In open organizations, everyone is a linchpin

Open organizations need linchpins, not replaceable cogs

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I recently read Seth Godin's Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? The book begins by addressing the assumptions we once made about being successful at our careers—and explains how those assumptions no longer fit the post-industrial world.

Obviously, times have changed. What once spelled success no longer does. The middle class is disappearing. Employee benefits are dwindling. Occupations that once upon a time seemed like solid career choices have disappeared or soon will. Middle management and supervisory positions are disappearing too. A workforce that once rewarded followers looks instead for entrepreneurs who are not afraid to lead. At one time, we needed workers in factories, because that's where production was centered. Now, according to Godin, a person with a laptop computer and an Internet connection has the resources for his or her own factory. In today's factory-less model, Godin says, we need artists, and these artists are the linchpins of a new economic model that rewards risk taking. Linchpins are vital to an organization; they aren't easily replaced.

It's a shift in the way we think about labor. Old wisdom was predicated on an assembly line model. Our industrial model created a demand for what Godin calls PERL (percentage of easily replaced workers). You did your job, you fit in, didn't make waves, stuck it out, and, in the end, were rewarded with employment, benefits, and a pension. Public education strove to create assembly line workers. It was a system of acculturation that moved people into a workforce where being a cog, a person waiting to be told what to do, made sense. As Godin says:

"Schools produced and continue to produce students who will make a good PERL. Following the rules, fitting in, following directions, taking tests designed to assess factual recall are all part of this model."

We are beginning to realize that this recipe no longer guarantees success. Now, in fact, this formula leads to the angst that is palpable in our society. In the past, organizations may have rewarded mediocrity; now, we need a new kind of worker, one who's less an employee and more an artist or entrepreneur and is a key player in an organization. As Godin writes:

"Our society is struggling because the last thing we need in times of change like now are well paid bureaucrats, literalists, note takers and manual readers. What we want, what we need and what we must have are indispensable human beings. We need original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care."

Godin sees the linchpin as a person who, with exceptional insight, productivity, and generosity makes markets bigger and more efficient. Artistry coupled with generosity makes linchpins indispensable.

As I read the book, I reflected on both my own career in public education and my current participation in an open source community. I also reflected on the current political climate where policy leaders incessantly speak of bringing industrial jobs back from wherever they disappeared to.

As an innovative educator, I felt this frustration that celebrated the status quo. Contemporary education policy continues to be more about creating "cogs," as Godin calls them. Cogs are easily replaceable employees. Today's emphasis on testing and accountability in education is a recipe not for success but for failure. We need instead to promote artists and linchpins who can lead and are indispensable members of organization. Mediocrity no longer sells (if it ever did). "Artists are people with a genius for finding a new answer, a new connection or a new way of getting things done," Godin explains.

The more I read of Linchpin, the more I realized that open source communities really provide the types of people who can (and will) succeed in this new economy. Software developers are artists. Bloggers are artists. So are engineers. Given the right direction, anyone can be an artist, but doing so requires a system that rewards independent thinking.

Anyone involved in open source knows that generosity and artistry are integral to communities; they build and sustain it. And because of this, the open source communities are much larger than the sum of their parts. Some people cannot believe it's possible to make a living by being giving of oneself.

But Godin actually traces an interesting history of "money culture." He says the old American Dream was based on working hard, "sucking it up," and showing up on time. According to him, the New American dream is: Be remarkable, be generous, create art, and connect people.

As I read of Godin's thoughts on generosity, I thought of my own experience with an open source community. I thought, too, of what Jim Whitehurst says in The Open Organization:

"Contribution will matter more than credentials, compensation will be set by peers not by bosses, communities of passion will be the basic organizational building blocks. Everyone will think like a business owner and be accountable."

Open organizations covet linchpins, not cogs. They covet leadership, ownership, artistry, and generosity. We collaborate and cooperate and give freely of our gifts for the greater good of not only our individual communities but of the world itself. In open organizations, each person is a linchpin: indispensable.

About the author

Don Watkins - Educator, education technology specialist,  entrepreneur, open source advocate. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, CCNA, virtualization using Virtual Box. Follow me at @Don_Watkins .