writer right now, combining 90s pop references with a deeper question about how people come together in physical and virtual worlds to create magic. If you like Hey Arnold! and deep reflections on community, this is the place to be.
Martha Balaile 👉 Mythology Studio
I hired Martha from South Africa to design my podcast cover after coming across her work online. She also contributed to the reboot deck and I love what’s shes building. A true original.
Amy McMillen 👉 Dig Well
Amy tries to make sense of what it means to be “well” and is in the process of publishing a book detailing her journey of grappling with burnout, taking control of her life and starting on a new journey. She is one of the many of us who had that voice inside that told us something was off and that something had to be done…
Byrne Hobart 👉 The Diff
Probably some of the most interesting multidisciplinary thinking and writing on the internet right now.
I also ran suggest this essay on higher ed:
The paradox of American higher education is that going to college used to be aspirational, but now the sales pitch is that it’s scary not to get a degree. Long ago, universities were a place where students could explore new academic frontiers and challenge themselves with new ideas. And now, school is safe: four more years of deferring big decisions and optimizing for easy A’s.
Andrew Barry 👉 Curious Lion
Andrew, also from South Africa, is building a community of learning leaders who want to go deeper than the standard programs and thinking that most companies deploy. This article on designing a virtual training is timely, but I also suggest joining his newsletter or reaching out to connect with him about how to do L&D right.
Who else is doing interesting things?
#3 PowerPoint Art
I was playing around with a creators version of the Eisenhower Matrix. Here is what I came up with. What would you change?
#4 📊 Chart of the week (link)
Less than 20% of the US economy is now what might be considered “primary” or “secondary” industry:
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