Get a job or work the the portfolio of projects?

Get a job or work the the portfolio of projects?

Of all the management gurus, with the exception Peter Drucker, I consider Charles Handy to be one of last of the breed of management gurus who was not as concerned with being a specialist management theorist (or populist like Tom Peters), but a cosmopolitan intellectual in the European tradition.  Thus infused throughout his writings are broad and highly philosophical observations and perspectives on organizational behavior and management principles practices around the world.


Among the prolific ideas he has advanced is the notion of the “portfolio worker” and the “Shamrock Organization” (in which professional core workers, freelance workers and part-time/temporary routine workers each form one leaf of the “Shamrock”).  But it is especially the idea of the portfolio worker that I want to discuss here as it was an idea that was proposed almost two decades ago by Handy and is very profound and prescient observation that is more relevant now than it was then.  I would argue that the idea is directly in alignment with this site’s notion of Projectpreneurship.

So what exactly is the portfolio worker?  In Handy’s book The Age of Paradox (originally titled “The Empty Raincoat”) published in the mid nineties, Handy describes a new working arrangement that expands and redefines the typical concept of the freelance worker:

Going portfolio means exchanging full-time employment for independence.  The portfolio is a collection of different bits and pieces of work for different clients.  The word “job” now means a client … I told my children when they were leaving education that they would be well advised to look for customers not bosses … They have “gone portfolio” out of choice, for a time.

Others are forced into it, when they get pushed outside by their organisation.  If they are lucky, their old organisation will be the first client in their new portfolio.  The important difference is that the price-tag now goes on their produce, not their time.

From the perspective of this site with it’s emphasis on project management, such an arrangement wound include seeking out projects and not jobs that would align with your skills and competencies.  Those projects would be managed just like a portfolio of projects in the typical organizational sense, in which the collection and aggregation of a particular set of projects map strategically to where you want to grow your client base and build your career.

Some things I’d add as a caveat to this rule, is that with the recent exception of some individuals who are able to create high technology start-ups very early in their careers and gain enormous wealth and expertise, most individuals may have to work some full time jobs to acquire the necessary expertise and skills so that they can “sell” this to potential clients.  Managing projects is definitely a skill that is best acquired through experience.

Other business skills that will need to be developed are knowing how to price your services since you will no longer be receiving a steady paycheck and most importantly, knowing how to market yourself.  This is definitely a “feast or famine” type career arrangement and when your not on gigs, you need to be marketing yourself relentlessly and developing your knowledge and skills.  But this kind of customer-centric (or client-centric) mode of working is very much in line with the 21st century idea of “the age of the customer“.

While not for everybody, I think the deep generalist project manager with a highly entrepreneurial mindset and desire to take control of one’s career and destiny will be well poised for this type of career.  I have taken this plunge recently and it has been very satisfying and fulfilling so far.

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