Tapping Collective Genius: Finding Meaningful Work You Can Love

As Dick Richards explains in his book Is Your Genius at Work, your Genius is where your Gift (what you’re uniquely good at) intersects your Passion (what you love doing) — areas 2 & 3 in the chart above. Lately I’ve written extensively about the entrepreneur’s challenge of finding the ‘sweet spot’ (area 3) where your Genius further intersects your Purpose (what’s needed by others).

Most recently, I’ve been talking about whether it makes more sense, in creating a Natural Enterprise, to start by identifying the people you want to make a living with, rather than the type of business you want to create. This article is a further extension of that thinking.

It occurred to me that one could use the above chart to identify a group or company of people’s Collective Genius — their combined Gifts and Passions. We each have our own Gift (even though sometimes it takes a lifetime to discover it). We each have our own Passions (which, sadly, are often relegated to leisure time or retirement, when we find time for them at all).

Think of an entrepreneurial group or company as a set of jazz musicians, each with their own Gift (ability with particular instruments) and Passion (preferred styles and riffs). You want to assemble a group with somewhat common Passions but not the same Gifts (an entire combo of alto sax players would be, unless you’re an alto sax player, probably pretty boring).

Likewise, when you’re putting together a Natural Enterprise, you want to assemble a partnership with a diversity of Gifts but with a significant overlap in Passions. Insufficient diversity of Gifts and your enterprise won’t have what it takes to do the whole job — a solar/wind energy co-op, for example, needs more than just engineers. And if you have insufficient overlap of Passions, a lot of the people in the group will be unhappy and disengaged. For example, if some of the energy co-op members want to do this at modest profit just for the joy of doing something in their community, and others want to make a million selling it to a multinational energy company and retire as soon as possible, you have a problem.

As I’ve explained before, finding the area 3 ‘sweet spot’ is an iterative process for individuals. You catalogue what you know to be your Gifts and Passions, research what is needed, and keep at it until you find an overlap. Then you answer the seven questions in the chart above to see if the overlap is viable. If it is, you’re there. If not, you keep looking. This can be a lifetime process, with most of us settling for area 5 drudgery during the workday and unpaid area 2 hobbies when we have the energy left over.

If we’re lucky and/or diligent, we can find the sweet spot. Po Bronson’s book What Should I Do With My Life chronicles the lives of those who have found it, often late in life and after a life crisis or a very deliberate effort to find meaningful work. Guys like Dave Smith have succeeded because they refuse to settle for less.

So now let’s apply this process to finding the sweet spot for a collective group of people who have decided, for one reason or another, that they want to make a living together.

Again, it’s an iterative process that can start with Gifts, Passions, or identified needs. We’ll talk about how to find the collective group in a minute, but let’s suppose you have identified a group of 20-30 people you want to start a Natural Enterprise with. You could start with a Gift Inventory — each person identifies their Gift, what they’re uniquely good at, and how they know (e.g. recognition and appreciation by someone else). If others who know that person can chime in, that’s helpful too. The exercises in Dick Richards’ book could be used for those who aren’t sure. Preparing the collective Gift Inventory could be quite eye-opening: Some people might discover their Gifts for the first time, or even discover that what they thought was their Gift actually wasn’t.

I think it makes sense if your start with the Gift Inventory to then look at What’s needed (i.e. Who Needs Your Gifts Now). This would require both group brainstorming (drawing on the Wisdom of Crowds to hone in on what is not only needed, but recognized as needed, affordable and practical to bring to market), and lots of research by everyone in the group.

That research needs to be primary — face-to-face conversations with potential customers to gather as much information as possible about possible needs, using tools like my Need/Affinity Matrix. If the need is obvious out there in cyberspace, chances are someone’s already filling it. Primary research gives you information that’s yours alone.

Once you’ve identified a bunch of possible needs that would appear to fit with the group’s Collective Gifts, the next step would be to reconvene the group to discuss them. This is entrepreneurship 101: Articulating the market need(s) as precisely as possible, and crafting (this is art, not science) an offering that appears to meet all the specifications of these needs. Then, you need to do two things simultaneously: (1) Self-identify the people in the group who have the Gifts needed to provide that offering, and (2) Ensure that those people would be Passionate about that role — that it’s something that they would love to do.

This is tricky, and there are several land-mines to watch out for. You may find that there’s too much overlap in the group’s Gifts, and there is not room for everyone in the group in an enterprise providing this offering. There may be more than one offering identified in the session, which may solve this problem, but the last thing you need in a new enterprise is too much of a particular talent — the result is infighting, turf wars and disengagement.

You may find that there are gaps that no one in the group has a Gift for, in which case you’ll need to find others to join the group — others you want to make a living with. A mistake traditional enterprises make often is recruiting outsiders strictly for their talent, even though they may be obnoxious, have poor chemistry with the rest of the group, and have no particular Passion for what the business is doing. They’re like the free agent superstars in professional sports — often brought in at great cost to fill a gap in the lineup, only to lose to a team with less talent but more cohesion and mutual love.

You may find that you have the Collective Gifts and a dynamite offering, but that some people in the group just don’t have the Passion to make a living around that offering. An entire enterprise doing area 5 (see chart) work brilliantly will be a workplace of resentment and restlessness — and what a tragedy to have people who love each other working together doing stuff they hate! You cannot compromise on your, or your partners’ Passion. Go back to your research and find a need your group really cares about, with work they can really enjoy, not just do well.

So that’s how this process might work starting with Collective Gifts. Could the iteration start with Collective Passions, or needs, instead?

A lot of entrepreneurial businesses do start with Collective Passions. I’ve seen a lot of them fail because the team lacks the requisite Gifts, or because their Gifts overlap too much or have a lot of competency gaps that end up being filled by disinterested mercenaries. Or because their Passion gets in the way of realizing that there is no recognized, practical market need for their offering, or that their offering is not affordable. Solutions in search of a problem. As important as Passion is, I don’t think it’s the best place to start this process, at least not when you’re doing it at a collective level.

Starting with an unmet need, though, is a viable alternative to starting with Collective Gifts, in my opinion. Again, thorough, disciplined primary research is needed to identify a set of unmet needs. Something you think is needed is not enough to start with. You need to learn why something you think is needed is not already being filled by someone else — the market is not perfect, but it tends to fill big obvious gaps quickly and effectively. Once you know why the need isn’t being filled, you need to be brutally honest about whether and how you can circumvent the obstacle that is preventing others from filling it. The most likely answer is that the niche is currently too small to be commercial. This is the entree of most successful new enterprises — what Christensen calls disruptive innovations. Starting small and getting really good really fast so that the niche you’re filling gets much broader and catches the incumbent businesses napping.

If I were coordinating a group trying to establish a Natural Enterprise together, I’d start with a general type of problem or target customer segment, teach the group how to do good research, and a bit about disruptive innovation, and have them both individually (one-on-one primary research) and collectively (brainstorming) produce a whole set of unmet needs around that particular problem or customer segment. For example, if the problem was ‘the End of Oil’ the objective might be to find a whole set of possible renewable energy offerings. Or, if the target underserved customer segment was ‘local communities’ the objective might be to find a whole set of possible offerings that are focused on the needs of local communities (like creating local organic food networks, or creating markets for local artists, craftspeople and/or tradespeople).

These would need to be problems or underserved customer segments that you believe the group has some Collective Passion about, so in a way you are starting with Passion — but not with what the people in your group love doing, rather who they would love to do it for (i.e. what customer group) or why they would love doing it (i.e. what problem that they care about would it solve). This does not guarantee the group will end up Passionate about the resultant offering. For example, I’d love to be involved in a renewable energy business or a local organic food network, but not as its accountant, even though that’s where my Gift in that enterprise may lie. Passion for the purpose is not the same as Passion for the role.

So now suppose you’ve compiled a set of well-researched, unmet needs. When the group reconvenes, they can then address how to address those needs by considering each person’s Gifts and Passions simultaneously. In other words, after you start by defining the group’s Purpose (i.e. what unmet needs it will fill), then you have each person declare how their Gift could contribute to that enterprise, in a way that they would be Passionate about doing so.

For example, I may be able to contribute to a renewable energy business in many ways (finding financing for it, teaching other members about the science and markets for renewable energy etc.) but the way in which I could contribute that I’d be most Passionate about is creatively identifying and exploring all the options that are available, and how they vary by community, and putting together a set of ‘templates’ that could be customized to the needs and available sources of renewable energy in each community so that the business would offer different but appropriate services to each community in which it operated.

That role taps into both my imaginative Gifts and my Passion for discovery. In other words, it matches my Genius, which is Imagining Possibilities. 

Like the first approach, this approach to finding the sweet spot is tricky and full of land-mines. Some people may reluctantly admit that they just have no Genius for the new enterprise the group collectively creates, and have to opt out. There may again be overlaps or gaps in the Gifts. And while some people may be Passionate about the Purpose of the enterprise, they may reluctantly conclude that they don’t have Passion for the only role that is appropriate for them to play in it.

This is the epitome of complexity, which is why it is so important for the people involved in the process to love each other and to really want to work together. Participants will probably learn as much about themselves and others in the group as they will about business, needs and markets. This is not an exercise for wallflowers.

In summary, I think there are two optimal routes for a whole group of people who want to make a living together to iteratively find the sweet spot where their collective Gifts and Passions and unmet needs intersect:

  1. Start with an Inventory of Collective Gifts, then research unmet needs that draw on those Gifts, and then assess each person’s Passion for applying those Gifts to those needs. Or:
  2. Start with a Purpose the group is Passionate about (solving a particular problem or helping a particular underserved customer segment), then research unmet needs that are related to that problem or shared by that underserved segment, and then assess each person’s Gift and Passion for addressing those unmet needs. 

I promised I’d get back to the issue of how to identify this group of people you love enough to want to go through all this with, and then make a living with.

In a previous article I suggested starting by just calling up people you think you’d like to make a living with and saying:

“I’ve decided I would like to work with you. I think together we would be a force to be reckoned with. We have some complementary strengths and interests, and I think the chemistry between us would be good. I have no idea what we would do, but my instincts tell me whatever it was it would be successful, and a lot of fun. What do you think of the idea of getting together and talking it over?”

But what if you don’t know who to call? I think this might be another application for the Open Space Invitation. For those unfamiliar with Open Space, it is a process for inviting people to and coordinating self-managed groups of people to collectively address complex problems. Michael Herman has a great guide for crafting Open Space invitations. The guide has lots more ideas, but I can envision invitations attracting large numbers (perhaps hundreds) of under-employed or otherwise unhappy-at-work people, around a particular Purpose or theme, to an Open Space event that might end up spawning a dozen or more Natural Enterprises.

The advantage of this is that, with such a large group, you would be more likely to find a collective where your Gifts and Passions (i.e. your Genius) was a better fit with the others’, than in a small group. You would also be less likely to compromise your Passions or exaggerate your Gifts out of desperation, because there would be more options in the large group.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the future of work, rather than answering cattle calls for job openings to work for people you don’t particularly like doing work you don’t particularly like, was instead a constant series of Open Space new enterprise formation meetings where you were a peer, where you had a say in what the business would be about and what your role was to be?

And where, instead of settling for area 5 (see chart) drudgery during the day and unappreciated area 2 hobbies after ‘work’, you spent your whole life doing work you love, with people you love, that you are really good at, and which is important, needed, andappreciated?

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3 Responses to Tapping Collective Genius: Finding Meaningful Work You Can Love

  1. So…shall we put together this particular Open Space?

  2. Your closing comments saying:”Wouldn’t it be amazing if the future of work, rather than answering cattle calls for job openings to work for people you don’t particularly like doing work you don’t particularly like, was instead a constant series of Open Space new enterprise formation meetings where you were a peer, where you had a say in what the business would be about and what your role was to be?”…would be amazing.With the steady growing of customization in the consumer area, hopefully this will spill over into the workplace. Whenever someone has “ownership” it has proven beneficial in the long-term for everyone involved.

  3. Richard says:

    With those words you make such a future a distinct possibility. I’d bet in a future where work is a convening of passions, people would naturally organize themselves as worker owned coops with balanced job complexes; they’d pretty much have to to avoid mercenary solicitation. I briefly read about a guy who devised a theoretical economy around “preferenism,” or some similar term, which is a system that takes everyone’s job preferences into account and spits out the best jobs for everyone. It’s hard to imagine how something like that would work without people precisely knowing their gifts and passions, which as you mentioned may be revealed through this group process. The future you describe would be a natural form of preferenism, with no complicated formulas or fancy remuneration schemes created by a society -dominating black box, just people doing what they do best to satisfy other people’s needs. This future would, in essence, be the extreme of producing according to comparative advantage – using our own unique genius. Sustainability means not only avoiding material waste, but waste of talents and skills. Glad I discovered your site, it’s refreshingly holistic, like I’ve stumbled onto exactly what I didn’t realize I was looking for.

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