Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Linchpin and The New Polymath - The Indispensable Individuals and Organizations

One of my favorite books of the year is the Linchpin by Seth Godin - it takes you on a journey from how our economy has evolved to a point where its neither necessary nor optimal for you to be a cog in the wheel of a faceless system that treats you as an anonymous resource that can be substituted - we are living in the age where those rules no longer apply, even if most of us don't know that or are in denial because we don't face the fact - more than ever, you are in control of your destiny. The book revolves around how you can be a Linchpin by being good at more than one thing - the power of AND over OR. If you are a writer and that's all you can do, you can be replaced by a slightly cheaper, slightly better writer - but if you are a writer who also is a great speaker or connects with his audience or writes about a passion that cannot be easily copied - then you are the indispensable linchpin. I see Tom Friedman of New York Times as a Linchpin, for example.

The New Polymath by friend and fellow Enterprise Irregular Vinnie Mirchandani is about companies - which in my mind are nothing but a collection of individuals with a shared purpose - be it the end of software or the beginning of CO2 free automobile industry. The book takes us through a journey of many companies that embody a Polymath - they are not just good at doing one thing (making computers or phones) but are transforming the industries by being good at several - an easy example is Apple.

About Apple, Vinnie writes:

Steve Jobs is explaining one major reason for the iPhone’s success— Apple’s ability to integrate hardware and software engineering: “We realized that almost all—maybe all—of future consumer electronics, the primary technology was going to be software. And we were pretty good at software. . . . None of the handset manufacturers really are strong in software.”
That is a modern polymath at work—integrating multiple modern disciplines. An AND mind-set, not an OR mind-set. Tear down an iPhone 3GS and it shows Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and GPS transceivers and lenses and chips and circuits and batteries—a marvel of miniaturization. It functions as a Web access device, a camera, a music player, a navigation device, a compass, a voice recorder, a modem, and more—and, of course, it is also a phone. That is a polymath as devices go.

He then goes on to write about many companies and organizations that we commonly think of as cutting edge like Google, Apple but also those that you may not read about every day including National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the technologies that come together in the National Hurricane Center to Kleiner Perkins Cleantech. There is also an entire chapter devoted to (the company I proudly work for) and cloud computing.

But above all, this is a book that uses the examples of these polymath companies to illustrate the key point - you (the company) need to bring together multiple, sometimes unrelated ideas & technologies to bear to create something beautiful, to create something of lasting value, to innovate and to transform - not just industries but people's lives.

As Marc Benioff says in the foreword to the New Polymath-
You have the power to create or join organizations that address society’s issues. You do not have to decide between making a social contribution or building a successful company or career. You can do many things. You can be a Polymath. As Mirchandani says, “it’s time for AND not OR.”
I see the two books - Linchpin and The New Polymath as two sides of the same coin - its only when you create or hire linchpins in your company that you can be a company worthy of being the new polymath.

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