I share with you here the essential points that I take away from reading “Lead the Work”, the book by Ravin Jesuthasan, John W. Boudreau, and David Creelman.
Traditional models of full-time employment are becoming obsolete as new forms of work arrangements emerge, such as freelance work, contract work, “boomerang” employees who return after gaining experience elsewhere, and various talent-sharing models between organizations. Leaders are urged to adapt and focus on “leading the work,” regardless of who performs it or where it takes place.
For instance, Ion Torrent used a freelance talent platform, Topcoder, to solve a complex data issue more efficiently than with in-house staff. A large European energy company employs over 100,000 contractors for flexibility and cost-effectiveness, albeit with challenges in long-term commitment and knowledge retention. In academia, a crowdsourced game called Foldit helped tackle the complex problem of protein folding without monetary compensation.
Strong trends are emerging where even full-time employees are embracing a free agent mindset and juggling multiple roles, enabled by increasingly flexible work arrangements.
In that context, people increasingly view themselves as “CEOs of Me”, emphasising personal agency and job fluidity.
The book introduces the concept of “PICF” which stands for Permeable, Interlinked, Collaborative, and Flexible organizations. These organizations outsource, collaborate, and form alliances based on strategic considerations to fulfill their needs in the most efficient manner. No function is so core to an organization that it can’t be outsourced or shifted, suggesting that adaptability is key to sustainable performance. The complexities of decision-making in choosing what to keep in-house and what to outsource or collaborate on, positing that these decisions should be guided by where the most value can be generated.
The authors questions the feasibility of executing long-term projects when the workforce itself is not long-term.
Initially, free agents often disguised themselves as larger entities to gain credibility. However, as free agency becomes more accepted, there is less need for this pretence. They can now work openly from cafes or home, wear casual attire, and have multiple collaborations without losing professional status.
Companies are also considering talent exchange between non-competing organizations, such as insurers, tech companies, and global retail banks, as a potential model. These companies could pool resources and share talent in a symbiotic relationship, thereby boosting growth and innovation without incurring the costs and risks of building new infrastructure.
Alliances offer a more collaborative, interlinked way for companies to achieve their objectives, accounting for a substantial part of the market value for many businesses today.
Originating in the 1980s through joint ventures, alliances have evolved to become more flexible contractual agreements serving various purposes.
Alliances are particularly useful for tackling complex, risky, or large-scale projects that would be difficult for a single company to undertake alone. They allow companies to share expertise, risks, and rewards. These partnerships can fall into various categories, such as comarketing, research, distribution, supplier, and coproduction alliances.
A case study of Metro AG exemplifies how a large organization collaborated with 75 partners to innovate in retail. The example of the startup Meta shows that alliances can help smaller companies with ambitious goals, like revolutionizing augmented reality, to punch above their weight.
The success of alliances hinges on a shared vision, culture, and an ability to manage complex relationships. It requires a different kind of leadership focused on trust, flexibility, and a long-term commitment to mutual benefit. The future of work in many sectors may well be characterized by these dynamic ecosystems of interlinked companies.
Deconstruction involves breaking down a whole into its constituent parts, such as converting traditional jobs into projects, tasks, or microtasks. Platforms like Topcoder and Upwork demonstrate how deconstruction allows for task-specific assignments that are easier to manage and measure.
However, deconstruction is not always the best approach. It may be suboptimal when tasks are closely interconnected or the upfront cost of deconstruction is too high.
Here are three primary examples :
As businesses grow, deconstruction of roles is inevitable. However, it needs to be done carefully to ensure efficient and effective operations. For existing organizations with rigid structures and high overheads, deconstruction may be necessary for survival. The ultimate speed and method of deconstruction depend on the unique dynamics of each business.
Despite technological capabilities, not all work should be dispersed. Creative work, for instance, often benefits from face-to-face interactions, as seen in companies like Pixar. Hybrid models that balance remote and on-site work can be highly effective.
Traditional reward systems, often designed for long-term, full-time employees, may not be effective in attracting or retaining modern workers, who value different things such as mobility, freedom, and varied types of compensation. Beyond financial compensation, rewards like reputation, glamor, meaning, learning, community, discretion, and flexibility can be equally motivating.
Freelance platforms and crowdsourcing initiatives have shown that many people are willing to work for non-monetary benefits, like skill development or reputation building. Despite this, traditional employment still has some unique offerings, such as income security, career progression, and community belonging, although the gap between traditional and non-traditional forms of employment in these areas is closing.
For instance, Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky lured Orson Welles into a project by catering to Welles’s love of food, showing that unique rewards can attract top-tier talent.
Examples of diversified rewards levers are numerous:
Traditional recruitment strategies will no longer suffice; organizations must think in terms of “engagement brands” and consider rewards that may fall outside the purview of traditional employment benefits.
The term “separation” becomes less meaningful when work is deconstructed and performed through platforms. Instead, the emphasis shifts to maintaining connections and relationships with workers who are always available, even if they work part-time for competitors. The concept of rewards is redefined as individualized and short-term, aligned with boundaryless work relationships.
In a world beyond employment, engagement and culture matter not just for employees but also for the broader workforce. The role of talent platforms in fostering engagement among free agents seems to be growing and to be the subject of studies, along with the idea of measuring engagement among those working on specific projects through engagement surveys or online platforms like Freelancers Union’s client scorecard.
Independent workers often exhibit higher engagement and innovation, challenging the assumption that full-time employment is necessary for innovation.
We have to reconsider the complex nature of culture when organizations collaborate and the importance of examining engagement beyond organizational boundaries.
We can thus conclude that in a world beyond employment, it may be essential for HR to develop leaders respected both inside and outside the organization. The strategic definition and purpose of diversity need to be redefined to include the broader talent ecosystem.
The introduction of the Affordable Care Act in the United States represented a significant step towards decoupling rewards from employment, allowing non-employees to access benefits traditionally associated with employment.
In the evolving landscape of work, traditional employment models are giving way to more fluid and diverse arrangements. This shift necessitates a redefinition of organizational engagement, culture, governance and rewards. As the lines between full-time employment and freelance work blur, leaders must navigate these changes with adaptability and foresight. The future beckons a broader understanding of the talent ecosystem, where collaboration, flexibility, and individual agency are paramount.