The Meaning Of Work, Connectives, And Swift Trust

I attended a truly great presentation earlier this week, where Simon Sinek spoke. Sinek is the author of Start With Why, and he gave a casual, rambling, and still deeply inspiring talk about, among other things, how hard it is for businesses to be purpose driven. I won’t steal too much of his pitch, except to restate some of his themes.

Traditionally, businesses that are great to work for are centered on ‘why’ – their reason to exist – which makes the how and what – processes and products – easier to figure out, makes them make sense. And working in such companies makes people happy. In fact,  companies that have forgotten – or never had – a reason to exist other to make money or to employ the founders are not great places to work, and aside from the basics of getting a paycheck, don’t make their employees happy.

But what about freelancers, or teams that come together for a given project and then disband? How does freelance work line up with finding what I call ‘the meaning of work’, the purpose behind the time and effort we pour into our work lives.

Speaking personally, I am a long-time freelancer, and I work with a wide variety of clients. But I am motivated to find meaning for my actions through work (as well as extra-work activities), and I select projects based on how they line up with my abiding motivations.

For example, I am a strong advocate for the use of social tools, and the thinking behind that is deeply grounded in the belief that creating more social connection is a positive benefit to all those that participate, and that social tools are the best hope we have to change the world, and steer it away from destructive political, financial, and economic systems.

So for me, working with a start up that is developing a social calendering app, for example, is not just work. It’s not just making bricks. it’s part of my calling. I am focused on the outcome, the social revolution, that has at least 10 or 20 more years to run. I am involved in building a new platform for society that will last a thousand years.

But I am still involved in many projects, and so are many other people, who are pursuing their own ends, perhaps ends that are unrelated to mine.

So this begs the question: Can individuals – including people working in companies – come together on ad hoc projects, projects of limited duration, and still be aligned with their meaning for work?

I read an instructive piece recently, that touches on this:

Neil Perkin, The Rise Of Talent Networks

When a new agency called Co: launched this month in New York, a lot of people in the industry seemed to sit up and take notice. The reason had less to do with the fact that four senior execs had left their jobs at JWT, BBH, Wolff Olins to venture out on their own, and more to do with the fact that Co: seemed like a start-up with a difference. The name deliberately evokes their business model of co-creation, collaboration and co-venturing, of a small, agile organisational hub that works with and draws from a list of 40 agencies, businesses and consultancies that are specialists in particular services ranging from digital marketing, to PR, Social Media, Design, technology, gaming, events and media. There’s even a venture capitalist firm amongst the network.

Part of the reason that this is so interesting is that it is symptomatic of a broader trend – the rise of talent networks. In the case of Co:, the founders describe the agency as a ‘brand studio’, likening it to a movie studio that pulls in talent to work on specific projects, facilitates a good result, and provides the environment and the infrastructure for effective collaboration. One of the founders, quoted in the New York Times, talked about how “teams are formed around individual client needs, and when those needs are satisfied, the team is dispersed”.

Relentless digitisation and the recession have combined to create an environment in which the value of much of what we have known is depreciating, and which increasingly requires a culture and a pace of innovation that is consistent with start-ups. Organisational value is shifting from protecting knowledge assets, to encouraging knowledge flow. In ‘We Think’, Charles Leadbetter said: “In the past you were what you owned. Now you are what you share.”. New models are springing up that follow a philosophy where access trumps ownership. Assets are increasingly about relationships.


Corporate down-sizing and technology have combined to create an influx of highly talented individuals into the market with the ready means to turn that talent into real value. There have always been freelancers of-course, but this is talent that is equipped with cheap, effective, readily available yet potentially transformational tools and technologies, and connected to inspiration, to opportunity, and to each other, like never before. It’s a world powered by ideas, enthusiasm, and know-how. But it is also a world powered by collaboration, supported by increasing numbers of co-working spaces and a whole raft of ‘unconference’ style meet-ups, events, and hack days that are both the originator for and a catalyst of innovation. The difference is that the number of people working in this way, equipped with the enterprise tools to enable it, means that perhaps for the first time, the possibility of a real ecosystem of talent networks operating at some scale has suddenly become viable.

Networks, whether of individuals or small firms, are naturally extremely efficient. You can select and partner with some of the best talent in the industry. You make use of the talent you need when you need it. And you don’t have to pay an overhead when you don’t. You benefit from a broad talent pool that brings diversity of thinking and ideas, yet is unencumbered by corporate habit or channeled thinking. And there are numerous pieces of research that prove the value of skill diversity in innovation.

Large organisations have a tendency to pull people into a vortex of internal focus. The smart ones are beginning to recognise that more flexible structures that allow them to interact with, learn from, and work with this external pool of talent will give them genuine competitive advantage. The smartest are structuring their businesses to be agile and flexible enough to allow collaboration of this kind to not be the exception, but the norm.

Impermanent teams operate as well as they do because of a well-researched social phenomenon, called swift trust:

Debra Meyerson, et al, Swift Trust and Temporary Groups

As an organizational form, temporary groups turn upside down traditional notions of organizing. Temporary groups often work on tasks with a high degree of complexity, yet they lack the formal structures that facilitate coordination and control (Thompson, I967). They depend on an elaborate body of collective knowledge and diverse skills, yet individuals have little time to sort out who knows precisely what. They often entail high-risk and high-stake outcomes, yet they seem to lack the normative structures and institutional safeguards that minimize the likelihood of things going wrong. Moreover, there isn’t time to engage in the usual forms of confidence-building activities that contribute to the development and maintenance of trust in more traditional enduring forms of organization. In these respects, temporary groups challenge our conventional understandings regarding the necessary or sufficient antecedents of effective organization.

These observations come together in a fascinating puzzle. Temporary systems exhibit behavior that presupposes trust, yet traditional sources of trust — familiarity, shared experience, reciprocal disclosure, threats and deterrents, fulfilled promises, and demonstrations of nonexploitation of vulnerability — are not obvious in such systems. ln this respect, temporary systems act as if trust were present, but their histories seem to preclude its development.

In the following discussion we argue that one way to resolve this puzzle is to look more closely at the properties of trust and of temporary systems. A closer look suggests that temporary groups and organizations are tied together by trust. but it is a form of trust that has some unusual properties. In other words, we propose that the trust that occurs in temporary systems is not simply conventional trust scaled down to brief encounters among small groups of strangers. There is some of that. But as we will show, the trust that unfolds in temporary systems is more accurately portrayed as a unique form of collective perception and relating that is capable of managing issues of vulnerability, uncertainty, risk, and expectations. These four issues become relevant immediately, as soon as the temporary system begins to form. We argue that all four issues can be managed by variations in trusting behavior, and if they are not managed, participants act more like a permanent crowd than a temporary system. It is the configuration of these variations in behavior that accounts for the unique form that trust assumes in temporary systems, a form that we call swift trust.


The characteristics of temporary systems, which have potential relevance
for the formation of trust, include the following:

  1. Participants with diverse skills are assembled by a contractor to enact expertise they already possess.
  2. Participants have limited history of working together.
  3. Participants have limited prospects of working together again in the future.
  4. Participants often are part of limited labor pools and overlapping networks.
  5. Tasks are often complex and involve interdependent work.
  6. Tasks have a deadline.
  7. Assigned tasks are non-routine and not well understood.
  8. Assigned tasks are consequential.
  9. Continuous interrelating is required to produce an outcome.

To convert the individual expertise of strangers into interdependent work, when the nature of that interrelating and work is not obvious, people must reduce their uncertainty about one another through operations that resemble trust. Interdependent strangers faced with a deadline also face the need to handle issues of vulnerability and risk among themselves.

These techniques that resemble deep trust, but are lighter-weight and faster to adopt, can be used to quickly get down to business in an ad hoc team, and focus on doing what is needed to get done; instead of getting bogged down in actual trust development, which can take weeks or months to build.

I believe, along with Neil Perkin and the unnamed founder of Co:, that swift trust is becoming the default for creative work, and that we are all increasingly operating as if every activity we are involved in is impermanent. Increasingly, at least for most creatives, that is the case anyway. But some people, like the founders of Co: and me, are intentionally adopting the ad hoc project team as the form factor for all creative work.

Partly this is to take advantage of swift trust – where deep trust activities are deferred or completely put aside – and the team members operate in a social demilitarized zone, putting aside long-term obligations and politically-negotiated power arrangements. Instead, we join such teams and rapidly assume the role that fits us, people interact based on the nature of the roles that all members play. We suspend our disbelief and agree to trust within the confines of the groups narrowly defined goals.

And just as important, as a consequence of deferring the complex and involved discussions of personal purpose, every ad hoc team member can cast the project in terms of how it lines up with their personal meaning for work. The members do not need to collectively agree to a single shared reason for existence. That is shelved, since the team members will be going forward on their own life paths, as soon as the project is completed.

This reminds me of the recent discussion about cooperation and collaboration, and a great distinction between collaboratives and cooperatives by @shiftctrlesc:

cloudhead, Cooperation versus Collaboration

We often use these words interchangeably, but they represent fundamentally different ways of contributing to a group and each comes with its own dynamics and power structures that shape groups in different ways…

When collaborating, people work together (co-labor) on a single shared goal.
Like an orchestra which follows a script everyone has agreed upon and each musician plays their part not for its own sake but to help make something bigger.

When cooperating, people perform together (co-operate) while working on selfish yet common goals.
The logic here is “If you help me I’ll help you” and it allows for the spontaneous kind of participation that fuels peer-to-peer systems and distributed networks. If an orchestra is the sound of collaboration, then a drum circle is the sound of cooperation. 

For centuries collaboration has powered most of our society’s institutions.
This is true of everything from our schools to our governments where we have worked together through consensus to build systems of increasing complexity.

But today, cooperation is fuelling most of the disruptive innovations of our time.
In virtually every aspect of our culture, the old guard is being replaced by cooperative, self organizing, distributed systems.

Collectives collaborate. 
Collectives are part of the machinery of the previous era. They give priority to the group over the individual and encourage members to adopt a joint identity that unites them around their shared goal. 

Connectives cooperate.
A connective doesn’t give priority to the group or the individual but instead supports and encourages both simultaneously. There’s no shared sense of identity in a connective because each member is busy pursuing their own goals.

Collectives are breeding grounds for hierarchies and power struggles.
Even with the best intentions, collaboration often encourages pyramids of power and authority. The higher up the pyramid you are in a collective, the more freedom you have to carve out your own individual identity and direct the group’s efforts towards your own goals. The conductor is famous while the tuba player remains unknown. But if the tuba player gets up to leave someone needs to step in to replace her.

Connectives are self-organizing and self-sustaining.
No master architect, conductor, or blueprint is needed. You can join or leave a drum circle at any time and the beat goes on with or without you.

I would perhaps restate that When cooperating, people perform together (co-operate) while working on selfish yet not-conflicting goals. If I decide to accept a project with a new client, I don’t have to sign up to the motivations of their five-year plan, I just have to confirm that their five-year plan – if successful – would counter the basic tenets of the beliefs that form the foundation of my meaning for work. That’s what makes our association a connective, as @shiftctrlesc styles them.

Generally, people building social tools or trying to apply them are advocates for the same things I am: they want, at the least, to make work better for the folks doing it, and they believe, at least to some degree, that social tools can help.

On the other hand, I can’t cooperate with groups who’s long term goals are contrary with mine. For example, I would have a hard time consulting to the Tea Party, or a repressive government.

And the same principles apply to others, with the consequence that you can become deeply unhappy as a freelancer by working with companies that have antithetical purposes to yours. If you believe, for example, that building a strong community in your hometown is a central tenet of your worldview, it would be difficult to work for a company that was shutting down its facilities in your town and outsourcing the work to South America or Asia. However, if you are a Chilean eager to attract foreign currency to your country to build strong communities there, you might be fine working with that same company.

As swift trust and ad hoc project teams become the dominant form factor for working over the next few years, we will see the transformation of large businesses away from monolithic power and belief systems, to something much more of a mosiac. In  this not-too-distant future businesses may principally be organized around helping every employee find and achieve their personal meaning for work, instead of trying to indoctrinate workers to a corporate agenda.

Almost paradoxically, our longest-range personal goals may be best advanced by working in a succession of short-term, apparently unrelated projects, cooperating with others meandering in the same general direction as us, instead of joining a tightly-knit group with tightly-defined shared purpose. Living and working in loose and open connectives, not tight and closed collectives; like a city, not an army.

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