Tesla’s Elon Musk is raising an important question about job titles

This week, in a classic Muskian publicity stunt, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, announced that he no longer had a job title at the electric-car manufacturer.He had deleted his honorifics from his Tesla bio page, where he previously had been listed as chairman, product architect, and CEO, he said in a tweet. “I’m now the Nothing of Tesla. Seems fine so far,” he wrote.Of course it’s fine. Why would anything change? Musk cannot, with mere words or the absence of them, distance himself psychologically or literally from his position at the electric car maker. He cannot magically make himself a commoner in a kingdom of his own creation. Plus, as he discovered, corporations are legally required to have a president, treasurer, and secretary; thus he remains CEO on Tesla’s investors’ page.But Musk may be right in general about the futility of job titles, which serve largely as a distraction for knowledge workers in today’s economy.We’re all project managers nowAccording to Roger Martin, a prominent management and strategy expert, and former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, we may be structuring jobs all wrong. By extension, our addiction to titles as signs of status could be just another example of how humans—whether as individuals or in groups—operate in patterns based on habit, without responding to the world as it really is.Last week, at the Brightline Initiative’s Strategy@Work conference in New York, Martin outlined his view of several major shifts in the way we organize, or ought to organize, work.Let’s get rid of “jobs,” he told the audience, and instead give everyone “a portfolio of projects.”He realizes how subversive this may sound. Most people who talk about doing away with jobs are actually suggesting that robots do them instead, not that the work be eliminated entirely. But Martin asked the audience—mostly executives in strategy and development roles—to consider the work they do every day: Is it more or less the same task, day in, day out, for months or years, as it would be in a manufacturing plant?No, of course not. In many ways, he continued, most people in knowledge jobs, whether in marketing, sales, or software development, do not have static jobs. They are already project managers, told to jump on this or that initiative, some of which may repeat annually, a few of which may never occur again.What people in most office jobs in developed economies do is make decisions, he says, making an office a decision factory. Raw materials are data; memos and presentations are products; and meetings are production processes.On paper, we make it look as though a particular job title represents a collection of tasks that are repeated routinely, but when we actually show up for duty, the factory analogy is no longer relevant, and the job description is but a memory. He once described this phenomenon in a Harvard Business Review story:Think of a freshly hired assistant brand manager for Olay at P&G. She may initially view her role as pretty standard: helping her boss guide the brand. However, she will quickly learn that the job is ever-changing. This month she may be working on the pricing and positioning of a brand extension. Two months later she may be totally absorbed in managing production glitches that are causing shipment delays on the biggest-selling item in the Olay lineup. Then all is quiet until the boss approaches her desk with yet another project. Within months she will figure out that her job is a series of projects that come and go, sometimes in convenient ways and sometimes not.The problem with not acknowledging this phenomenon is that companies staff up with professionals of various stripes (all decision makers) who need to be laid off when there’s a drop in cash flow, or a major shift in strategy, he said, which is why you tend to see mass layoffs at multinationals followed by mass hirings. Knowledge workers  “experience big swings between peaks and valleys of decision-making intensity,” he writes in HBR. What’s more, when project managers hiding behind other titles don’t have as many projects to handle, they do not raise their hands to say, “I’m not busy enough.” They keep themselves looking busy. (Cue the rise of the bullshit job.)The solution, he believes, is not to turn every employee into a freelancer, and not to pile on more instability and precariousness than the gig economy has already introduced, but to run large organizations the same way that some professional services companies do.At even the largest consulting and law firms, employees have full-time jobs, and they are assigned to projects following careful deliberations, not haphazardly. Smart companies will want to retain their talent and train them to be better and better at handling projects, making the company more profitable and powerful in turn.Rather than jump from title to title, climbing a hierarchy and accumulating “senior” and “director” accolades along the way, “You’ll know that you’ve advanced because you’re tackling trickier projects,” he said, and your compensation would naturally reflect this.As a benefit, employee engagement levels ought to skyrocket, considering each person would now feel in charge of their own domain, making calls about issues for which they feel capable of making calls, rather than playing a cog. You’ll develop a company of leaders. Like artists, even, they’ll be working multiple gigs at once.Strategy or chaos?One member of the conference audience asked Martin if his vision wasn’t a recipe for chaos. His response, in a nutshell: Companies already operate in chaos. They’re sprawling and multilayered, communications break down between levels and departments, strategy becomes meaningless.In Martin’s vision, top leadership would still exist for the purpose of serving as captains of a company’s overall direction, and one of the most important people in the company would be something like a chief operating officer, who would assign individuals and budgets to specific projects. This person would have to know how to maintain the right pace and understand who is particularly adept in which roles.But even in this world, he also noted, a company would still need a CEO, the ultimate decision maker, whose portfolio will be stuffed with the most meaningful, high-level projects.Sorry, Elon.
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