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Baratunde Thurston on the Changing Workforce, Collaboration and Snooki

Baratunde Thurston is a Brooklyn-dwelling, politically-active, technology-loving writer and comedian from the future. In a past life he  contributed to rags like Vanity Fair and the UK Independent, but now he spends most of his time serving as the Director of Digital for The Onion. The camera loves him, President Obama can be counted among his list of admirers and, most importantly, he’s helping to define the future of media. (Duh, he’s from there!)

In other words, he’s cool. Really, really cool.

We recently had the opportunity to pick his brain on several of the questions and issues we’re seeing in the workplace today. Check it out:

Mindjet: What does collaboration mean to you? 

Baratunde Thurston: Collaboration is a different way of thinking about what you’re good at vs. what you’re not good at, and how you find those other parts to co-create the world. We’re still in the very early stages of it, and it’s very challenging. I mean, it’s easy to say, “You should collaborate!” but it’s very hard to actually do it– to identify the talent and the resources; to create incentives for them to want to work with you; to reward everybody in a reasonably equitable way; to measure the success of the group effort, and to repeat it. All of those are hard, but that’s the process.

The thing that binds it together is a high bar of quality. That’s the principle that helps people define what they’re doing. And it has to be fun—there has to be some element of truth.

MJ: Information is being created and consumed faster than ever. How can we cope with this speed?

BT: I think it’s all in the mindset. We often refer to these streams as rivers of information, and if we actually treated them like rivers we wouldn’t be so overwhelmed, right? You walk over to the river with your cup or palm or whatever, you drink water until you’re satisfied, and then you walk away. You don’t try to drink the whole river because that’s impossible, and also really dumb.

MJ: There’s an interesting concept you discussed thematically throughout a recent Fast Company article— this idea that nostalgia is dying. To flip that, what are you nostalgic for?

BT: What I really think people miss is middlemen. My go-to metaphor, which I also mentioned in that article, is the end of the milkman. Like, who cares? We still drink milk. In the grand scheme of things, it is troubling for the milkman industry that it doesn’t exist anymore. But in the grander scheme of things, we’re still consuming milk. Probably more than ever. So what’s more important– this particular function which lasted 200 years max, or the grand scope of humanity: there was milk before the milkman, there is milk after the milkman.

When you think about these layers between you and whatever you need to satisfy your life, liberty and happiness, the nostalgia for some of those pieces is temporarily understandable. What I get concerned about is how we sort of prevent progress by focusing too much on the loss of littler areas as opposed to how we can all win in a much larger game.

Because there’s so much disruption and because we’re becoming so mobile, there’s extreme infatuation between knowing and acquiring and being connected. Not just living. Now we want to virtually announce what we’re doing more than just do what we’re doing. There’s something disturbing there. It makes me nostalgic for the sense of local, physical community, even as I embrace this virtual community we’re all becoming a part of.

I’m also nostalgic for hi-top fades– that was a good haircut. I’m nostalgic for MTV playing actual videos. That was a good period of time, you know? It was before Snooki took over. We were better people, pre-Snooki.

MJ: This is the first time four generations have been in the workplace together and organizations are, understandably, running into some communication snags. Are there any ways to improve that across the board? 

BT: Overall, I think we should re-evaluate how we present employees with information. There’s a lot of value to be found in smaller group meetings, if they’re feasible, because people respond better when there’s constant back and forth communication. You get to hear about the bad experiences right along with good ones, which can reveal some pretty big opportunities for improvement. Big company meetings can be difficult because employees don’t relate to the CEO or other executives as much as they relate to each other.

MJ: Speaking of employees, the younger generations are known for hopping from company to company, rather than sticking it out for the long haul. As these generations slowly make up the majority of the workforce, how can organizations improve retention? 

BT: It’s all about the mission. One of the greatest thing about the creative boom is that people finally feel good about being passionate, and an increase in methods of expression are allowing them to share that passion. If your company has a clear mission, that’s really all you need. Freedom of expression means you don’t have to go digging around for the right people—it means they’ll find you because you are an outlet they’re looking for. And if you’re loyal to that purpose, they will be loyal to you.

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