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Let me start by admitting I haven’t (yet) read Seth Godin’s book Linchpin.  However, I’m a regular reader and big fan of Seth’s blog, so I feel like I understand his general aesthetic.  There are several interviews and reviews of the book (like here and here) if you want more background.  What caught my eye was a conversation on Cameron Plommer’s former blog, EconApps, about whether or not it’s even feasible for everyone to be a linchpin.

To answer the question, you first have to understand what Seth meant by the term Linchpin.  In some ways it’s obvious–it’s the small piece that keeps the whole together.  From the publisher’s description,

Linchpins are the essential building blocks of great organizations: they invent, lead (regardless of title), connect others, make things happen, and create order out of chaos. They love their work and pour their best selves into it and turn each day into a kind of art – and, in today’s world, they get the best jobs and the most freedom.

So what if everyone took Seth’s advice and became a linchpin?  Paul MacPherson describes three main reasons he thinks this “call to action” may be impractical: 1) linchpins are harder to manage, requiring a larger management burden, 2) linchpins would dictate a higher salary and thus would burden an organization’s budget and profitability, and 3) by definition, linchpins are a rarity.

Let me respectively disagree with my friend Paul (who I really do know from the Brazen Careerist forums).  First, I don’t think Linchpins are harder to manage unless you have a communication problem.  Of course, many people do have difficulty clearly defining and communicating their expectations, but that’s not the Linchpin’s fault.  The beauty of linchpins is they are intrinsically motivated.  All you have to do is point them in the right direction and watch them go.  Paul also suggested linchpins might be more prone to combat, if I read him right.  But in fact, linchpins understand the best way to achieve goals is through collaboration (or at least respectful discourse, as Jim Collins suggests in Good to Great).

Second, if everyone was a linchpin, you’d need far fewer workers.  In my experience, organizations often have to expand to make up for the dead wood they’re hauling around.  In many respects it would actually be cheaper to have an organization full of linchpins, not to mention a lot more exciting.  That doesn’t mean the workforce would reduce by half upon linchpin transformation–they’d just be more effectively resourced.  Many more businesses would succeed with a small cadre of linchpins.

The reason we’re so short of linchpins is not due to a fundamental limitation.   The problem, as Nicholas Lore points out in his book The Pathfinder, is the vast majority of people spend more time deciding what kind of car to buy or where to go on vacation than what to do with their lives.  They don’t know their strengths or even their passions.  They chase status, wealth, their parent’s affection, and even freedom from the “conventional.”  While those motivations aren’t likely to make you a linchpin, there’s nothing preventing someone from overcoming them either.

Much as I hate to admit it, I think my Dad had it right: find your “fire in the belly” and follow it.  I’m not talking about lightning-flash inspiration, but some good old-fashioned self-reflection and assessment.  Not only does a happier life await the linchpin, it may well be society can no longer to afford a sad collection of cogs.

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13 Responses to How Many Linchpins Can You Fit In An Organization?

    • On
    • April 25, 2010 at 3:15 pm
    • JMac
    • Said...

    Yeehaa!

  1. To add some color to the debate (my opinion) since I am the Paul that Jen refers:

    Very few organizations are value innovation more than volume. Research labs are one good example where the occasional innovation is all that is necessary to stay in business. But most business like Seth says in his book are factories. You need linchpins in these organization just not an organization of linchpins. For example at a ford plant, or even a law firm. The less innovative the better. On a factory floor building cars you can’t have people deciding, creating, being artistic with their rivet gun. In the law firm, the (few) linchpins make the precedents that the rest of the firm (legal secretaries, para-legals, interns and associates) use to produce the product (advice) for the clients.

    As for management. I am a linchpin at work, and cause nothing but grief for my boss at times. I change things, I improve things, I lead the charge. Not a day goes by that he does not have to explain why I am changing something to someone. And not everything I do is well received even if it is an improvement for the organization in the long term. People don’t like change. I work in a group of seven people and represent 30% of his supervisory time communicating with him what I am doing, justifying why I did it, so he can defend my existence to others up the food chain who are not always so impressed. Because I am innovating my output really is less than my peers, but my output does have greater value to the organization long term so I am tolerated. But if my groups output was not high enough my role as linchpin would not be promoted by my boss. If my group had even one more linchpin, we as a group would no longer be profitable because our output would not be high enough regardless of the value of innovations I introduce.

    You can never predict how a linchpin is going to solve a problem… that is the nature of an artist, a innovator. This lack of predictability is the heart of the management issue. If a manager can predict how you will do your work and you are very consistent, you are a star employee to manage, your just not a linchpin. Linchpins go off the reservation and tend to operate under the radar to do what they do. Linchpins take the risks that managers must understand to properly manage and mitigate. This takes time on the managers part. If a manager respects my need/ability to innovate I flourish under a particular manager. If the manager does not respect me as such, I instantly become even more of a problem/burden for them to manage. Keeping me inline, trying to make me like everyone else takes an incredible amount of effort on a managers part. When this happens I tend to leave organizations.

    • Paul,

      First, thanks for coming by to add to the discussion. If I’d been thinking straight, I would have offerred you that opportunity from the get go!

      Second, I disagree that you don’t want innovation except in a handful of industries. Remember, the whole idea of process improvement has been the idea that the workers themselves are in the best position to make improvements to the process. One of the problems is that you have managers making decisions about processes they themselves do not execute. So creativity on the factory floor has seen an enormous revolution in those companies bold enough to truly embrace it. Check this interview with Chip and Dan Heath, who wrote the book Switch, for more examples of why you do want creativity and innovation at all levels–even at steel can manufacturing companies!

      How a manager handles a linchpin probably varies on a case by case basis. I don’t think Seth was saying all linchpins need to be the change agent you describe. I think he’s talking about people owning their jobs, doing them with excellence and integrity, and pouring their creative energy into what they do. What truly makes or breaks an organization is two things: energetic and inspired workers, and leaders who empower their people to do good work. I would argue we are sadly short of both.

      Here’s where we agree. If all “workers” became linchpins, most managers wouldn’t handle it well. So you’re right, the book really should discuss how to manage linchpins for best effect. How many times have you seen folks try to take a creative risk, and then get bogged down in an organization’s bureaucracy or analysis paralysis? I guess the point is that the fear people feel about becoming a linchpin is not completely unfounded. Lizard brain, yes, but also Pavlovian response.

  2. Jen, thanks for the post. One of many adventures include being an ops. Manager and boy let me tell ya, I’d take a linchpin in a minute(note I did not read the book, just working off the info. Above).

    Regarding the fire in the belly and not taking the time to find where the smoke is coming from is something I can resonant with. For years a mentor would ask me a very simply answer that I could not cleary answer, “What do you want?” it wasn’t until I was unemployed that I created a formula to figure some of this stuff out. Now I try to help folks do the same with a program called, “Your Essence.”. It’s powerful and gives you no excuses once you know what you ate all about at your core.

    Thanks again for the great post Jen!

    Your Ambassador,
    Mike Bruny

    • Mike- Glad this resonated with you. I, too, have been struggling to figure out what I want from life. It’s amazing I waited this long to do the hard work of figuring out the answer, though I’m also not terribly regretful. As a linchpin myself, I’ve been afforded some pretty amazing opportunities (like my current job).

      As an aside: The one thing I did disagree with Seth on was the idea that linchpins all love their jobs. I think being a linchpin for many isn’t even a choice–it’s more about whether you see yourself in a “job” or a “profession.” Nicholas Lore has a great test for this: when you meet someone new, do you say “I work for the Air Force as a chemist,” or “I am a chemist”? I use the latter, suggesting my work is a large part of my identity. So pouring my creativity energy into a job isn’t an option, even if I don’t particularly enjoy it.

    • On
    • April 25, 2010 at 6:43 pm
    • cameorn plommer
    • Said...

    Looks like we’ve come full circle with the commenting :)

    I think I understand where Paul is coming from with his Ford factory example. Yes it is not the right place or job for that matter, for riveters to be “artistic” when putting together a car. There’s one way to do the work. But what I got out of Seth’s book was that every working can work with emotional labor. Everyone can try to give small gifts (however you want to define gifts) throughout the work day. Example might be just saying hi and being friendly to coworkers or having genuine interaction with customers, or management for that matter. Just those little things make you not longer a cog in a wheel, because not everyone is willing to do this small things. But any one has the power to do so.

    • Cameron,

      The test of a really terrific blog post is whether you can get others to think so deeply about the subject they can’t stop talking about. Clearly you have exceeded the goal! LOL

      You’re right, everyone can bring their “gifts” to their work. I think in some cases, the trick is to find a job that best utilizes your strengths (or gifts), so that becoming a linchpin isn’t such a stretch. As I said, unfortunately, too many people don’t invest the time to determine what their strengths really are and thus don’t know how to leverage their strengths effectively in their work.

      As a manager myself, I sometimes get frustrated because I want to lay out a vision and then let others execute it. I’ve realized I’m not good at details. I expect others to figure those out, or to come back and tell me why the vision doesn’t jive with the ground-truth. What I think Seth was getting at was the fact that many people are not comfortable with that model: they insist on being directed, ask their managers for step-by-step instructions, and so forth, often because they are afraid of not doing the right thing. In my experience, we’d all be a lot better off if we spent more time clarifying what the vision is (this goes back to my point about communication issues) than focusing on the step-by-step path to get there, which no one can define at the start of a project anyway. In my mind, a linchpin would be someone who forced me to crystallize the ideas in my head, and then made them a reality with little oversight.

    • On
    • April 26, 2010 at 8:06 am
    • reader2rider
    • Said...

    This sounds like the birth of a buzzword, if not a management fad. Soon we’ll be attending seminars at the local Holiday Inn where everyone will be required to ask who the linchpins in the organization are, are you a linchpin, how to be a linchpin, recruiting linchpins, managing linchpins, managing for linchpinism, and so on ad nauseam. “To linchpin” will become a verb (if it hasn’t already), and “linchpinning” will be a recognized activity. Nobody will really understand what “linchpin” means, but everyone will have to add it to his or her business vocabulary or else risk not be able to talk the current talk. In a few years, it’ll be replaced by something else, which I’m sure one of Seth Godin’s competitors is working on even now, and linchpin will join leveraging and re-engineering in the dumpster out by the loading dock.

    For what it’s worth, a linchpin is just a fastener, a pin that holds wheels on carts. A corporate linchpin, if we absolutely must use the term, would be someone who helps hold the organization together – not necessarily an innovator or self-starter, just a force for organizational cohesion. We can all be that.

    • Reader,

      Always a source of wisdom, I cannot deny your frustration with buzzwords. But as Seth says himself: what should we call them? I think he’s trying to define a mindset, and unfortunately, there’s just no simple term in existence that describes what he means. So he borrowed a term. As poets, I think we can let him get away with it. Or at least I should, since my blog claims “luminations on a happy life.” Funny how generous the guilty can be! LOL.

      Maybe instead of trying to define in exact terms what it is, which would be my tendency, the better path is to return to the original definition of a linchpin as you advise. I think you interpret “a force for organizational cohesion” much as Cameron did, a sort of pervasive friendliness. I prefer companionable colleagues, but I argue it’s more than that. Nearly every position in an organization is critical to its success (though bloat happens when mediocrity sneaks in). Bringing excellence and integrity to the job makes anyone eligible for linchpin status, even if they’re cranky.

      Does that make any sense?

    • On
    • April 27, 2010 at 6:01 am
    • reader2rider
    • Said...

    It does make sense, Jen. I have to confess that the most successful domestic company I ever worked at was forever succumbing to these management fads. Somebody, usually the HR veep or the CEO, would hear about the newest fad at an industry meeting, interview a couple of consultants, pick the trendiest-sounding one, and off we would go. Some of us tried to jump in and take it seriously, others just rolled their eyes and made snarky comments under their breath. They were saying out loud what even the best team players among us were thinking. But in the end, after the team-building process, everybody made an effort to take the CEO’s vision for the company and drive it down through the strategic organizational matrix in order to achieve excellence and leave our customers delighted, drone drone drone blah blah blah whatever — and, mirabile dictu, it worked! It usually worked so well that were were able to reduce staff (ie, lay off a bunch of people), which, to be honest, is the outcome, if not the hidden purpose, of so many of these fads.

    One of the most famous early management studies (by Westinghouse, I think) found that productivity increased if the lighting was enhanced and the work areas were made brighter. Then they found that productivity also increased if lighting was turned down and the work areas were darker. It turned out that practically ANY change resulted in increased productivity. I think that’s the real value of getting the managers together and putting them through these exercises. It’s like moving into a new office. No matter what it looks like compared to your old office, you’re gonna work harder and smarter in it. Eventually, things always go back to normal; that’s when you know it’s time to break open a new box of buzzwords.

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