The Ecology of the Flea

Happy May Day!

We are still thinking through what it means to be a “flea” these days (using Charles Handy’s term for “portfolio workers”).  It is a strategic challenge of a different nature. Rather than trying to meet future challenges by  “bulking up” or “scaling”, we are exploring what one can achieve by going the other way. Living as a unique individual in a highly corporate world.

One idea struck me last night. Dan Pink uses the idea in his book “To Sell is Human” and it fits in very nicely in our context. Dan makes the point that selling requires a spontaneous exchange. That spontaneity works better if one knows the rules for improvisation. And one of those rules is … drum role please … always make the other party look good.

Fleas don’t have a lot of individual power in the marketplace. And to thrive, fleas need to do a lot of partnering. So making the other side look good strikes me as a very good tactic to fit in. But we are not just into “fitting in” here. We want to win as fleas. As Lafley and Martin said, there is no point exerting the effort that is needed in life just to survive. So we need a “winning aspiration” for our connecting.

Here it is. As Lafley and Martin point out, our winning aspiration should relate to what people do (not just what we want ourselves, like a trillion dollars). So what do people do that fleas can add value to? The conventional wisdom these days is that fleas make good “angel investors”. The finance start ups. Well, finance is fun, but I think finance is a rather narrow range of activity for all of the fleas of the world to aspire to. An older category was “invention”. Fleas can sit back and dream up new ideas. Well some can and some can’t. Isn’t there something that all of us fleas can do?

Yes. Fleas are the ultimate story tellers. In other words, fleas can and should tell other people’s stories for them. I don’t mean marketing here. I mean building context what people (and elephants do well). Fleas help non-fleas understand better what they are trying to do which in turn helps people connect with others and see more broadly how their efforts fit into community.

Using business lingo, this is called “building an ecology”. HBR says we should start thinking this way, and fleas do this best. So let’s get to work!

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