The Means of Production

Every five years from the back end of the 1920s to 1991 the State Planning Committee of the Soviet Union, Gosplan, put out a Plan telling everyone what they had to do to make the worker’s paradise reality. “Plan is law, fulfilment is duty, over-fulfilment is honour!” they said.

Alexey Stakhanov was a pneumatic drill operator in a coal mine in the Donbas. Like everyone else there he had a production quota of around 7 tonnes of coal per shift. In September 1935, just after attending a coal mining course, he produced 227 tonnes of coal in his shift. The feat made him an actual poster boy (he appeared on a lot of posters) and put him on the cover of Time Magazine. He had a whole movement named after him, the Stakhanovites, who sought to emulate his quota busting achievements.

It appears that 200% was the number you wanted. 200% over quota got you a motorbike, a badge and a round of applause at the Worker’s Council meeting.

As a result, everything from coal mining to tractor production worked magnificently.

Oh…hang on…

Anyway, last century, when I worked for other people, recruitment business management behaved like Gosplan looking at the amount of sand needed to make the glass for Lada windscreens. It came up with a linear equation in which the number of telephone calls made at one end turned magically into money earned at the other. Not making money? Well, obviously you aren’t making enough calls.

If we wanted to stay in a job we recruiters had to behave like Alexsei Grigoryevich Stakhanov. And we did. I could easily make 30 unplanned and random phone calls every day.

In the Soviet Union, these obsessions turned into shonky tractors, unreliable cars and butter that squirted water in your eye. In our recruitment businesses, it turned into a frenzy of activity and shouting that, at best, kept clients in a state of regular irritation.

It turns out that there are different ways of looking at things.

To summarise dramatically (although that’s never stopped me before), Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian cavalry officer active during the early part of the 19th Century, when there was much unpleasantness in Europe. Based on his practical experience and academic ability he wrote a highly influential work “Vom Kriege” or “On War”. It is perhaps to political-military analysis what Adam Smith’s “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” is to classical economics and Newton’s “Principia Mathematica” is to physics.

Unlike Smith and Newton, von Clausewitz suffered from the huge disadvantage of dying of cholera before he could finish his work. His posthumous good fortune was that he had married Marie von Clausewitz, who in the five years between her husband’s death and her own demise, managed to collect Carl’s papers, edit them write a preface and publish the whole lot in 10 volumes.

The bit of Mr and Mrs Clausewitz’s work that is of most interest to me now is the explanation of strategy. Fundamentally the point is that strategy is art, not science – science is in the realm of tactics. Von Clausewitz also observed that there are “centres of gravity”. Things that allow you to achieve your objectives and, in the hands of your opponents, stop you from achieving yours. 

So, to go back to recruiting in the last century, I now understand that we were obsessed with minor tactics. In the great scheme of things making 30 calls a day or hewing 227 tonnes of coal are little more than party tricks. They are countable measurable things. They are science. They are not art.

What actually matters is understanding the strategic art that keeps us in business. For instance, in my case, if we deliver on projects reliably and in good time we achieve things that our opponents cannot.

I know for a fact that it takes at least 80 hours to take a project from a blank sheet of paper to actually having a contract signed by the individual who is going to take the job. Perhaps a rule of 80ish hours to complete a project isn’t quite the inverse square law but it does give you a good rule of thumb. In essence, if somebody tells you that they can deliver on a complex retained project in much fewer than 80 hours they’re very likely at it. If they’re talking similar numbers to us then, yeah, they’re probably to be taken seriously.

There are other centres of gravity to our business that we have identified and understand well. Reasons of space, time and commercial sensitivity work against me going into detail here. However, I’ve shown to my own satisfaction that I can come up with a detailed and intelligent strategy that works, but only if I stop obsessing about the amount of coal I produce.

Posted on: 25th February 2019 by Ivor Campbell

Into his fourth decade of search Ivor has a voice with stories to tell, observations to make and the odd picture to share. Mostly related to the day job.

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