Are You a White-Collar Factory Worker?

April 30, 2010

If you are, you need to start making some immediate changes...

Seth Godin made the following observation in his book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?:

“Most white-collar workers wear white collars, but they’re still working in the factory. They push a pencil or process an application or type on a keyboard instead of operating a drill press. The work is planned, controlled, and measured. It’s factory work because you can optimize for productivity.“

Seth’s point is that the structure of many organizations today is actually modeled on factories is an interesting one. In this configuration, only a select few perform any meaningful thinking – they determine the work processes and outputs. As Seth states, “Management wins when it can get the most work for the least pay, and the more controlled the output, the better.“

What else happens when you have this type of structure? Management systems organize to define the rules, and compliance is expected in order to produce the controlled output for the least amount of pay.

How can you tell if you are a white-collar factory worker?

Dan Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, suggests asking yourself these questions:
  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Is what I'm offering in demand in an age of abundance?
If you answer yes to questions 1 and 2, or if your answer to number 3 is no, you have a problem in the making.

In case you need further convincing, Micheal Lopp (a.k.a. Rands), in his book Managing Humans: Biting and Humorous Tales of a Software Engineering Manager has these questions to ask yourself:
  • How much process is in your job? 
  • Can you see a flowchart from where you are sitting right now? 
  • Are there big black binders that describe what you do? 
  • Are you handed specifications from nameless, faceless designers? 
The writing is on the wall. In the global economy, there won’t be great-paying jobs where someone else tells you precisely what to do. To win in this economy, you need to be a creative difference-maker.

In the software industry, creativity and innovation are essential. These days, use of cross-functional teams are growing more common as Agile development gains in popularity.

Developers who are highly collaborative and able to work productively in team settings, who generate options and solutions to difficult problems, and are able to do extraordinary things (for developers) like presenting at user conferences and interacting directly with customers are highly prized. The difference-makers can do all of this along with being the ones who produce solid code that solves those difficult problems.

As a manager, I’d be crazy to attempt to outsource the value provided by difference-makers. How could I hope to? They provide – some people hate this word – indispensable value. (Just what Seth Godin wants us all to provide in one way or another.) There’s an old saying, “No one is irreplaceable.” True enough, but some people are damn hard to replace.

What you don’t want is to be viewed as someone who is performing commodity work. Sure, we all have some administrivia to tend to, and no one produces indispensable value every minute of every day.

Producing indispensable value involves dealing with the tough problems, and a portion of your “work” involves wrestling with options and poking at a problem from different angles. This requires research, think time, conversation to stimulate your thinking, and even sleeping on the problem.

The key is to challenge yourself without worrying about making mistakes (we all make them). Don't be that person who requires someone else to define and orchestrate your entire day. If a manager can do that, it's a sure bet that the work can be performed less expensively somewhere else on the planet.