Marshall professor writes Wall Street Journal bestseller

The book was relevant during the pandemic, when jobs adapted and many workers shifted their work modality to online. (Photo courtesy of USC Marshall)

Its iconic characters and rides have beckoned millions and earned it the nickname of the “Happiest Place on Earth,” but part of Disney’s magic lies in more than its most prominent attractions. John Boudreau, a professor of management and organization at the Marshall School of Business and research director at the USC Marshall Center for Effective Organizations, discovered this while studying the value of work as a professor at the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations in the 1990s. 

As part of his research, he examined street sweepers at Disney theme parks. Boudreau saw that once the staff met a certain standard, cleanliness did not create much payoff for Disney. Instead, Disney benefited more when sweepers “created magic” in their encounters with guests, such as answering questions for them or drawing a Mickey Mouse figure on the sidewalk. These ideas, which stayed with him for the next 20 years, encouraged Boudreau to think about jobs and work differently.

“Even back then, what we found was that, if you take a job like a sweeper at a Disney theme park, you can’t really see the value of that work if you keep it at the job level because sweepers clean, but cleaning doesn’t necessarily pay off,” Boudreau said. “We realized that to talk about work with workers, you almost have to be able to say things like ‘Look, get good enough at cleaning, but don’t keep getting better and better at that. Instead, switch over and get better and better at serving guests.”

Boudreau’s recent book and Wall Street Journal bestseller, “Work Without Jobs,” published in March, explores a new work operating system where traditional jobs are deconstructed to meet business challenges, such as accelerating automation and new work arrangements.

“Almost all HR systems are built around the idea of jobs, job holders and degrees. Most policymakers talk about creating great jobs when they think about work,” Boudreau said. “We propose that the new operating system would allow the parts of the job to melt or deconstruct and live on their own. A job would be made up of tasks or projects, and you’d allow those tasks and projects to become free-flowing in a way and not necessarily need to be packaged into the job.”

Boudreau co-authored the book with Ravin Jesuthasan, senior partner and global leader for transformation services at asset management firm Mercer. The pair started discussing writing “Work Without Jobs” in 2018 and had worked together several times on previous books, including “Lead the Work” and “Reinventing Jobs.”

“Lead the Work” highlighted how gig workers and contractors could be combined with full-time employees to optimally complete tasks constituting traditional jobs. “Reinventing Jobs” focused on automation working alongside humans, rather than neatly replacing multifaceted jobs as usually imagined. 

“That progression naturally led [Jesuthasan] and me to realize that this idea of deconstructing jobs is fundamental to many, many challenges that are going to start facing organizations,” Boudreau said.

In early 2019, Boudreau and Jesuthasan put together a proposal for “Work Without Jobs: for publishers,” which was happily accepted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press. They worked on the book for the rest of the year and continued to revise it in 2020. 

“As we’ve worked on the four books, we have steadily grown to be more in sync with each other,” Jesuthasan said. “[Boudreau] brings such a rich theoretical perspective and a clear sense of the architectures that are required to power work, and I bring to bear the sort of practical dimension of working with companies to apply the ideas that we’ve developed, testing them, seeing the results and then being able to write about those examples with [Boudreau].”

Having worked together since 2005, Boudreau and Jesuthasan have developed a reliable workflow. However, the coronavirus pandemic forced them to adapt their process. Normally, Boudreau and Jesuthasan would meet up in places such as Chicago, Santa Fe or Los Angeles, but this time, they only had a chance to brainstorm for the book face to face in February 2020.

“Then, we literally collaborated remotely for the entire book writing process,” Jesuthasan said. “As we learned more, we would go back and retool a lot of things more so than we’ve done with previous books. So [the pandemic] just introduced some additional complications.”

The pandemic brought uncertainty but also significance to the content of “Work Without Jobs.” As workers shifted from an office to a home environment, they had to rethink and adapt their jobs. Work was also changing for some people remaining on site who traded in making auto parts for making ventilators, or making whiskey for making hand sanitizer, Boudreau said. 

“During early 2020, we often found ourselves asking, ‘Gee, I wonder if anyone will want to read about these COVID examples, or will this thing just pass?’” Boudreau said. “Well, it turned out, of course, COVID was a much more major issue, and those examples stayed in the book.”

“Work Without Jobs” presents several case studies of businesses reinventing their work operating systems. In one case, prior experience in generating innovative solutions to workforce issues empowered Providence, a healthcare organization, to meet challenges brought on by the pandemic. 

The book illuminates the new future of work and offers practical recommendations for organizations to adapt for it. Jennifer Sparks, director of corporate relations & executive education at USC Marshall Center for Effective Organizations, has read several books by Boudreau and found “Work Without Jobs” similarly impactful.

“John’s books are thought-provoking and a must-read for senior executives and HR leaders wanting to transform their organizations,” Sparks said. 

Sparks first started working with Boudreau during her time in the marketing department at Marshall and currently works with him in USC Marshall Center for Effective Organizations, which provides business leaders with research and insights to design organizational performance. Sparks helps connect and facilitate conversations between clients and researchers like Boudreau. 

“He’s incredibly engaging,” Sparks said. “He’s provocative. He’s a thought leader that really encourages executives to think differently and to unlock new thinking to evolve for the future.”

Boudreau said “Work Without Jobs” also holds actionable insights for new talent such as university students. 

“Think of yourself as a complete set of capabilities,” Boudreau said. “So rather than defining yourself as whether or not you’re qualified for a certain job or career, I think increasingly, it’s going to be helpful to think of all the capabilities that you have, and all the capabilities that you might build.”