Replace yourself to irreplaceability

Posted in Thoughts // 10 September 2011

I’m self-employed, and pretty much always have been. It suits me at the moment because I find the benefits (self-determination, responsibility for your own results, direct contact with the market) outweigh the costs (lack of state/corporate protection, job-security, etc). Because my life and work are pretty much the same thing, I always figured I wouldn’t be replaced. If I’m my own employer, why would I hire someone else instead?

But actually I’ve been missing a trick. In the last year, collaborating with Jonathan Lister, I’ve begun to see that there’s more to replaceability than the till robots in Tesco, loom-smashers, and cheap offshore labour.

A Generic Face

Enveloped in spiky Octogenarian Jazz at the Wenlock Arms last week, Jonathan asked me an unusual question: ‘if you decided to take a sabbatical or just do something else for a year, how would you find someone to do what you do in J&J?’ I took it literally, and fumbled my way to a conclusion about the balance between interests in web tech and interests in design. In hindsight, I think there’s a much bigger story about process here. If I did leave, and we found somebody able to do what I do, how easy would it be for them to pick up projects I’m in the middle of and finish them?

If I’m good at my job (and I’m not saying I am), it should be trivially easy. In fact, making yourself easily replaceable could be what makes you good at your job.

Replaceability and reuse go hand in hand. Looking for the parts of your job which could be made to some extent generic, and then actually taking the time to make them usefully so can massively improve your work. Though it may take longer to create a reusable standard in the first place, this is time recouped over and over. Even more importantly, the act of differentiating what can and cannot be made usefully generic, and then constructing the former to allow for the latter, forces you to plan carefully, avoid shortcuts and verify the work. Finally, if you need somebody else to do your work, they benefit directly from your investment of time. Not only do you work better because you’re working for the future, but other people work better because you’ve already done part of their work.

Generic work becomes a transferable asset. Doing it makes you a transferrable asset.


In yesterday’s Economist, the special report on the Future of Jobs had some interesting research. Apparently McKinsey Global Institute suggests ‘there are three main types of work: transformational (typically involving physical activity, such as construction); transactional (such as routine jobs in call centres or banks, often still done by people but capable of being automated); and interactional (relying on knowledge, expertise and collaboration with others, such as investment banking or management consultancy)’.

Mr Manyika of MGI says the interactional sort is unlikely to be automated, like transactional work, because it is ‘inherently difficult to standardise’.* *It is somewhat droll to imagine an automated board of directors pitching a billion-dollar deal to another board of robots. Maybe chatbots.

A lot of what we do cannot be usefully standardised. A few weeks ago I was talking to Harry at Bell Pottinger about J&J’s (very much under construction) product- Attn! – a web app we use for tracking our attention, for billing and in order to improve our estimation. By monitoring yourself over time, so our thinking goes, you put yourself in a better position to change how you use your life. Harry said something to the effect of ‘so much of what I do is non-standard, and not attributed to a specific cause or project that I don’t think having data on my activities would be of any use.’ It’s a valid point- if your attention is devoted to a stream of unconnected phenomena which may or may not feed into any of a number of interests, it’s hard to know how to measure it.

But I don’t think that makes it any less of a good idea to try. In the interests of making yourself replaceable, a long-term idea of how you spend your time is useful information. And the act of creating standards (even if at first they turn out to be wrong) amid what seems to be unconnected and unstandardisable could be an important part of improving your work. Of course Attn! certainly isn’t the only way to go about this process, I just find it a useful way of forcing myself to think about stuff I otherwise wouldn’t, because of my congenital intellectual laziness.

Towards an Agile workforce

If you’re familiar with Agile methodology, you’re likely to be involved in some way with software development. I think there could be a much broader application to the world of work. Agile teams work by parceling work into short phases (somewhat jargonistically termed ‘cycles’). One of the systems’s core ideas is that each cycle should end with a tested, usable, documented and transferable body of work which a new team could pick up and get going with. If they’re doing their job properly, Agile teams are building their own replaceability into every part of their work.

Also quoted in the Economist special report is Ms Gratton of London Business School. According to her “The pleasures of the traditional working role were the certainty of a parent-child relationship. You could leave it in the hands of the corporation to make the big decisions about your working life,” whereas now the world is moving towards an “adult-adult” relationship.” Though the terminology is quaint, I can I buy that.

With 31% of the global workforce self-employed (next to 40% employed)†; † stats from the same special report increasingly mobile workers, people anecdotally treating jobs more like gigs or ways of achieving personal goals, automation of repetitive tasks and labour arbitrage via emerging economies, it seems to me that the skill of replacing yourself effectively will become more and more appealing to employers and clients alike.