"Let's get real or let's not play." Seth Godin's new manifesto for teams is about working well, leading well, and playing well with others.
The Song of Significance: A New Manifesto for Teams by Seth Godin, Portfolio
I have two kids in elementary school, so I have seen Jerry Seinfeld’s Bee Movie. It depicts the hive as a soulless, command-and-control industrial corporation. I bring this up to begin a review of Seth Godin’s new book to suggest that a beehive is not what most people would offer as an inspirational example of good culture. Of course, Seth Godin is not most people. He has done enough reading to know what happens when a bee colony gets too big and to find inspiration in it. As Seth explains:
One day, as the new queen is about to be born, the existing queen and as many as half the bees in the hive—her oldest and most productive workers—will swarm and leave. In just a few minutes, tens of thousands of bees, coordinated without a coordinator, will fly away.
Everything is centered on the queen, but a hive makes important, life-and-death decisions in a decentralized way. They have only a few days to start a new home, and hundreds of scouts spread out over thirty square miles to find it. Upon their return, those scout bees indicate the location and suitability of the sites they visited by performing a waggle dance for the other bees. In this cooperative, diffused, dancing manner, they will collectively settle on a new location and swarm there together.
And the hive’s decision, while unanimous, might not have been perfect. But perfect is not the goal. The goal is to find a good hive in the time that’s available.
It is about making room for growth, making decisions, and making something better together. That sounds like a great way for any team to function.
Of course, we are not bees. Humans have individual agency and a desire to use it. We get to decide who we swarm with and who we follow. We can set out on our own if we choose. So, when we engage in work with others, Seth suggests we look not for people who will obey but those who are looking to enroll in a common cause and do work that matters:
The most skilled and committed people are participating voluntarily. They have options. […] Creating an intentional culture focused on finding, empowering, and amplifying enrolled individuals is the work of a skilled leader.
This is the part where I tell you that Bee Movie has something in common with Seth’s new book. The entire plot of the movie revolves around the main character’s refusal to adhere to an industrial-age mindset and accept his place within that model. One distinction Seth makes is between industrial capitalism and market capitalism:
Industrial capitalism (industrialism) seeks to use power to create profits.
Market capitalism seeks to solve problems to make a profit.
I chose long ago to neither agree or argue with anyone’s interpretation of any economic system or ism. History has a way of muddying those waters and derailing those conversations. It is apparent, however, that we are still trapped as a society in an industrial age mindset—to the extent that industrial and developed are still interchangeable ways to describe economies. But Seth’s underlying point about the desirability of these systems seems obvious to me: that organizing around solving problems is far more humane and constructive than using power to coerce people and consolidate industries.
If I must choose an ism, it would be pragmatism. And while there is a lot of corporate propaganda out there stating, as if it were a fact, that it is not pragmatic—or even possible—to attempt to transition our economy, it can’t be pragmatic to continue a course of industrialization that has led to one of humanity’s greatest existential crises, climate change. (For evidence of that, and that the organizing principles in The Song of Significance actually work, check out Seth’s last project The Carbon Almanac.) But the industrial age mindset is hard to give up.
To be fair, industrial capitalism works. […] The modern world wouldn’t exist without the progress that industry allowed, and for many, the safety these jobs offer is a lifeline and a useful way to live.
If I must go beyond pragmatism, I turn toward beauty. There was beauty in the solidarity of industrial unions, in the modicum of safety and security for workers they built. While it wasn’t perfect, it was the backbone of the middle class. Still, while interest in unions is rising once again, and inroads are being made into new industries, seeking safety there no longer feels like a safe bet. And beauty, as they say, is also in the eye of the beholder. Seth writes:
There is a certain brutal beauty to the inexorable process of mechanization. Armed with stopwatches, surveys, and calculators, we can sort through variations of design and process until we find the right answer. There is no doubt. The product is the product, the service is the service, and all those random and emotional elements of humanity aren’t part of the equation. […] But late-stage industrial capitalism is different. It doesn’t know where to stop. It not only captures those seeking safety, but also shackles those seeking significance.
Of course, those seeking the safety that generations of workers fought for are not wrong to do so. And those who organize and attempt to stitch together a new social safety net are doing noble work. My first job out of high school was on a factory floor, and most of the people I worked with were decent and hardworking and didn’t check their dignity at the door. They even showed kindness to me, a 17-year-old punk kid who was just stopping through for one summer to earn some money for art school and only got the opportunity to work alongside them because my friend’s dad was the boss.
But it also wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say the environment was literally toxic. It was a job that required a facemask long before COVID. The work wasn’t easy or all that rewarding, but it paid relatively well, there was camaraderie, and people had their passions and interests outside of work they shared over lunch or on a smoke break. They had bought homes, had families, and built community. There is, or was, a good amount of freedom in that, and freedom from work when you clocked out. What it lacked was freedom at work. And I don’t know that there was freedom after they were ultimately done with work because of the toll it took. I don’t know, for instance, what happened to the men I worked with in the cutting room, the old-timers who at some point over the years decided to just breathe the fiberglass dust rather than mask up most of the time. There was a brutal beauty to it, and I smile when I think of those guys, but it was still brutal. Yes, industrial work built the modern world…
But more and more value is being created in a different way. By people who know that they have options, who are dedicated to improving their skills, and who are enrolled in doing work that feels significant to them.
Here’s another thing about safety. All good work requires it. Offering our unique contribution to the work a team does requires exposing what is unique about us. It requires us to, in Seth’s words, “dance with the fear” that this creates. To ask people to overcome that fear and contribute, you must let them know it is safe to do so.
You must also get out of their way. You can manage projects with them, but you cannot truly manage them—nor should you try to. They hopefully have more to offer than that. They can bring knowledge and skills you don’t have and cannot always anticipate. They just want to do work that matters. We all do.
The song of safety comes first. It’s not a compromise; it’s a foundation for the rest of it. Before we can trust, iterate, or innovate, we need to know that we’re going to be okay, regardless.
This is the difference between the industrial age mindset and the one we must embrace now:
Free-market, profit-seeking, neoliberal industrialists embrace brutality in service of a simple metric. […] Supporting human dignity is more than a moral obligation. It’s also a competitive advantage.
Or, to put it another way, leaning on a mindset shift he picked up from author Mahan Khalsa:
We shouldn’t be doing management to our employees. If we’re good, though, we might be able to do it with them.
I’ve always found Seth Godin’s books harder to review than most. I think Seth has probably given away more ideas than most of us ever will, and they come at you fast in his books. He moves through ideas and anecdotes quickly in his books, but they are called back and overlapped to weave a tapestry that ends up covering a topic fully and cohesively. Because of that, even though they are fast-paced and can be quick reads, I like to take my time with them.
One thing I appreciate about Seth’s books is that I do not always, or at least immediately, agree with everything in them. He isn’t going to tell you what you want to hear. He is challenging us to change. Seth doesn’t provide us with an easy list of steps to follow, but a mindset, a point of view, and a new vocabulary. And so, I find it helpful to slow down, to put the book down, to return to it often, and absorb it all. It is worth it to take the time to reflect on what he has written, because it describes a change that needs to come. And it needs to occur within us first.
We are not bees. We don’t need to leave the hive or start an entirely new operation to make room for others. But we do need, to some extent, to get out of their way. We need to prioritize creating space and making opportunities. There may be times we may need to help show them a way, but the way is made by walking, by doing, by talking and listening, and doing the work that matters.
Starting a review with a reference to Bee Movie is obviously ridiculous and silly, but I think Jack Covert, the man who wrote the first review series for our company, and the founder of Porchlight, would have gotten a kick out of it. Jack, a friend of Seth’s, once wrote:
Many of us believe that facts and research will lead to solutions before taking some time to play, thinking that play isn’t serious work. … Pushing those boundaries, sometimes literally, is a way of opening our eyes to additional possibilities.
Facts and research are important, but they aren’t always available when we’re building something new. Jack built something new.
The is a phrase Seth returns to many times in the book: “Let’s get real or let’s not play.” He is using the word “play” a little differently than Jack did in the quote above, but he reminds us often throughout the book that people skills are not “soft skills.” They are real skills. Adaptability and empathy, purpose and self-awareness are real skills, and if you hope to lead people, they are the most important skills to develop, because (as Seth also reminds us) culture beats strategy every time.Seth even has an Appendix in the book listing real skills like these. It is five pages long. Most of us won’t have all of them, but we can work on them. They are skills we need today to work well, to play well, with others. “Let’s get real or let’s not play.” And we all want to play.