Outsourced, dejobbed, downsized, projectized?
William Bridges says, Welcome to the future
The author of the influential book Jobshift talks to PM Network about the role of projects in a future without jobs.
by Jeannette Cabanis
REMEMBER THOSE science fiction books you devoured as a teenager? The best ones grabbed the imagination by shifting your focus to look out through the eyes of someone whose reality was altogether different from yours: a pregnant “king,” a rebellious creature flouting convention to prove the “sky” (the surface of a puddle) could be penetrated, a pacifist from a world without ownership whose language contained no word for “mine” or “yours.” Well, if you are planning to read William Bridges’ groundbreaking book Jobshift (Addison-Wesley, 1994), you'd better dust off that intellectual flexibility. You're gonna need it. Because the reality we've long accepted as permanent, says Bridges, is undergoing a serious shift. Planet Job is about to explode.
Bridges, president of William Bridges & Associates, is an organizational development consultant, lecturer, and author of eight books, including Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes (Perseus Press, 1980; now in its 29th printing). His clients have included Pacific Bell, Intel, Apple Computer, Chevron, and McDonnell Douglas. The Wall Street Journal has listed him among the 10 most popular executive development consultants in the United States. He received his education at Harvard, Columbia, and Brown. When guys like this talk we tend to sit up and listen. Even when what they have to say may seem like the view from another galaxy.
“You see,” Bridges explains, “we have a very short-term view of history. We have simply accepted as fact that a society based on people having steady jobs was normal, desirable—even unchanging.” Instead, he points out, the period after the Second World War, and perhaps beginning in the 1890s, is an exception to the historical rule. In this period of very high social security, jobs became the norm. To work was to have a job. It was easy to buy the idea that this was a higher state of civilization than the one that preceded it—that replacing shops and farms with mega-industries was Progress, capitalized. We assumed that industrialization, bureaucracy, and scientific management typified the way that the modern world was going to get its work done.
It's a paradox: almost all Americans are employed, but no job feels secure. Temp workers, contract employees and outsourcing firms do the work that once belonged to the organization's own full-time, long-term employees. If you're waiting for this situation to get “back to normal” don't hold your breath. Bridges says this is not a temporary loss because of market conditions; instead, it signifies that the conventional job is no longer the most effective way to get work done. In Bridges’ terms, although there's still plenty of work to do, the organization is being “dejobbed”—stripped of stable, long-term niches for the Faithful Employee.
So how do you do the work of the world without big, stable organizations full of worker bees? How do you shift priorities quickly, get initiatives up and running with dispatch, blow up the paternalistic bureaucracy, and utilize people's talents without boring them to death 90 percent of the time? Let's see, seems I've seen the word for this idea somewhere around here … oh, yeah, here it is: projects.
I flipped to the index of Jobshift to see what Bridges has to say about the project paradigm and got a tantalizing taste of his thought on the subject. As shining examples of dejobbed organizations, he cites the project driven cultures of Microsoft, IDEO, and EDS. He notes that one of the “new rules” of employment is that more work will be done by cross-functional project teams. And he quotes Melvin Ansher's seminal article “The Management of Ideas” (Harvard Business Review, July—Aug. 1969), which prophesized that only project-based organizations would be able to respond to the increasingly rapid demands of the marketplace. So I couldn't resist calling him to ask what role he thinks the project management profession will play in a dejobbed workplace. Are PMIers the brave colonists of Planet Project?
Auditing “You & Co.”
One way to begin to learn new ways to work, suggests Bridges, is to conduct an audit of your:
■ Expectations—Among the expectations that are “continually being violated” by change, Bridges lists: “After this change, things will settle down”; “If you ‘do a good job,’ you'll remain on the payroll”; and “Long service to an organization will be a plus.”
■ Habits—Bridges cautions us to “stay up to date on changes that are likely to have an impact on the kind of work you do … decide what periodicals you would read regularly and what professional or trade meetings you would attend if you were an independent professional.”
■ Contacts—”Are you ready to launch a personal business-development effort tomorrow by contacting the people who could help you move in whatever direction you decided was appropriate?”
■ Personal Rules—Most of us still observe old rules, Bridges says, such as “Don't try to change careers after forty.” Such rules belong on Planet Job. Bridges celebrates the fact that “there is far less age discrimination in the world of You & Co. Vendors get paid what they are worth.”
In Jobshift, I read between the lines that “the project” plays a crucial role in the shift, serving as a new organizing principle for both organizations and individuals. In fact, I've wondered if “dejobbing” wasn't really what we call “projectizing”—that is, running all the business of an organization as projects.
Dejobbing and projectizing dovetail. Projectizing leads to dejobbing, or vice versa … the difference is that projectizing is from a tactical or strategic point of view, while dejobbing is how it looks from the individual's point of view.
If you projectize an organization or any part of it, that's something you do to the organization. Dejobbing is what people experience. They used to have a “job” but now they're all over the place on various projects. They are complementary ideas.
What I am doing is trying to capture what's upsetting people. Projects per se are not upsetting people; what upsets them is what projects create in their wake.
What you propose—that the industrial artifact of the job is a dinosaur on its way out—is scary to many people. Yet for project managers this has been the norm for years, especially in fully projectized businesses—engineering firms, architects, aerospace. Does that give them an edge in this new economy? How can they best capitalize on that?
The people who have become used to working in this way do have an edge. Good team members learn just as much as project managers about the rules of the new workplace. They've got to be able to unplug that knowledge from the subject matter context. They can't be such devoted engineers that they don't function well in cross-functional situations.
So project management skills—or more importantly, the mindset that accompanies them—would be something for every worker to learn to help with this transition?
You hit on the key with the word mindset. One of the things that we are badly in need of is a curriculum for the new workplace—self-management, intrapreneurship, taking responsibility for outcomes. Project management is a ready package of such new skills … you're right to say mindset because it isn't so much that you learn to be a project manager, but that you learn to see the workplace like a project manager, as a complement of resources and outcomes to be achieved. These attitudes need to be more widely assumed by workers in general.
Your book was published in 1994. At this writing, the “job” boom seems to continue, with labor shortages in IT and service industries. Is this illusory? Is it the job's last hurrah?
One of the things I didn't understand when I wrote the book was that there are two dimensions to this phenomenon of the job shift: numerical and qualitative. There can be 100 percent employment with nobody working a “job” per se. The shift is happening in a steady way, regardless of unemployment figures, because there is more erosion of boundaries in jobs, more jobs being dissolved out of organizations into small pockets of startup and oneperson organizations.
I wasn't clear in ’94 about the distribution of work: it goes a long way beyond outsourcing, beyond sending it out the door because you can't pull it off yourself. There was an article in the Harvard Business Review recently about Dell Computer, a company that made a strategic decision to do only certain things. They are trying to build a different kind of company using 15,000 people to produce what it would take 80,000 to produce if they did it all themselves.
I didn't understand that distribution was a thing in itself: to distribute work around to those who can do it, who are already set up to do it, to subcontractors, consultants … dejobbing and distribution complement each other. It takes the work out of the traditionally integrated company box … and distribution is picking up speed, just like dejobbing is picking up speed.
As I said, I was writing about what upsets people in the workplace. People don't worry so much when they can find work; they really sweat it when it's hard to find. So dejobbing doesn't feel like a major issue right now, even though it's going on all around us. When the job market tightens again, we'll begin to see that numerical dimension of dejobbing take a toll on people's self-confidence. The capacity of distributed companies to get work done with fewer and fewer people is astounding, really problematical.
But then, too, as the workplace changes, people are changing with it, so when the market for traditional jobs contracts, more people will be ready for it. Look at Fast Company magazine, with To m Peters’ “Brand You” article and their cover story, “Free Agent America.” These articles are becoming sort of the vehicle for a whole movement. Fast Company identifies itself as the “free agent publication.”
You quote Meg Wheatley on the marriage of chaos and order. When I interviewed her last fall, she said she found this whole notion of “free agents” very disconcerting because of the lack of commitment and community it implies. How do we reconcile free agency with the need to relate and belong?
There are several different nonfunctional areas that have arisen such as quality management, project management, learning organization people … they don't fall into anyone's bailiwick. These have the character of a “new” organization … all these disciplines are generating professional organizations. What I am thinking is that where a group clusters around an issue, like TQM or PM, cutting across functions, you are seeing the symptoms of this shift.
An Entrepreneur Has a Business, Not a Job
So what's left to do? Will we spend the next millennium sitting around in our undershirts playing pinochle? Hardly, says Bridges. There's plenty of work that needs doing. All we have to do is reframe ourselves as entrepreneurs in search of market opportunities—and he stresses that you can start doing it today, whether you are self-employed or a cog in a giant corporation. The key is to stop thinking like a grunt and start thinking like a vendor.
The challenge of surviving in the dejobbed workplace, says Bridges, is this: To always have work you must always be needed. You can flourish in the dejobbed world if you treat the workplace as a marketplace. Don't think of yourself as an employee. Think of yourself as an independent business trying to sell needed “goods” to the customers in your market [the workplace]. You'll learn what goods you have to sell from analyzing your D.A.T.A—your desires, abilities, temperament, and assets. Then all you have to do is market those goods.
The future demands a new set of career development strategies, which Bridges summarizes in “Everything is a Market,” Chapter Three of Jobshift:
1. Your environment, on both sides of the organizational boundary, is a market. Try looking at your organization … as a market. … Who's selling to whom? What customers are not finding what they need in that market?
2. Markets (inside the organization as well as outside) are made up of individuals who are best understood as customers. Forget your job description and forget who reports to whom. Scan your environment for people with needs. Those are potential customers, for they are in the market for services. Look at your managers and colleagues. They are customers too.
3. Your relation to them must be based on need-satisfaction. What are their needs, their real needs, not the demands they make or their wishes? Whatever it would take to satisfy those needs will have more staying power within the organization than your job does.
4. Today, all markets are changing very rapidly. What are the changes that are currently reshaping your organization—good changes, bad changes, little changes, big changes—it doesn't matter. Stay current on the change situation, because change is your ally when you are thinking in these terms.
5. Change by its very nature creates new needs constantly. This is a place to do some brainstorming. Take all the changes and imagine all the needs that they have created somewhere in the organization. Then look at your list and see what ideas pop out at you.
6. The vendor-minded employee must develop an eye for unmet needs. This isn't a one-time effort. Future changes will create future needs, so you'll have to do it periodically. … [T]hese needs-spotting habits must be ingrained in your everyday outlook.
And that's one of the alternate ways you suggest framing a nonjob career—through identification with a profession. That's something we are seeing with project managers now: I think it's one reason PMI's membership has nearly tripled in just three years. Are we moving back to a “guild-based” society?
Guilds are one answer. People who stay in a profession for any length of time encounter each other, the way people who work in the movies do. The conditions are there, but the guilds aren't appearing for the mass of people. Unions have to reinvent themselves in a much more guild-like pattern, but that's not widely happening. You've got your finger on it though. Right now, for many people, work identity is a kind of gap or vacuum from a human point of view, as title and position and role become more fluid. But we don't know yet what can be cooked up on purpose by people seeking a sense of community … There's a tremendous attraction to anything that promises community—something to belong to, something where you are acknowledged—people start grabbing on to whatever presents itself … when that happens it's a powerful antidote to alienation.
As I read your book, I began to think the words project and manager were perhaps not well suited to each other. You talk about project leaders. There's s subtle difference there— could you discuss that?
We think of a “manager” as someone who manages people, but a project manager really manages a process—the people manage themselves and their work. Yes, I think there's a distinction there. Maybe project leader is a better term.
Another issue that is proving thorny as people become more like entrepreneurs, moving from project to project across organizations, is intellectual property. Who owns what you learn when you hone your skills at Acme Inc. and then go to Beta Inc. to lead a new project? Is the noncompete contract a relic of the company loyalty age?
You've pinpointed an issue that I don't know the answer to. I myself am constantly working with organizations as a consultant, where any materials developed belong to the organization. Yet these materials are based on ideas that are far from specific to any one company.
Yes, this is a relic of company loyalty. We are in a situation now kind of like that of professional sports before free agency, where you had to play for the team what brung you. “Your brain belongs to the company” is no longer appropriate in an entrepreneurial society … the problem is no one yet knows what is appropriate.
IT'S HARD TO PREDICT what will be appropriate for life on Planet Project. But if you keep having that feeling that those old sci-fi tales are coming true—talking computers, life on Mars, and so on—you may want to make Bridges’ advice part of your perspective. In order to stay employed in a world without jobs, we must realize we are all contingent workers, that we must develop a vendor mindset and learn to move quickly between tasks and organizations, and that we need to analyze our D.A.T.A. and begin to think of and manage ourselves as mini-businesses.
On Planet Project, predicts Bridges, traditional management duties will disappear, along with alien artifacts like the eight-hour day, leaves of absence, vacations, and retirement. In the “dejobbed” organization, workers will make decisions in teams, have access to information once restricted to top management, and share the company's profits. Bridges’ ideas may sound radical but they are realistic. The workplace is going boldly where no employees have gone before—and we are going there in project teams. The message to corporations, educators, managers and workers alike is simple: get with the project program! ■
Jeannette Cabanis (email@example.com), PM Network's acting editor-in-chief, interviewed William Bridges by phone in July of 1998.
PM Network • November 1998