Is “The Gig” The Right Way to Design Creative Knowledge Work?


Yesterday, my colleague Caroline Calkins and I were on the phone with Dr. Robert Ballard, the man who found the Titanic, and also helped find two lost nuclear subs - the Thresher and the Scorpion.  (The Scorpion still had nuclear weapons on board which may make that sub his biggest find!).  We were reviewing his content for our upcoming event on "Innovating in Turbulent Times". 

We began talking about how he managed the talent in his high paced, exploration-based, organization.  A big part of his job is to design and manage new expeditions for two ships which have exploration equipment including tethered and non-tethered robots - which are actively exploring the world's oceans.  When I asked him how he thinks about organizing the myriad of quirky and brilliant scientists, technicians, seafarers, and staff under his command, he said that he tries to create the "best gigs" that the best people want to be a part of.  "You can't tell people what to do - you have to inspire them to perform," he said.  He sounded a lot like other senior executives I have talked with at trading firms, investment banks, high-tech companies and other organizations who rely on creative, fast-paced, energetic, learning-driven talent. 

It occurred to me that maybe the right way to think about management of highly mobile talent is to think in terms of "gigs".  Ballard said it was his job to remove obstacles and create the best platform to have the best gigs.  It reminded me of things I read years ago when I was a student at Harvard Business School, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter who said that people's new career trajectory would be to worry about being employable - not just to be employed.  Daniel Pink's book Free Agent Nation, seems to deal with this topic, although I confess I have not yet read it.  The much under-appreciated book Future Wealth, by Stan Davis and Chris Meyer, which talks about how talent may organize and finance itself in this new free agent world, points out that we will come up with new ways to help finance this approach as well. 

Technology - the internet cloud, the resource cloud, and the social cloud, all make the organization of work into gigs more easy to do.  My brother-in-law Michael Harvey is a world class TV producer, who invented Cold Case Files, and is now an author (The Chicago Way, The Fifth Floor, and The Third Rail [due out in April 2010]).  In talking with Mike about how he manages his television and movie crews he noted, "This work is not for everyone.  You develop a core of talent, and mix in the other skills as needed.  It depends on people who are confident and can live on their abilities and not seek too much security."  He confided that it is as much about a mind set - being able to live with the freedom and a blank page each time - as it is about anything else.  The joy, and the payoff, is the energy, the spark, and the creativity of the process and the satisfaction of the product. 

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