Lead the Work: A book review by Bob Morris

Lead the WorkLead the Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment
John Boudreau, Ravin Jesuthasan, and David Creelman
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint (2015)

“The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence – it is to act with yesterday’s logic.” Peter Drucker

To what does the title of this book refer? Basically, it suggests the importance of the work to be done at a very high level of quality rather than leading those involved in that process. This is what Diane Gerson (in the Foreword) characterizes as “work beyond employment.” That is to say, in the new world of work, who does what and how they do it are far less important than the fact that the work is done and done well. Given the wide and deep impact of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom,” traditional thinking about employees and those who supervise them simply isn’t up to new challenges within a competitive marketplace that is both global and multicultural. There is an urgent need for alternatives to the traditional workplace models.

I agree with John Boudreau, Ravin Jesuthasan, and David Creelman: “The vast majority of attention in the management literature is on what happens with employees within the organization. If we look at Model 4 [The talent platforms add a layer that dramatically increases the effectiveness of free agents by significantly lowering the transaction cost, Page 19], it becomes clear that that the work done inside the organization is only one element in a much bigger picture. For the leader of today, the question is how to optimize and lead the work across all these options.” Be sure to check Figure 1.2 that offers a graphic representation that contrasts the old way of thinking about work with a new perspective.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of the book’s coverage:

o Talent Platforms Optimize Freelancing (Pages 15-17)
o Seeing a Pattern in the Pieces (17-20)
o Why Employment Evolved (23-25)
Note: The etymology of the noun “employment” can be traced to the mid-15th century; “the spending of money,” from the Middle English word “emploieno.” (28-30)
o From Free Agent Nation to Free Agent World, and, The Implications of Free Agent World (31-32)
o The Remaining Barriers to World Domination (32-33)
o The Rise of Outsourcing, and, The Rise of Alliances (37-42)
o Upwork: The Offering and Clients (52-58)
o The Engagement Model (64-68)
o The Less “Regular” Full-Time Job: The Engagement Model (71-74)
o Leading the Work Beyond Employment: A Decision Framework (83-91)
o How IBM Leads the Work (92-110)
o How Small to Deconstruct? (113-121)
o When to Detach and When Not to Detach (128-129)
o How Easily to Permeate? (137-140)
o How Deeply to Collaborate? (142-144)
o How Short the Time Frame? (155-158)
o How Creatively to Imagine the Reward? (166-172)
o HR Beyond Employment: Work Engineering, and, The Talent Lifecycle (178-183)
o Leadership Redefined (210-212)
o Common and Likely Future States for Governance Principles (220-221)
o Some Closing Thoughts on Governance and Stakeholders (232-234)
o What We, Our Children, and Our Organizations Can Do (250-252)

The co-authors are to be commended on their skillful use of mini-case studies inserted strategically throughout their lively and eloquent narrative. This material anchors concepts and applications in real-world situations with which most (if not all) business leaders can identify.
For example, here are three “snapshots” of How to Escape Traditional Full-Time Employment: “How Free Agents Built the Software for Managing Genomes,” “How to Power an Energy Company with Contract Workers,” and “How to Unravel the Mystery of Folding Proteins with Volunteers.” There are also more than a dozen “boxed in gray” mini-commentaries and brief accounts of that expand and enrich the frame-of-reference within which the “Leading Work Beyond Employment” model and its decision framework are explained. The focus (according to a format or at least implied) is on the offering and its clients, the work to be done, the workers, the Engagement Model, and “What This Means for Your Future as a Leader of the Work.”

Here are John Boudreau, Ravin Jesuthasan, and David Creelman‘s concluding remarks: “We believe that the days of employment being the only important means for getting work done are passing. This will lead to a host of dislocations for us as individuals and citizens. It’s natural and appropriate to worry about how this will affect our children. If we just let economic evolution take its course, there will be some good and some bad, but no guarantee of anything close to an optimal outcome. If we’re smart individually and collectively, we can ensure that the good outweighs the bad. Being proactive in managing the change is undoubtedly better than trying to hang on to the past.”

They do not offer any definitive maps but do provide an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that can serve as a “compass” for business leaders who now struggle to navigate a world beyond employment. Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Transformative HR: How Great Companies Use Evidence-Based Change for Sustainable Advantage, co-authored by Boudreau and Jesuthasan and published by Jossey-Bass (2011).

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