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The Entrepreneurial Free Agent and Dejobbed Small Business R&D Lab
The Full Transcript
The State of Free Agent Nation
Dan Pink talks to Sohodojo (con't)

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Sohodojo (Timlynn): And the government is loosening its restrictions on how much you can accumulate and still be eligible for Social Security and that will make a difference too for the 'older' folks.

Sohodojo (Jim): It also gets at this whole notion of how organizations are changing. As you get these 'Shamrock' organizations like Handy talks about, where the full time employment is this core of essential workers, the interesting dynamic is you end up with these contingency teams that have that hot employable skill but then there's also gong to be this elder wisdom and the experience.

Sohodojo (Timlynn): It's sort of a tribal model.

Dan Pink chats with Sohodojo's Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky.

Dan Pink: One manifestation of what you're talking about is SCORE, Service Corp of Retired Executives. They're doing that right now. They have this e-mail counseling service. So it's e-Wisdom. I think it's interesting. Again there's a difference. How people think about old age has changed over the years.

Before the printing press the elders were revered, because they were the repositories of knowledge. Once the printing press came along and there was a way to impress information on to other forms, you didn't need the brains of the old people. Older folks became less highly prized. Then in the industrial economy, you had to have a strong back in order to make a few bucks. But I think you might have the reappearance of the kind of information and wisdom you cannot put on a web site and cannot put on the printed page. And also you can't train people.

It's a very interesting idea. You have training begets skills and then you have experience begets wisdom, as a kind of a model of learning. Training is easy to replicate and scale in all kinds of ways. Wisdom is very idiosyncratic; it takes time to do. It's an interesting idea. And I think that the great thing is that skills are easy to create, replicate, and scale.

"You have training begets skills and then you have experience begets wisdom, as a kind of a model of learning. Training is easy to replicate and scale in all kinds of ways. Wisdom is very idiosyncratic; it takes time to do."

The 'danger' part is that it's easy to replicate and scale. It means that anybody can essentially do Skills. But Wisdom is much more idiosyncratic. Skills are more like Technology while Wisdom is more like Art. So, if you have the skills, you know, say a C++ programmer, depending on where you are makes, what, $70 bucks an hour. But how much for Wisdom? Someone might think of your wisdom as "you're a crackpot, you have no wisdom," and other people might say "my god, this is the smartest guy I've ever seen."

It's going to be the kind of pricing model you see in art, where whatever appeals to someone at intrinsic, idiosyncratic value and so forth. It's a very interesting idea, I've never laid it out like that. It's really interesting and I think you are right.

Sohodojo: There's been an explosion of companies vying to service the free-agent marketplace. What do you see them doing that's working better than you expected?

Dan Pink: I think that serving as a kind of hiring of free agents -- imagine the greatest rapid designer in Sheboygan Wisconsin ten years ago. Her clients were mostly restaurants and insurance companies in Sheboygan. Now imagine with the world of the web and some of these intermediaries. Her greatest stuff designed in Sheboygan can now get clients and customers all over the world. So I think that's a powerful change.

And also the Web allows people to automate some of the 'dirty work'. You know whether it's collection and so forth that creating a nanocorp really detests. I had to go chasing after somebody for a payment and I hate doing that it takes a lot of time. It's aggravating. I ended up doing it myself but it's nice to have someone doing that for you. So, allowing people to focus on what they do best and having someone else take care of the rest.

Sohodojo: Where have they missed the mark?

Dan Pink: I don't know, it's hard to say. I don't like to think that anyone's missing the mark because everything on the Web is a constant experiment. My life is a constant experiment. As you were saying before, the only way to learn is to miss the mark. The beautiful thing about the Web though is you can fix your mistakes so quickly. You can make mistakes and learn from them in a kind of cycle time that you couldn't possibly do before.

"The beautiful thing about the Web though is you can fix your mistakes so quickly. You can make mistakes and learn from them in a kind of cycle time that you couldn't possibly do before."

Think about an old company like Proctor and Gamble. A year of market research, a year to launch a product and then if it's dropped, your career is over. Whereas now, conception and market and you just accept. The failure if it comes, happens literally within a few months, even within a few weeks. And you learn.

I've tried experiments on my own web site. Some of them have been good, some of them haven't. But that's a different mind-set you have when you come to work.

Sohodojo: One of the low hanging fruit that I think free agent dot coms, at least some of them have jumped on, is the idea of an auction marketplace. Do you think that's going to be a long-term part of the dynamic?

Dan Pink reflects on the state of free agency while talking to Sohodojo's Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky.

Dan Pink: I think some free agents will go to the highest bidder. I think some won't. For some people that model might work, but think about labor markets in contrast to other kinds of markets. They're not purely price driven. And you're talking about human beings and you're talking about idiosyncratic decisions people make when they evaluate clients.

For instance when I was doing speech writing, a couple of years ago, I would take clients in part on whether I would learn something. Now I don't know how you put that into an auction model. There are other times when I felt like making money I would take whoever would pay the highest amount. So people will make decisions based on their own idiosyncratic needs and values.

Sohodojo: The thing that's been a little frustrating for us with the auction models is that having been the e-Mom and Pop kind of consulting business many years before the Internet, there was always a dynamic that you had. Put a proposal in and there was always some chump who came along and needed the work more than you or who was more stupid than you and who agreed to do $100,000 worth of work for $10,000. And so we've now kind of automated and globalized some of the dynamics that on the short hand it's like people get burned and they learn and they don't make those mistakes over time. But at the moment we tend to have a lot of this same dynamic in the auction models.

Dan Pink: I think that most buyers are very talent-sensitive and less price-sensitive. So they know that if they get something cheaper, but it stinks it's going to ultimately cost them more in the long run. But you know, markets generally work. So if someone wants to come in at $10,000 either shame on you or shame on them. So, we'll find out.

Sohodojo: We're all familiar with the cogent summarizations in the self-help domain, such as "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People." Based on your extensive interview research, what is the short list of 'success factors' that characterize the most memorable and effective free agents you have met?

Dan Pink: Interesting question. I think we've talked about lot of them. The willingness to learn. Having an open mind. Being ready, willing and able to fail. Being keenly curious and willing to experiment. And then in softer things perhaps like: Talking in an authentic voice. Not trying to sound like a brochure but just being yourself, because that's the most effective way of marketing. Speak in your own voice. And the ability to have fun. I think those are the attributes of people who seem to do well. And also being able to deal with ambiguity. Being able to deal with things not being completely clear or clearly demarcated. And, dealing with managing cash flow rather than a steady pay check, those sort of things.

Sohodojo: I think one of the things that's interesting from our standpoint is that with all the publicity that there's been around "free agency" it's not an embarrassment any more to be a Mom and Pop, onesy, twosey place. In fact this goes with one of the reasons why we ended up at IBM for a stint in object technology.

There was a tendency when markets evolved in technology that the companies that used to hire you wouldn't hire you any more because in their minds "this object technology is a 'going thing' now, we only want to hire other 'big' companies to do it for us." And so you had this aggregation. The Big Companies went around and hired up, like in our case they hired up all the best and brightest object technologists they could find and the good ones came and went because it was an abusive, crazy place to work. I think that free agency is bringing back a sense of "gee, you don't have to be a part of 'Mega-lo Corp' to build something."

Dan Pink chats with Sohodojo's Jim Salmons and Timlynn Babitsky.

Dan Pink: Yeah and I think in some fields, the pendulum has swung even further so that buyers will say, "Woah!, wait a second! You can make it there and you make it pretty good.!" So in terms of the pride that individuals have, I think that has gone from some small measure of shame, to acceptance, to celebration. I think that's pretty healthy.

At this conference I was part of a few days ago, somebody made an interesting point about working from home. Being a free agent, might be the same kind of way-station on a career that a "posting" in Europe used to be. So that you need to prove yourself that you can make it on your own. In the same way that you needed to prove yourself that you could accept a foreign posting and deal with international markets and that sort of thing. It was an interesting point, not my 'meme' bit I offer it up for your readers.

"Being a free agent, might be the same kind of way-station on a career that a "posting" in Europe used to be. So that you need to prove yourself that you can make it on your own."

I hadn't thought about it that way. And from my own interviews and research there are a number of people who like to have a job. Who like the regularity of going into an office and so forth. But came back to the traditional world of work on very different terms having been a free agent. Negotiating better deals for themselves, taking less crap, going in and getting a much better deal. The phrase I like to use is "going back on their own terms," rather than accepting whatever was handed to them by their jobs. An employer seeking out that "Woah! You can make it on your own. I don't have to be your 'nanny'. I don't have to worry about you as much. When I start down-sizing, and I inevitably will, I'm less likely to get hit by a lawsuit from you.

Sohodojo: And that takes a new mind-set in whoever's doing the hiring to say "you're less 'manageable' than someone that needs all of that care-taking and I accept that."

Dan Pink: But in every part, it's paramount for innovation and even courage on the part of management, which traditional management is not known for -- either innovation or courage.

As these same people talk they say "So your manager says 'so and so 'works for ME'. Well that's a great way to drive some 'I disagree', drive-optimum, entrepreneurial, free-agent types out with your "You Work for Me," so once again it's a vocabulary issue.

Or now, companies are talking about 'retention' as if these individuals are cattle that need a retaining wall to keep them in. Also cattle will roam. So I think management and lots of buyers of talent, finders of talent need some serious learning, serious unlearning.

Sohodojo: Yes. Even when we went to the MIT Conference on 21st Century Small Business models there was still that sense of "human resources" to be 'consumed'. Senge in his video conferencing into this Conference was very taken aback by this kind of thinking. He said "you know what the definition of 'resource' is? Standing in reserve waiting to be used." And so that mind-set is still out there.

Dan Pink: Absolutely, yes. That's a good point. The financial version of that is "People are our most important 'assets'." Recognize that 'assets' can be sold, liquidated, but we're talking about people use. Same as resources, so consume. I wonder how many companies have changed their "human resources" department to their 'talent department' or 'people department'. I bet some smart ones have.

Sohodojo (Jim): When I was on the Road Warrior Circuit, I did a lot of international consulting; the Europeans were more interested in the sort of 'exotic' executable business modeling technology that I was working on. And I spent a lot of time in Zurich, at an international bank that was pioneering into e-commerce. There may be some American companies that do this but I think we would revolt at it. At this bank they don't use their names. People have roles and they have these little codes. And so you're not "Joe Blow" you're "OZ-06" and so they can plug people in and out of "OZ-06" and everybody knows what OZ-06 is as a role. And that's what's on the door when you go around. You're looking at these names of departments and there's a list of these cryptic codes, and no names.

Dan Pink: That's really human "resources". Like water to a pump is a resource. Send some water to that pipe, it doesn't matter what water, we know it needs H2O so just get me some. That's kind of frightening.

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