Nutshell: More linchpin than cog: going beyond the job description for a new world of work

Written by
Future Talent Learning

23 Feb 2021

23 Feb 2021 • by Future Talent Learning

As the world around us changes, we need to look beyond the here and now to make the most of the new world of work.

These days, we don’t tend to hear much about what was once an established trade-union tactic: working to rule. Also colourfully known as a white or Italian strike (sciopero bianco), it’s a form of industrial action in which workers religiously follow official workplace rules and hours in order to reduce output and efficiency – and to draw attention to the fact that most workplaces rely on the goodwill of their workers when it comes to putting in those extra hours (paid or unpaid) and the discretionary effort that makes all the difference when it comes to organisational success. 

With the world of work changing before our eyes, the knowledge economy in the ascendant and people’s relationship with work more complex than ever, working to rule might sound like nothing more than an historical footnote, consigned to the dustbin of workplace history alongside lifelong careers and the 9-to-5 working day. But it does speak to an essential truth about the gap between the core of our work, the things we’re employed to do, traditionally encapsulated in a job description, and how we’ve always perceived the contribution and value we offer above and beyond it. 

As organisations continue to struggle to match the skills they have with the skills they need, and employees continue to offer their services in a range of less traditional ways, might the idea of specific job roles and job descriptions also be a thing of the past, an unnecessary straitjacket in this new world of agile and flexible working? And, if that’s the case, how can we best position ourselves to make the most of the opportunities on offer?

A changing world of work

A recent survey by management consultants Korn Ferry found that 57% of the executives they surveyed had recruited for a specific skill set even if there was no existing role for the candidate to take. Admittedly, the trend was most marked when hiring in hard-to-find digital skills, a field of employment at the outer reaches of this new dawn, but the same survey also reported that 77% of respondents were hiring for roles today that didn’t even exist a year ago.

At the same time, Deloitte’s 2019 Global Human Capital Trends survey showed that more than 40% of US workers now work on a contingent basis. In the EU, freelancers are the biggest labour group, with numbers doubling between 2000 and 2014. Annual millennial and Gen Z surveys from Deloitte paint a picture of a workforce concerned about the future, looking to employers who give due consideration to concerns such as diversity, community and the environment, but still fundamentally sceptical that business is a force for good – and prepared to walk if employees won’t or can’t meet their high standards. It’s all a stark reminder of the pace of change we’re all facing. 

The need for organisations to adopt more flexible, agile ways of working, to break down traditional hierarchies, is matched by the need for individuals to acquire and develop the personal agility, self-determination and relationship-building skills fit for this new world. Change brings opportunity, but we need to work at making the most of it. We need to plan, to anticipate and prepare, to understand how we can best equip ourselves for a working life beyond the humble job description. 

Looking both ways

Just as, when it comes to innovation, organisations need to become ambidextrous, running the core business while looking ahead and planning for the future, we also need to look both ways, to develop a Janus-like approach to our working lives. 

This might mean pretending that we have two jobs. The first is the one we’re specifically hired to do. The second takes us beyond our job description, broadening our knowledge and skills and preparing and positioning ourselves for our next challenge. This might mean getting to know co-workers in other teams or working at a different level – or outside our organisations completely. It definitely means looking for new learning experiences, taking the initiative to build our skills, asking our bosses for new opportunities and responsibilities. Showing proactivity showcases our talents and proves to everyone – ourselves included – just how much we can contribute. 

A bit on the side

Increasingly, this idea of a 'second job' might also take on a more literal meaning. Google’s 20% time, designed to give employees one day a week to work on a Google-related project they’re passionate about, has famously led to innovations such as Gmail, Google Maps and Google Talk. Even companies at the opposite end of the food chain to the tech giant have embraced the bottom-line-boosting power of freeing up people to follow their passions with side projects that benefit employers and employees alike. 

Nor does a 'bit on the side' need to be part of our formal employment. Henley Business School expects that, by 2030, half of the UK adult population will have a 'side hustle', running a business or working a second job on top of the day job. As well as being driven by job insecurity and the need to make more money, their research also found a large percentage of side hustlers do so to follow a passion or explore a new challenge. For many, it can mark a transition into a new career, a way to look both ways as we plan for the next stages of our careers. Volunteering and study can play a similar role. 

Towards self-determination

Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin believes that we all have more freedom at work than we think – but we just don’t make the most of it. We remain hemmed in by that job description. In his book Linchpin, he makes the case for self-determination, that we have a choice to become linchpins, independent and indispensable employees rather than cogs in “an industrial machine that’s long since stopped working”. 

The good news is that, in psychological terms, self-determination theory suggests that we’re all motivated by the need to grow and make these kinds of changes, driven by three innate and universal psychological needs:


When we feel that we have the skills needed for success, we are more likely to take actions that will help us to achieve our goals.

Connection or relatedness

We need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people.


We like to feel in control of our own behaviours and goals. The sense of being able to take direct action that will result in real change plays a major part in helping us to feel self-determined.

People with high self-determination tend to believe they have control over their lives, are highly self-motivated, are goal-oriented and take responsibility for their actions and behaviours. 

This kind of self-determined growth does not, however, happen automatically. While we’re oriented towards it, it still needs to be nurtured and developed. It takes a healthy dose of self-awareness and self-control, and benefits from the support that comes from a strong social network. It also needs us to be curious, to continue to learn and practise new skills – not just at work, but outside of work too. Gaining mastery in any field, whether a hobby, sport or academic subject, helps to make us feel that we have the autonomy and the freedom to shape our own destinies.

And, for Godin, that’s the key. In Linchpin, he introduces us to The Law of the Mechanical Turk: “Any project, if broken down into sufficiently small, predictable parts, can be accomplished for awfully close to free. When the job description and automation intersect, the people are doomed. And it’s happening faster and faster.” In our post-industrial world, we have two choices: win by being more ordinary, more standard, and cheaper; or win by being faster, more remarkable, and more human.

Hence Godin’s linchpins, indispensable, self-determining employees who believe they can really make a difference – and do; “artists” who can find new answers, new connections and new ways of getting things done. They don’t need a map; their talent lies in navigating without one. They are the foot soldiers of the new economy: passionate, generous and connected; inspiring and creative; combining deep knowledge with the ability to get things done; able to deal with uncertainty and complexity and not afraid to fail. 

It might sound a bit aspirational, but there’s plenty of truth in his theory that, if we don’t work on overcoming what Godin calls “the resistance”, that fear that imagines we’re safest when we stay in our comfort zones, then, in a commodity economy, we’re not really equipping ourselves to withstand large-scale structural change, to make the most of ourselves and what we can offer. 

So, how can we become more linchpin than cog? 

Gain some outsight

Organisational psychologist Herminia Ibarra believes that we can be our own worst enemies when it comes to developing this more flexible mindset at work: “The paradox of change is that the only way to alter the way we think is by doing the very things our habitual thinking keeps us from doing.” It’s all too easy for us to become entrenched in the jobs we do, staying focused on routine operations, gaining insight from the usual suspects, playing to what we consider to be our strengths. 

Ibarra coined the phrase the competency trap to describe our tendency to stick with what we already do well, to succumb to Godin’s resistance. It leads us to labour under the false assumption that “what produced our past successes will necessarily lead to future wins”.

We fall into a competency trap when these three things occur in a self-perpetuating cycle:

  1. We enjoy what we do well, so we do more of it and we get better at it.
  2. When we allocate more time to what we do best, we devote less time to learning other things that are also important.
  3. Over time, it gets more costly to invest in learning to do new things.

Many of us define our work in terms of core strengths and skills, but focusing solely on those things might mean that we fail to develop the flexibility and mindset – the self-determination – we need to progress.

Instead, Ibarra exhorts us to lift our heads and look around us, to develop what she calls outsight, to look for the fresh, external perspectives that come from new projects and activities, building relationships with new people and trying out new ways of getting things done – and then learn from those experiences. Outsight “gives you fresh stuff, instead of rehashing the old”. 

When it comes to developing our outsight, Ibarra advises us to make changes in three key areas: our jobs, our networks and ourselves. 

Our jobs

The first stage is “tweak, expand and redefine” our jobs. Doing things differently, and doing new things, immediately changes our networks too, feeding change by moving beyond the people who simply reinforce the status quo. 

She also encourages us to see our jobs in terms of being a bridge, linking ourselves and our teams with the outside world, rather than as internally focused hubs, “to be the link and the funnel of information, ideas or resources from the outside to the group”. If we just sit in our silos, the chances are that we’ll miss out and fall prey to that competency trap. We need the external perspective that comes from:

  • broadening our horizons, developing our “sensors” to help us understand the world within and beyond our organisations.
  • taking on activities outside our existing areas of expertise, our organisations, even our industries. That might mean a side project, joining an industry taskforce or extra-curricular activities such as volunteering, mentoring or acting as a non-executive.
  • creating a clear and consistent narrative about our values, our personal journey, the “secret sauce” or “why” that makes us unique.
  • building some slack into our schedules to allow for the non-routine, serendipity and reflection.

Our networks

External networks and relationships are becoming ever more important as so much critical information is now to be found outside the boundaries of our organisations. Ibarra makes the case for more intentional, strategic networking, rather than relying on the people closest to us, or most like us, and distinguishes between three types of network: operational, personal and strategic, each with its own characteristics.

Operational networks include the people we rely on to get our work done. They help our efficiency and reliability, but do not take us beyond today’s functional tasks.

Personal networks are made up of the people we feel closest to, our “kindred spirits”. They can be important sources of information and referrals, but we often see them as disconnected from our day-to-day work.

Strategic networks are made up of relationships that help us “envision the future”. A good strategic network will give us what Ibarra calls “connective advantage”, the ability to marshal information and support in one sphere to influence another; it’s about the intersection of those relationships.

How strategic our networks are depends on three key qualities, the BCDs of networking advantage:

  • Breadth: strong relationships with a diverse range of contacts
  • Connectivity: the capacity to link or bridge groups of people who wouldn’t meet otherwise
  • Dynamism: a network that evolves as we do, and our aspirations change

Building BCD networks requires forethought and planning. Rather than just showing up at a event, for example, we have to know who will be there, decide who we want to connect with, make it happen and follow up. We start reaching out to people in different parts of our company or industry; go for coffee or lunch, learn what they do, how they contribute to their organisation, and how it may apply to our own work.


The third area of Ibarra’s outsight plan involves ourselves. Outsight here means stretching ourselves beyond the boundaries of who we are today, experimenting with different roles and approaches and seeing ourselves as “works in progress”. We may not be able to see exactly where we’ll end up, but we will learn a lot about ourselves and the way we think about what we do. 

We need to beware authenticity traps that make us feel we need to conform to a more limited sense of who we are and what we can do. Instead, we can learn and borrow from others, replace fear of failure with a focus on learning from a range of experiences and iterate and revise our own stories.

We all want work that gives us purpose and meaning, to make a difference, to thrive rather than merely survive at work. But, these days, that means going beyond more traditional career planning. To progress, we need the ambidexterity to be able to look both ways, to stay curious and learn and do things other than what’s in front of us, what our job descriptions might demand, to learn to embrace complexity and uncertainty. With traditional work structures and hierarchies breaking down, the opportunities are there for us to influence and contribute in ways that would have been unimaginable to the generation of work-to-rulers. Let’s position ourselves to make the most of them. 


Test your understanding

  • Describe the three psychological needs that underpin self-determination.
  • Explain Herminia Ibarra’s BCD of strategic networking.

What does it mean for you?

  • Reflect on your current role and consider whether you might develop more ambidexterity to anticipate your next career steps.
  • Consider what you might do to develop your network more strategically, using Ibarra’s BCD framework. 


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