When Fleas Win

John Wooden was a truly great teacher. We tend to think of him more as a great basketball coach, and indeed he was one of the best coaches ever, but in fact he was a teacher. His main teaching was about how to live well. Not how to live flamboyantly. But how to live in a way that builds success in life.

The formula is surprisingly simple. There are really just two components. The first is to have an agenda. The second is to stick to it.  This is so simple that you might dismiss the strategy out of hand. If life was so simple, why do so many people end up unhappy? The answer is also simple. It is because being simple does not make a thing easy. And the more we look for the easy way out (the magic bullet), the less we see the simple truth that there is no easy way out.  So, being rather stubborn,  we look harder for something that is not there and we get frustrated in the process and stuck. Ooops.

Here is an example of how Wooden’s agenda setting worked. Wooden bumped into one of his former players and asked how he was doing. The former player said that he was now the proud father of a new baby boy. Wooden asked him “Do you know what the best thing in life that you can give your son?” (Translation – do you have an agenda?)

Hmmm … it is a simple question. And it is obviously a rather important question. Is it love? Money? What is the one thing that a boy needs more than anything else? Wooden’s answer “Show him that you love his mother”.

Notice how this brilliant answer translates an abstract concept — “the best thing in life” — into a concrete, simple and essential thing to do —  “to show love to a mother”. Think about it. Think about how this will open the door for the boy to understand the importance of loving people. It is not just a morally correct way to be, it is a practical way to show a boy how to have a good life. Notice also that just doing this once doesn’t cut it. You need to incorporate it into your life. Notice also that as one does it, one gets better at it and this multiplies the meaning and effect. In other words, one has to stick to the agenda to make it work. There is an intense fusion going on here – a fusion of living and learning. Two sides to the same coin.

Sticking to the agenda is what Wooden called having a “winning attitude”. The winning attitude moves us from abstract dreams to doing concrete things and focusing on doing those concrete things as well as we can.  That is living well. Full stop. If you value the practice you enjoy the practice and learn from it. Nick Saban (another successful coach) calls this his “process”.

But wait a minute! We are fleas, right? Committing to being a flea is an agenda. That agenda is to make other people look good in light of what they do. Say “yes and …” to that agenda and you are on your way.  You have entered the realm of rather sophisticated strategic thinking.

FOLLOW UP –  David Foster Wallace was somewhat obsessed by how “easy” watching TV is. I can understand why. If we are persuaded that things should be easy in order to be “fun”, we lose our appetite for risk and adventure in life.


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!

The Saga of the Flea

Over the centuries, the types of stories that mankind shares have changed. We were obsessed some time ago, for example, of stories of how the gods affected the fates of men. Later on, we became obsessed by stories of virginal purity amidst debauchery. Later still, we became obsessed by stories of liberation.

In all of these genres, one finds a hero or heroes beset by difficult if not impossible challenges. Indeed, the more difficult the challenge, the better the story. The types of hero change and the types of challenges change, but it seems universal that mankind insists on being the hero who slays the villain. He fights against forces that would rob humanity of its … well … humanity.  And most recently, we seem somewhat obsessed with the notion that to prevail over these obscene forces, men must become “superheroes”.  We are obsessed by stories of great genius, resilience, productivity, and so on. There is an odd craving for fantasy here. Could it be, as Foster Wallace argued, that this is because fantasy is easier on the imagination?

My exhortation in this thread is to become a flea instead. What I mean is that one should play the hero role as a real flea rather than as a make believe superman. This implies a different sort of story. Stories that interest me most as a flea are those that challenge my flea status. Forces that would rob me of my fleadom. What are they? Quite simple.

The first is money. Fleas need money like everyone else. But we don’t have a salary. Or at least we don’t want earning a salary to be our main life adventure. So stories about how to make money without relying on elephants are quite interesting.

The second is capacity. As a flea, no one is going to help me do anything. My flea nature requires therefore a sharp focus on what value I can add to what others do. Looking for niches and stories about how to exploit these niches are quite interesting.

The third is connection. I  have no institution to nurture me and I am too small as a flea to do much on my own.  I must embark on the adventure of making my own connections.  This is perhaps the most fascinating story of all.

These stories are more than just entertainment. Stories are what enable humans to make sense of the world. And fleas need stories too.

Fleas! Remove Your Amour!

I am enjoying this thread on being a flea. (See my prior two posts).  It resonates both with my own life and my view of how business is evolving in the 21st century. Using Charles Handy’s terminology, we will less often find ourselves riding the elephants in this century and more often playing the role of the flea (as portfolio or knowledge workers).

And one of the first things we find out as fleas is that there is no “pre-packaged” formula that we can microwave for success in life. Quite the contrary. We have to remove the “armour” of corporate mission statements and work for ourselves as unique beings.

The difference between living in accordance with a mission and living to create a mission is huge. Instead of being the first to raise our hand in class to answer a question posed by the teacher with the hope of getting a good grade, we strive be first to formulate the most appropriate questions and work on developing answers as we go.  And this means a certain amount of loneliness.

It is a leadership attribute to be lonely even in a group. So said Eisenhower after he ordered the D Day landings despite ominous weather forecasts. But I refer to loneliness of leadership in a different sense. We tend to think of leaders in a social sense. Persons who command authority. In fact, as Csikszentmihalyi brought out, social leadership is fickle when individuality is weak. So as fleas, we are talking here about building individual capacity outside of the social sphere. We are lonely inside ourselves. And that is ok.

As Gladwell brings out, this idea cuts against the grain. We are apparently hard wired as humans to join prestigious clubs. In other words, to take on a code of conduct rather than formulate one. Perhaps this explains why we so readily give up our freedoms to charismatic leaders.

So fleas talk about leadership in a different way. Flea leadership demands that we live up to a higher ideal. without ourselves The angelic sides of our natures. That angelic self must be content in its own beauty.

Forward March, Fleas!

Yesterday, I posted about Charles Handy’s “Elephant and Flea” idea. Fleas, being “portfolio workers”. This sounds like a relatively new idea. And it sounded pretty radical when Peter Drucker (who as ar as I know was the first to argue that “knowledge workers” would become more valuable than just folks doing routine tasks). It is a short hop to Handy’s idea that knowledge workers would sell their knowledge however they choose to do so, and fall out of the employment rolls. They would become fleas.

In fact, this tradition goes way, way back. Socrates, perhaps, was one of the original fleas. He lived as he felt he should live, rather than in order to get a pay check. Indeed, the ancient Greek idea was that one had to fall out of daily routines in order to achieve wisdom. Hence, their “schools” where students might live together for decades. A flea infestation?

As James Burke brings out, the key value of these schools and the ancient Greek orientation in general was “forward looking”. Folks like Aristotle argued that if one invested sufficient time, one could come to a systematic understanding of the world around himself or herself — and hence live better. Tomorrow will be better than today. It was an intoxicating idea that one could argue created Roman Europe. As Rome fell apart, Augustine temporarily robbed western Europe of this notion (arguing instead that the material world was meaningless compared to one’s eternal prospects). But the interest in improving the world around us came roaring back with a vengeance when Aristotle’s writings were re-discovered and entered European discourse in medieval times. BTW, as Burke brings out, we can thank the Moors for that.

Here is the thing. Fleas were the first to argue that forward thinking was a good idea. Much later on, we embraced the idea that elephants bring us an even better future than we had enjoyed so far. Why? At first it was because discovering the new world was damned expensive and elephants (joint stuck companies) allowed for accumulation of capital. Later we got more excited about this  because reducing costs of production (in what we call the industrial revolution) also was damned expensive. Still later on, folks like Al Sloan thought elephants could promise us a better life on a permanent basis. Sloan et al believed in the “science of management”. So we get the curious idea that “what is good for GM is good for America”. We became “corporate”.

Well, we can take the blinders off now. We know that elephants are not designed as future value maximizers — they are instead, just a great way to accumulate capital for single ventures. In other words, they are a single use tool rather than a “magic bullet” cure for whatever ails us. So is it surprising that a certain number of fleas would jump off the lumbering beasts and ponder how they could do better? Think of it, if you will, as a neo-Socratic movement.

Two Fleas Walk into a Bar Full of Elephants …

The title of this post may seem a bit puzzling, but it relates to something important.Hold on to your hat!

We tend to think of fleas as pesky little critters that unfortunate pets and sometimes humans have to contend with. But Charles Handy refers to fleas in a different way altogether. Handy calls a certain group of humans “fleas”. These are people who are not employed by great firms (or “elephants” as he called them). The fleas are not salaried, but they are not just sitting around collecting unemployment either. They are independent contractors or as Handy calls them “portfolio workers”. And in Hnady’s rather charming book “The Elephant and the Flea“, he describes how he made the switch from working for an elephant to becoming a flea.

Handy wrote this book back in 2001 when one started seeing more fleas around town. Back then, they were folks who had extraordinary expertise, cleverness, reputation or some other attribute that made it possible to go it alone. I can think of two such highly gifted folks who made the break into the flea world around that time. And of course, my dad was a flea extraordinaire, who for most of his career, operated a solo shop as a surgeon back in the golden age of medicine. But Handy argues that society will become more and more flea ridden as we go forward. Good or bad, it matters not. More average folks will adopt the life style of the portfolio worker or flea. The era of a career based on a single job or even area of expertise is coming to an end. I agree. The question is how fleas can best manage their affairs.

Speaking as a flea, I can say that there are challenges. I will be chatting about this over the next days.