Ming confesses to being a workaholic:
As I’ve often noted, Flemming Funch, the human behind ming.tv, has something instructive for us on most days. Today he describes the secret nuclear force that powers every enterprise of any consequence: the amazing commitment and output of a few individuals that is the key to even the biggest projects.
Call them the productive few or key employees or the secret sauce. What’s amazing is not that most work is done by so few, but that it takes so few to make our economy as big as it is. It’s a cause for despair and hope.
The Project-centric Enterprise
Frank Patrick calls them “multiple-project companies.” They are the innovative organizations that seem to get more done than others, probably because they see their business as a series of projects that produce the individual products or service sets their customers want. At the core of each project you’ll find just a few people—maybe just one—who produce as much and are as overworked as Ming’s description.
These projects are big revenue producers. Just a few of them may be responsible for most of a company’s income—the 80-20 rule says that 80% of your income is from 20% of your products. And projects don’t seem to work unless driven by a small core of dedicated people. It’s well known that most big software projects’ code is written by about a half dozen people—sorry to be fuzzy about that important data point, but it’s true in my limited experience. The reliance on concentrated productivity is what allows the remainder of most organizations to be laughable in their low productivity. This is such a disconnect with industrial age thinking that we can’t imagine it’s true:
Can our economy be the work of, like, 1% of us?!
Once we have some hard data, I believe that will be our conclusion. What are these people like? From observing and, in the best of times, being one of them, here’s what I think I’ve learned:
The Top 10 Characteristics of the Productive Few
There’s more, but ten’s my limit. What’s amazing is that the Productive Few are here at all.
Through most human history, we’ve not had the means to even remember what preceded us, beyond myth and propaganda. The dominant male, the type that has none of those 10 characteristics, directed all activity but in a vague way, and no one considered alternative actions, cause and effect, etc. With the Atomic Age, TV and, of course, the Internet, we believe that mistakes can be both deadly and avoided, and we see the results of our deliberations in the newly shared archive. This has triggered a more fundamental instinct than most: the fear of embarrassment. Being “found out” may be our most basic fear, because it can lower you on the pecking order, so it’s now vital to not only be in charge of your organization, but to have it do the right things.
Products are Software
Most products and services depend on algorithms, and the nature of algorithms is that they expose error.
Most products are services, and even hardware has a lot of code in it or enabling it. That means that we learn right away when things don’t work, and we’re forced to learn why.
So we’ve built an economy based on hard facts and that imperative is creeping into the culture. (Obviously it’s not even close to penetrating politics). But only a few are able to produce the magic code that makes a product profitable. How long will organizations be able to ghettoize their most productive people? Like trolls hanging on to their precious bridge franchise, management will hold on as long as it can.
The Transparent Economy
The means of transparency seem to be accumulating slowly but the adoption is pretty dramatic. It may even be straightforward to accelerate the transition. Naturally, we hope that our microeconomy can make a difference, by publishing promises and outcomes based on quality as well as price. Unlike the larger economy, the Xpertweb protocols are designed so high-quality goods and services will have the kind of economic advantage now enjoyed by low-cost goods and services.
I imagine a day, soon, when Ming is one of the productive few and has the means to coordinate the elusive C++ contractor, the lack of whom may have cost him seven figures. Given the right protocols, the Productive Few can connect with each other in ways impossible under the current system, since it’s hard for them to find each other and collaborate outside of the enterprises they’re often buried within. Increasingly, it’s the lack of nuclear material—one of the Productive Few—that’s the gre
at risk. As Bill Joy famously said, more or less, “The best expert for your most important project doesn’t work for you.”
Our collective hope should be that most of us join the Productive Few who deliver the goods, rather than remain among the slacker many, smug in our cluelessness. Certainly we will so aspire if our promises and our productivity are visible.
The Transparent Culture
Even though I think Xpertweb is the greatest thing since sliced bread served with canned beer, a more important watershed is looming which will further prod us to be among the Productive Few. This change is inevitable, imminent, obvious, and requires no one’s permission. It is the ubiquity of what we might call the PFR – The Personal Flight Recorder. If all of the following statements are true, then the conclusion is also true. Just because it’s so dramatic does not make it unlikely:
That inevitable sequence means that ours is fated to be a pervasively shared culture. Every action by the police will be captured (by their and others’ PFRs) and subject to public review. Any transgression, real or imagined, will be shared and, probably, published. The most noteworthy exceptions to “conventional” mores will receive the most attention. This will have a chilling effect on a wide range of activities:
Peer Brother is Watching You
That inevitable future may seem bleak, but perhaps only because we haven’t got our head around the effect of decentralized peer-based surveillance. Intermediaries always act contrary to the interests of those for whom they intermediate, so we assume that a video-archived future is through corporate and government surveillance serving the interests of those powerful enough to control the “public” record. That is not what Peer Surveillance will be like.
We cannot predict what shape the Peer Surveillance culture will take, but there’s ample precedent. It will probably be like a small village where everyone knows everyone else’s business and gossips about what’s most aberrant. Historically, the intrusiveness of busybodies varied inversely with the population of the village. With the whole world capturing the activities of, well, the whole world, maybe we’ll become more tolerant of our peccadilloes as they become so common that they’ll be uninteresting, like chair-throwing on Jerry Springer or hot-tubbing on reality TV.
Perhaps the most chilling effect of the Peer Surveillance culture will be on guilt and whining. We may find that the sins and guilt we carry with us are simply not that rare, outrageous or, worst of all, interesting. Perhaps then we’ll learn to be of real use to each other, and productivity will be the norm rather than the burden of the overtaxed few.