Switching from flat jobs to flow-to-the-work gigs

Roger Martin, the dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has a piece in the Harvard Business review that makes a case for transitioning away from the 20th century model of treating today’s creative workers (although he still says knowledge workers) like manual laborers: focusing them on a single role, incenting them to look busy at all times, and laying them off when there is a downturn. This binge-and-purge model leads to a great deal of waste and delay, and needs to be fixed by a new form factor for work, one that loosens the pigeon-holing of people to roles, and is based on a new compact between the creative and the company where work becomes a series of project gigs, not a permanent role doing the same “flat work” indefinitely.

Roger Martin, Rethinking the Decision Factory

The key to breaking the binge-and-purge cycle in knowledge work is to use the project rather than the job as the organizing principle. In this model, full-time employees are seen not as tethered to certain specified functions but as flowing to projects where their capabilities are needed. Companies can cut the numbers of knowledge workers they have on the payroll because they can move the ones they have around. The result is a lot less downtime and make-work.

Think of a freshly hired assistant brand manager for Olay at P&G. She may initially view her role as pretty standard: helping her boss guide the brand. However, she will quickly learn that the job is ever-changing. This month she may be working on the pricing and positioning of a brand extension. Two months later she may be totally absorbed in managing production glitches that are causing shipment delays on the biggest-selling item in the Olay lineup. Then all is quiet until the boss approaches her desk with yet another project. Within months she will figure out that her job is a series of projects that come and go, sometimes in convenient ways and sometimes not.

This characterization of knowledge work is gaining traction among management thinkers. In “The Rise of the Supertemp” (HBR May 2012), Jody Greenstone Miller and Matt Miller describe an emerging class of managers who are focused on short-term, high-value-added, knowledge-based projects. Similarly, the Silicon Valley legend Reid Hoffman, with Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh, suggests in “Tours of Duty: The New Employer-Employee Compact” (HBR June 2013) that organizing knowledge workers’ employment into time-bound “tours of duty” can help companies retain these workers and keep them happy. And although actually organizing knowledge work around projects may seem a radical idea in mainstream business, it is very familiar to professional services firms, some of which have become as large as manufacturing corporations. In 25 years Accenture has grown from its inception as the “systems integration practice” of Arthur Andersen into an independent firm with revenue equivalent to 3M’s. The iconic consultancy McKinsey & Company has about as much revenue as a typical Fortune 500 company.

These companies are made up almost exclusively of knowledge workers. When a project comes in, a team is assembled to carry it out. When the project is finished, the team is disassembled and its members are put on other projects. They don’t have permanent assignments; they have established skill levels that qualify them to work in certain capacities on certain projects.

I wrote as some length recently on the “Tours of Duty” thoughts of Hoffman et al (see Hire for “Tours of Duty” instead of pretending jobs are forever), saying

I believe that the new form factor for work is fast-and-loose, where companies strive for high flexibility and agility. The downside of that can be the direct impact on people who can’t flex as fast or as far as large, amorphous organizations can. So setting a hard date for making the determination about stay-or-go allows the parties to operate in a trust relationship, but also for each to retain their flexibility. This reminds me of the arguments for term marriage, for obvious reasons.

My sense is that Hoffman and his co-authors have codified one aspect of the new business ethos of work for the postnormal economy, replacing the illusion of open-ended employment with the certainties of a closed-ended tour of duty.

This same thinking is reflected in the “flow-to-the-work” model developed by Filippo Passerini at P&G’s Global Business Services, which was formed in 1998 to share IT and employee services, and in 2003

Roger Martin, Rethinking the Decision Factory

P&G in 2003 engaged in what was then the biggest outsourcing deal in corporate history: It sent approximately 3,300 jobs to IBM, HP, and Jones Lang LaSalle. Passerini transferred to those organizations the GBS employees who were performing the most-routine, least-project-oriented work. This allowed him to think more innovatively about the jobs that remained within GBS. The classic move would have been to structure them as flat jobs, assuming a consistent stream of similar work for each one.

Instead Passerini decided to embrace the project nature inherent in the work still at GBS. He made the part of his enterprise that remained within P&G what he called a “flow-to-the-work organization.” Of course, some of his employees were still working in flat, permanent jobs, but a large proportion were assigned to whatever projects had high urgency and high payoff. These knowledge workers didn’t expect to stay in one business unit in one region; they understood that they would be working in teams organized specifically to tackle pressing assignments in succession.

This rethinking of the nature of work — moving away from tight-and-slow, stuck-in-a-pigeonhole role, with supposed endless employment but actually being treated like a disposable liability — is a quiet revolution happening within companies like P&G. This transition from flat jobs to flow-to-the work gigs is going to happen everywhere possible, as fast as business culture can handle it.