Category Archives: Workgroups

  • 10

From the Gig Economy to the Guild Economy

Category:Collaboration,Community,Connections,Creation Spaces,Flow,Institutional Innovation,Learning,Opportunity,Trust,Workgroups

More and more people are talking about the future of work. In those conversations, something that’s getting quite a bit of attention is the “gig economy,” where more and more work is being done by independent contractors and not by full-time employees. While that’s certainly an interesting trend, I prefer to look ahead and anticipate what’s next. In that context, I’d suggest that we’re going to evolve from a “gig economy” to a “guild economy.”

Forces at work

The growth of the gig economy is a result of many forces coming together. A core driver of the gig economy is the evolution of the scalable efficiency model that drives most of our large institutions. As I’ve written about elsewhere, the scalable efficiency model has shaped our large institutions around the world for at least the past century.

This model is driven by the belief that the key to success is to do things faster and cheaper at scale. Enormous wealth and institutional success have been the result, which is why institutional leaders are so wedded to this model.

But there’s a problem – actually, many problems. Efficiency is a diminishing returns proposition. The more efficient we become, the longer and harder we need to work to get the next increment of efficiency. Diminishing returns is a problem on its own, but it’s compounded by the fact that we live in a Big Shift world of mounting performance pressure – competition is intensifying, change is accelerating, and extreme disruptive events occur with increasing frequency.

The early growth of the gig economy

Rather than questioning the continuing value of scalable efficiency models, institutional leaders have a natural tendency to want to squeeze harder. One approach to cost-cutting that has gained increasing traction in the past several decades is the shift from full-time employees to contract labor. If the work to be done is variable, rather than constant, why pay a full-time employee when we could turn a fixed labor cost into a variable labor cost and simply hire a contract worker when a task needs to be done?

Even better, there’s an opportunity to save on labor costs because the employer doesn’t have to pay all those expensive employee benefits like health care insurance. When the work can be done remotely, the company can save even more money by finding contract workers in parts of the world where lower wages are the norm.

These are some of the reasons why gig work has grown rapidly over the past several decades. There’s also another reason which should be a bit of a red flag. I haven’t seen any statistics on this, but anecdotally I am seeing a growing number of workers leaving large institutions and striking out on their own because they are frustrated with the worker experience in large institutions. They’re driven by a desire to learn faster. They report to me that they’re developing their capabilities much more rapidly as an independent contractor than they ever could when they were stuck within one institution.

But, while there are some exceptions, most of the “gig work” being done today is done by individuals working on a transactional, project basis. They’re on their own. That’s what’s going to change.

The Big Shift and the imperative to learn faster

As I’ve already mentioned, the Big Shift is creating mounting performance pressure on all individuals and institutions. But, at the same time, the paradox is that the Big Shift is also creating exponentially expanding opportunity – we can create far more value with far less resource and far more quickly than would have been possible a few decades ago.

As we confront the paradox of the Big Shift, the imperative is to learn faster – that’s the most effective way to respond to mounting performance pressure, while at the same time addressing exponentially expanding opportunity. By learning faster, I mean creating new knowledge through action and reflection on impact achieved. Those who master the ability to learn faster will achieve much higher impact in a rapidly changing world.

But, here’s the challenge, the scalable efficiency model of our institutions is fundamentally hostile to this form of learning. It requires taking risk and improvising when the scalable efficiency model insists on tightly specifying and highly standardizing all tasks to be performed. It also insists that everyone deliver their results predictably and reliably without failure.

The impact on the gig economy

The gig economy, as it’s currently structured, also limits the potential to learn faster. Gig workers typically work as individuals and they are very transactionally driven. While gig workers can certainly learn by engaging as individuals in project work, that’s not the optimal way to learn. If we’re serious about accelerating learning and performance improvement, we need to come together in small groups (what I call “impact groups”) of 3-15 people who develop deep, trust-based relationships with each other based on a shared commitment to increasing impact.

We’re already starting to see some of that start to happen in the gig economy. Individual workers are discovering that there are others who share their passion and coming together so that they can work on projects as a group, rather than individuals.

I anticipate this is just the beginning. As gig workers begin to realize the need to accelerate their learning and performance improvement, they’re going to be driven to come together into small groups and offer their services as a group, rather than as individuals.

On the other side, institutions are going to begin to see that the real value of contract workers is the diversity of experience and expertise that they bring to the work. These contract workers can help the institution’s employees to learn faster by exposing them to different perspectives and approaches to addressing work. These institutions will begin to expand their focus beyond just cost savings and see gig workers as an opportunity to learn faster. While some of that may be accomplished in a “one-off” project with individual contractors, there will be even greater potential for learning if enduring, trust-based relationships are developed with specific gig groups over time.

The role of guilds

That sets the stage for a new way of organizing the gig economy. We’re going to begin to see impact groups forming and coming together into broader networks that will help them to learn even faster.

That’s where guilds come in. In Medieval times, guilds were a prominent way of organizing in urban areas to bring people together who were seeking to earn a living from a particular craft or trade. These guilds had many different roles, but a key one was to help their participants become better at their craft or trade. They were powerful learning organizations where participants learned through practice, rather than sitting in classrooms.

As independent workers become more aware of the imperative for accelerating learning, they will tend to affiliate into guilds that will help to connect them with others who might become part of their impact group and, more broadly, with other impact groups that share their passion for increasing impact in a particular set of activities. These guilds can help to knit together larger and larger networks of impact groups, generating something that I call “creation spaces,” to help scale and accelerate learning. For example, think of a guild that will help graphic designers to come together and learn from each other.

These guilds can play many different roles over time. One major role would be to provide the participants in their guilds with access to a variety of benefit programs like health care and life insurance that would be much more difficult to obtain as individuals. These guilds can also help to define and manage reputation systems that will help their participants to build a broader range of trust-based relationships. They can become rich environments for mutual aid among participants.

Beyond the gig economy, there’s another area that will see the re-emergence of guilds. That’s in product and service businesses that will increasingly fragment as customers demand more and more tailored products and services to serve their specific needs (see more about fragmentation trends in the economy here). The participants in these small, but very profitable, product and service businesses will see value in connecting with others in their particular domains so that they can all learn faster and create even more value with less resource. For example, think of a guild for craft chocolate companies that are serving very specific customer niches.

The potential limitations of guilds

In Medieval times, guilds had a mixed role. In part, they helped their members to learn faster together but, in another part, they often served as barriers to entry for others who wanted to practice the craft or trade. Often acting in collaboration with city governments, they would impose severe restrictions on those who could participate in a certain craft or trade. They often became very protectionist, limiting competition. (As you can see from the picture above, many of them excluded women)

The next generation of guilds needs to avoid the temptation to erect barriers. Rather than focusing on protecting existing stocks of knowledge, they need to be committed to enhancing and scaling flows of knowledge so that everyone can learn faster.

To address the opportunity to help participants to learn faster, these guilds need to find a way to move beyond fear of competition and foster the excitement that can come from addressing the exponentially expanding opportunities created by the Big Shift. Rather than embracing a scarcity mindset, these guilds need to cultivate an abundance mindset. They need to recognize that, the more people that come together, driven by a commitment to learn faster, the more opportunity there will be for value creation. It’s a very different heartset and mindset from the ones generated by the fear that is engulfing more and more of the world’s population.

The bottom line

The imperative to learn faster is going to motivate individuals to come together in very different ways. In at least one dimension, our future may represent a return to the past, when we see the re-emergence of guilds. Rather than isolated individuals driven by fear as they confront mounting performance pressures, we are likely to see people coming together, excited about the opportunity to learn faster and embrace exponentially expanding opportunity.


  • 1

Leaping into the Launch Decade

Category:Creation Spaces,Launch Decade,Workgroups

As we celebrate a leap day in a leap year and the beginning of a new decade that I’ve called the “launch decade,” I couldn’t resist taking the occasion to reflect on the importance of leaps.

I’ve recently been writing about the importance of small groups in driving change and accelerating performance improvement. I’ve also been emphasizing the theme of “small moves, smartly made, can set big things in motion.”

When people see me talk about small groups and small moves, there’s a natural tendency to think that I am a fan of incrementalism. Far from it. Incrementalism will edge us over the cliff.

We need to resist the temptation to be incremental, and instead embrace the need to leap forward in an effort to capture opportunities that are expanding more rapidly than ever before.

Let’s start by exploring what it means to leap. While definitions differ, leaping is generally about moving quickly and with great force across a great distance, driven by some explicit and bold objective. It is the opposite of incremental movements, which tend to be pursued more slowly and are shaped by more modest objectives.

Smartly made small moves

When I talk about “small moves, smartly made,”  my focus is on “smartly made” and I devoted a blog post to exploring what I really mean by that term. While there are many dimensions to smartly made, for the purpose of this post, let me highlight three of the dimensions that I mentioned: to have a clear and ambitious sense of destination by “zooming out,” to move quickly to action and to commit to rapidly scaling impact.

Doesn’t that begin to sound like a leap? So, why do I call them “small moves”?

Small groups

They’re small moves because, in the early stages, they involve only a few people. That’s where my perspective on the power of small groups comes in.

Imagine, for a moment, what your success rate might be if you try to convince everyone in your large organization to make a leap at the same time. Good luck. Most would likely hold back and many would even try to undermine the effort to make a leap because of a fear of the consequences – never under-estimate the immune system!

Even if you could convince everyone to line up and make the leap together, the leap would likely be an uncoordinated mess, with many leapers colliding with, or tripping over, other leapers. Without any experience, the leaps would quickly fall apart, leading those who were brave enough to participate in the first round to hold back on the next round. Lesson learned, these leaps are dangerous.

Now, think about what might be possible if you focus initially on mobilizing a small group of participants (I’m talking about 3 – 15 people at most) who are deeply passionate about the opportunity to make a big difference in a short period of time. Properly coached, members in this small group could form deep, trust-based relationships with each other and provide each other with encouragement, while at the same time holding each other accountable for making the leap together.

They would likely be able to successfully leap far greater distances than any individual might be able to accomplish on their own. Their accomplishment together would encourage others to step forward and become excited about the opportunity to make one of the next leaps. There would still be fear (leaps are very scary), but the knowledge that they will make the leap with a small group of people they trust, would help to overcome that fear.

Balancing short and long horizons

And there’s more. These are also small moves because they focus on reaching some tangible destination within a short period of time – 6-12 months at most. That also helps to overcome fear because the small group will not be up in the air for an extended period of time – they have an opportunity to quickly reach their destination and to learn quickly from the experience. That’s very different from “big moves” that often require 5-10 years before the results become apparent – that’s a long time to be up in the air, taking great risk, without any sense of achieving what was intended.

As the initial leap plays out and the participants learn from their experience, later leaps can become much bolder in terms of defining the distance that will be traveled over the next short horizon. We’re not just going to make the same leap over and over. We’re going to seek to expand the scope of the leap, accelerating our ability to reach more and more distant destinations in each 6-12 month leap cycle.

The key here is to frame the short-term destinations in the context of a much longer-term view of an inspiring opportunity that is very different from anything that has been achieved to date. It’s that longer-term view that helps to pick a short-term destination that has the greatest potential in accelerating movement towards the longer-term opportunity. Without that context, we run a significant risk of becoming too incremental in our approach, rather than challenging ourselves to make a really bold leap. The balance between longer-term opportunity and short-term destinations is the essence of the  zoom out, zoom in approach to strategy that I’ve written about here.

The role of platforms

If we’re serious about leaping – moving quickly and with great force across a great distance – that also will increase our focus on platforms. People who leap from the right kinds of platforms are likely to travel much greater distances than those who just try to leap on their own.

In this context, platforms involve ways to leverage the resources and expertise of a growing number of third parties who participate on the platform. The small groups that I’ve been talking about don’t operate in isolation. They’re constantly looking for ways to leverage their efforts by connecting with others and scaling their efforts through creation spaces. With increasingly powerful and pervasive digital infrastructures, the ability to connect with a growing number of others becomes easier and easier and can significantly accelerate progress. Network effects are a powerful accelerator.

Small groups that harness the power of platforms are constantly asking where and how they can leverage the resources and expertise of others to come up with better approaches to the next leap, so that they can travel much greater distances much more quickly. That’s what helps them to maintain their small groups while at the same time accelerating their progress.

Bottom line

Leaps are a powerful way to launch us on the path to finally harnessing the exponentially expanding opportunities created by the Big Shift. As we move into the launch decade, we need to find ways to make smart leaps that can help us to learn faster together. Let’s greet this new decade by exploring the leaps that could have the greatest impact in a short period of time.

 


  • 3

The Foundations of Exponential Impact

Category:Creation Spaces,Movements,Passion,Workgroups

As we enter the first few weeks of what I’ve called the Launch Decade, it’s a good time to explore what we’ll need to launch ourselves into exponentially expanding opportunity for everyone. There’s a lot that will need to come together, but let me focus here on one of the key building blocks – small groups. (I love the paradox: to achieve very large impact, we need small groups.)

I’ve become more and more focused on the importance of small groups to achieving accelerating impact. I’ve explored this in a business context, with our work on business practice redesign for workgroups. I’ve explored this in the context of movements, with the realization that all successful movements are organized into small cells. I’ve also explored this in a broader learning context, with the perspective that creation spaces built around small groups are key to accelerating learning in arenas as diverse as extreme sports and online video games.

To be clear, I’m not talking about all small groups. Most small groups are trapped in narrow context and needs. But certain small groups show the ability to help participants have growing impact and, in the process, achieve far more of their potential as individuals and as a group.

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