The Way We Work

Editor’s Note: This is a foreword written by Nilofer Merchant for oDesk’s recently published eBook: “Make it Work: Smart Advice from Real-Life Clients Who Found Success Using Online Work.” To read the full eBook, click here.

The one and only time I ever presented to Steve Jobs, he taught me more about winning in the marketplace, in one declarative statement.

Mind you, that sentence had a swear word, which maybe accounts for its brevity.

You see, I was about to present on how a particular channel-related program I led had been instrumental in growing the server business at Apple from $2M to $180M in 18 months with very high margins (running at about 50% when everyone else in the industry was in the 20% range). Before I even had a chance to say anything, he took one look at my cover slide which had the word “channel,” and said, “F*** the channel!”

It’s taken me many years to truly digest what happened in that moment, so let me translate this “F*** the something” statement. Back then, organizations like Trend Hunting were already reporting the need to have more intimate direct relationships between brands and consumers. I was looking at those reports and figuring out how to mitigate change. Steve Jobs was looking at that same report, and tilting toward the future, fearlessly.

And what I’ve come to realize since then is this: Just because something worked yesterday, and even works today, it’s not necessarily right for tomorrow. And you have to be willing to let go of things that work today to get ready for the next thing.

Too many organizations that I advise and have studied hold on to “today” with a vise grip and hope somehow that when the time comes, they’ll be ready. But, the truth is more this: You’re going to need to manage the present while you invent the future. Really. You’re going to have to let go of the ways you’ve always done things. Of the stuff you already do. Of simply continuing to deliver what you already know how to deliver. Prepare to shift rapidly from opportunity to opportunity.

For nearly 20 years, we’ve had a bunch of talented people, case studies, and marketplace evidence showing us the world is changing.

So, a few key facts you must know. First, the reasons firms first had an advantage—economies of scale and information efficiency—are fundamentally changed. As in “bye-bye,” gone for a great many types of industries and firms. If you are leveraging land, oil, and such, you can use the old rules. The rest of you, start thinking anew.

Nilofer pull quoteToday, connected individuals can create value in a way that once only centralized organizations could. This shift is radical, even tectonic, in its implications. I coined the term “Social Era” to signal just how much has changed since the Industrial Era, and why it warrants your attention.

The second fact is that advantages have largely disappeared. It used to be that a firm could create and hold on to “competitive advantages” for 40-year arcs; today, those advantages are now transient advantages, with your ability to “hold” them for five years in fast-moving industries and 12 in slow ones.

So, in the Social Era, loads of strategic things have changed, but it only means one thing: you’re going to need to build your organizations to be fast, fluid, and flexible. The customer is no longer just the “buyer,” but also a co-creator. Competition has changed when individuals can create value through a centralized network of resources: for example, designing a product from anywhere, producing it through a 3D factory, financing it through community, and distributing it from anywhere to anywhere.

So how can a business redesign itself? In what follows next, you’ll see plenty of good ideas, but let me point out the big three:

1. First, you must invite talent. In the Industrial Era, the idea was to put a cog into a machine. The economic leverage was the machine, with people simply staffing it. In the Social Era, the economic currency is ideas—and those can and do come from everywhere and anyone. Each of us is standing in a spot only we occupy. It’s a function of our history and experience, vision and goals. If you can find a way to tap into this “Onlyness,” you will find an endless stream of talent and ideas to fuel results. Tap into Onlyness.

2. Second, to go fast you need to know where you’re going, without first having to check in. And so the purpose of an organization must be both shareable and shared. You don’t need to be told, you don’t need to check in, and you don’t even have to belong to the organization’s headcount to create value. Online platforms where these goals can be posted and questioned let the smart people who work with you actually be the smartest people who work with you, creating new kinds of outcomes. Align people with purpose.

3. Finally, you must build cultures where people can come together to create value. Culture is all that invisible stuff that glues organizations together. It’s the dark matter that holds up the stars in the sky. Culture will trump strategy every time. A healthy culture is one that allows you to produce something with each other, not in spite of each other. And the bottom line is that this is how a group of people generates something much bigger than the sum of the individuals’ outputs. Culture is the exponential element that, in a world where people and their ideas fuel the economy, is the key velocity factor for how companies outpace everyone else. Create velocity with your culture.

It’s time to swing toward the future. (You might even need this soundtrack.)

To read more from the eBook, check it out here.