Saturday, November 1, 2008

Tribes - by Seth Godin

I am an impatient heretic and I got myself an “uncorrected proofs – not for sale” copy of Seth Godin’s new book, Tribes. It’s supposed to be confidential, but it was really easy to get, and I plan on buying at least one “real” copy and borrowing both out to anyone who wants em. The wider this thing is circulated, the easier my life and the lives of everyone who’s work I admire will become.

That said, I don’t want to overstate my adoration of this book. It is a marketing book, written by a marketing guru, a 150 page pep talk that’s definitely hard-selling an idea. But I think there’s something behind the idea, and the sell is at least uniquely organized and interestingly stated. There’s not a lot of hard evidence here, but there is a lot of anecdotal and informal case study research. It’s a quick read that presents challenges and leaves me feeling optimistic and enthusiastic.

Godin is doing a handful of things with this book. First, he’s aggressively promoting a new sort of leadership. Second, he’s gunning pretty hard against the people who resist his new sort of leader. Third, he’s describing new social and business arrangements that make his ideal of leadership not only powerful, but desperately necessary.

His new form of leadership is interesting and inspiring. I don’t want to talk too much about it, other than to say he’s definitely on to something. He’s describing in many ways the kinds of people I like to work with, or compete with. There are also a number of good relevant lessons for me, messages I need to take to heart and challenges I need to face in my efforts. You want to know more, read it yourself. It’s more effective than getting it second hand.

The second thing Godin does, I’ve got more of a problem with. He’s trying to get regular mainstream businesses to understand and accept these new leaders. Many of his examples are of businesses who, by embracing some crazy person’s idea, benefited in the marketplace. This comes awful close to the co-opting radicals complain about. This is the process by which revolutionary forms and ideas are watered down by the establishment. For example, if one of the big record companies takes Godin’s suggestions and somehow succeeds with them, it will be to the detriment and delay of the revolution that I see going on in the music industry. We need the big guys to stay clueless a bit longer so we can better pull the carpet out from under them.

The third thing he does is the most interesting. I’m trying to piece together a world view out of these many anecdotes and fragments, and find ways that it jives or clashes with my own world view. For now, I’ve just got a few examples. My “not for sale” copy might not be identical to the official published version, so if I misquote, or have the wrong page numbers or something, I apologize for my impatience.

Godin repeatedly says things like “individuals have far more power than ever before in history” and “Many people are starting to realize that they work a lot and that working on stuff they believe in (and making things happen) is much more satisfying than just getting a paycheck and waiting to get fired (or die)” or “many consumers have decided to spend their money buying things that aren’t factory-produced commodities... instead [they] spend time and money on... things that matter, and on things that they believe in.” It sounds to me like he is talking about a radically new set of economic mores and norms. He’s finding examples of consumers with post-capitalist demands, and producers with post-capitalist ambitions (quotes from page 9-10).

He also describes the effects of these norms on the present mode of production:
“Welcome to the age of leverage. Bottom-up is a really bad way to think about it because there is no bottom. In an era of grassroots change, the top of the pyramid is too far away from where the action is to make much of a difference. It takes too long and it lacks impact. The top isn’t the top anymore because the streets are where the action is” (page 75). He describes a new sort of non-hierarchical organization, what he calls a “tribe” in which “everyone – not just the boss, is expected to lead” (page 12) and in which leaders are risk taking, initiators of action who are uninterested in personal gain, ego-boosts or glory. These are organizations arranged around passionate empowered individuals who embrace criticism and aren’t afraid of failure. This vision of an organization is beautiful, progressive, and at its very root, anti-capitalist. When you eliminate the bosses, empower everyone in the tribe to network and initiate projects, and remove the profit motive, you aren’t just getting away from factorycentric production, you’re getting away from capitalism. When you replace investors with tribal leaders, you are replacing capital with what Godin calls “faith” but what I’d rather call “passion.”

The fact that Godin sees this enough in his travels and research to write a book about it indicates that there is definitely something going on. Godin’s conclusion that “

Now, there are two interesting examples where Godin and I disagree about more than terminology. First, in the section on sheepwalking. Godin describes an MBA student “who is taking a job at a major packaged-goods company” where she’ll “get really good at running coupons in the Sunday paper, but not particularly good at solving new problems.” (p 99) This makes me think about slacker jobs, because I bet this student, if she’s actually worth mentioning in Godin’s book, realizes how little work is involved in herr new job she’ll “start her own gig” on the side while still working there. See, most of Godin’s tribal leaders are doing things that our society doesn’t value enough to reward them for. In order for these passionate individuals to make ends meet, they’ve got to put in time at a paying job. This MBA student isn’t sheepwalking, she’s like an artist clocking in to a day job in order to buy her freedom for future endeavors that she’s more passionate about.

Not enough young people realize this option. Everyone thinks you’ve got to go to school, rack up debt, and get stuck in a career, which hopefully will be something fun and exciting, where you can make a difference. In actuality, Godin is most likely to find leaders among people who either didn’t get through college, or who went to school for something totally impractical, but interesting to them, got unrelated slacker jobs, and pursued their interest outside of work (or even better, while at work, on the company’s dime). This is one way that tomorrow’s leaders are navigating the transition out of the capitalist world.

The second thing I need to call Godin out on is the music industry. On pages 92-96 he takes record companies to task for failing to innovate and switch from “manufacturing CDs with a 90 percent gross margin... to a blended model of concerts and souvenirs, of communities and greeting cards and special events and what feels like gimmicks.” I think he’s being too harsh on these companies, because from where I sit, they don’t have the option to make that switch. They’re too busy competing with independent artists and tiny labels who have made the switch themselves and (on the whole) are doing it more genuinely and effectively than any middle man record company would ever be able to. How can a record company get money out of fans who are have access to deal directly with the artists they love? The recording industry is dying because artists are forming tribes that make the entire concept of a music company obsolete. One thing Godin and I agree on “the guys who ran it in the old days... won’t be welcome”.

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