Wednesday, July 25, 2012

What is your why?

We corporate drones are actually pretty lucky.  Many of us get to work sitting down, in the shade, for eight to nine hours a day.  Compared to the work I used to do on the farm, my life is gravy.  And so it goes for many people in the developed world.  In fact, our work is so far removed from "work" - that is, the expenditure of blood or sweat, that we are fortunate.  In a cruel twist of fate, however, it's becoming clear that many people aren't excited or engaged in their work.  Many corporate drones go to work for living and then participate in all kinds of interesting, engaging activities where their passions lie outside of work.  Isn't it ironic that at the peak of the knowledge work shift, many people have little engagement or participation in their work?

There are several reasons for this, I think.

First is the issue of compensation.  Truth be told, if I could earn a 1% salary teaching high school kids history, I think that's what I would do.  I love history, and minored in it, but never pursued it because I didn't think it would support the lifestyle I wanted.  Likewise I know many accountants who can't stand accounting, but do it because the money is good.  Many of us pursue jobs or careers that aren't in line with our passions - so how can we be fully passionate or engaged at work?

The second is the issue of control.  The more structured an organization becomes, the more predictable it seeks to be, the more defined and constrained the roles and the work have to become.  Most major corporations can't afford significant failures or risks, and the processes that sustain those firms frown on even small deviations or changes, so jobs and roles are narrowly defined.  People have little freedom to experiment or try new things.  They repeat the same work over and over, and rarely expect to dramatically change their job, their organization or the products or services they create.  Control reduces engagement and enthusiasm.

The third issue is one of focus or vision.  Ask 100 people in any corporation why their organization exists, and 95 will say to make money or earn profits.  Perhaps a handful will say their organization's strategy is to create the best widget, or solve a key challenge mankind faces.  Simon Sinek, in his book Start with Why, focuses on this. It is hard to be fully engaged or passionate when you are unclear about corporate goals or strategies, or if you simply don't care about the goals or strategies.

Maslow's employment hierarchy

Time was, simply finding enough food was all that mankind cared about.  Then shelter, clothes, food and eventually self-actualization.  Maslow defined that for us.  But it turns out there is a work related Maslow's hierarchy as well.  Time was that simply earning a paycheck that kept your head above financial calamity was enough.  Now though, as many of us make more than we need, and we are removed from "work" work, we need more.  We need to know our work matters.  We want to make big change.  We want to work on things that we are "passionate" about.  We want workers who are "engaged".  Yet we define jobs narrowly, restrict failures and experiments, and display a marked inability to communicate strategic vision.

No wonder so many people are frustrated, and no wonder innovation can seem so difficult.  We have a significant body of staff and middle managers who are not challenged and not engaged in their work, trapped in narrow cells of management structure who are yearning to break free and do things that add meaning and value.  These people want to be deeply engaged, and find their engagement away from work rather than at work.  It's not just your best assets that leave every night - it's also your best hopes, dreams and aspirations, which get spent on other things. 

The "why" a business exists matters.  It tells customers what we believe and stand for.  It tells employees what we believe and why we matter.  It aligns corporate culture and decision making.  Without the "why", things become about outcomes.  Yes, commercial entities should drive profits, hopefully outsized, incredible profits.  But if they do, those profits will be based to some great extent, on your "why" and what you believe, and what that says to your customers and prospects.

If this sounds hard, it is and it isn't.  Creating a why is easy.  Being willing to stick with it is the hard part.  And so far, the discussion has just been about a general "why".  Imagine the difficulty of innovating without a "why" - without a shared purpose or focus.  Now you know another reason innovation seems so tentative, occasional and ad-hoc.  If regular, everyday business seems difficult in the absence of a "why", innovation is only moreso.

It's ironic, really.  The more removed from real work we become, the more the work matters.  Most knowledge workers I know get great satisfaction from mowing their own lawns.  Mostly because they control the beginning, middle and end of the work, and can see the results immediately.  What we do is becoming less important - why we do it is becoming more important.  Executives need to understand that the "why" isn't the icing on the cake, it is the whole cake.  And innovators, take note.  Working in the absence of the "why" is tough in regular, every day business, and many of you know how difficult any change is, or introducing new concepts.  Trying to do innovation in the absence of the why is even more difficult.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:23 AM


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