The "Why?" of Work

(This is going to be long and rambling. Hopefully at some point I'll be able to distill it into something shorter.)

In preparation for a tech leads retreat tomorrow, several of us at work were asked to watch Simon Sinek's TED talk, "How great leaders inspire action".

I'll be honest with you: I hated this talk. Sinek lost me right at the start by portraying his idea as the point of commonality among great leaders (don't get me started on survivorship bias; it's a pet peeve) and then compounded the presentation problem with some dubious biology about brain structure. So, after watching it, I ranted a bit about how much I disliked it (to, as it turns out, people who had gotten a lot out of it).

(Don't do this, btw. It's nearly always worthwhile to suppress negativity about something someone else enjoyed. I say this to increase the pool of people who can remind me of what I said the next time I forget. Which, if my normal pattern holds, will be about five minutes from now.)

Thankfully, I work with tolerant and forgiving people who kindly pointed out the things they saw in the video that I missed, and we ended up having a really good hour and a half discussion, which convinced me that there's an idea under here that's worth talking about. It also helped clarify for me just how much I hate the conventional construction of both leadership and success.

This talk is framed around getting other people to do things, which is one of the reasons why I had such a negative reaction to it. It's right there in the title: leaders inspiring action. This feeds into what at least in the United States is an endemic belief that the world consists of leaders and followers, and that the key to success in the world (in business, in politics, in everything else) is to become one of the leaders and accumulate followers (most frequently as customers, since we have a capitalist obsession). This is then defined as success. I think this idea of success is bullshit.

Now, that statement requires an immediate qualification. Saying that the societal definition of success is bullshit is a statement from privilege. I have the luxury of saying that because I am successful; I'm in a position where I have a lot of control over my own job, I'm not struggling to make ends meet, and I can spend my time pondering existential questions like how to define success. If I were a little less lucky, success would be whatever put food on the table and kept a roof over my head. I'm making an argument from the top of Maslow's hierarchy. But that is, in a roundabout way, my point: why is defining and constructing success still so hard, and why do we do such a bad job at it, even when we're at the top of the pyramid and able to focus on self-actualization?

The context of this talk for my group is pre-work for a discussion about, in Sinek's construction, the "why?" of our group. Why are we here, what is our purpose, and what do we care about? By the mere fact that we are able to ask questions like that, you can correctly surmise that we're already successful. The question, therefore, is what should we do with that success?

I normally hear one or more of the following answers, all of which I find unsatisfying or problematic.

So, what should I do with success? Or, put another way, since I have the luxury of figuring out a "why?", what's my "why?"

This question comes at a good time. As I've mentioned the last couple of days here, I've just come off of two days of the most fun I've had at work in the last several years. I spent about 25 hours total building a log parsing infrastructure that I'm quite fond of, and which may even be useful to other people. And I did that in response to a rather prosaic request: produce a report of user agents by authenticated unique users, rather than by hits, so that we can get an idea of what percentage of our community uses different devices or browsers.

This was a problem that I probably could have solved adequately enough for the original request in four hours, maybe less, and then moved on to something else. I spent six times that long on it. That's something I can do because I'm successful: that's the sort of luxury you get when you can define how you want to do your job.

So, apparently I have an answer to my question staring me in my face: what I do with success, when I have it, is use that leeway to produce elegant and comprehensive solutions to problems in a way that fully engages me, makes the problem more interesting, and constructs infrastructure that I can reuse for other problems.

Huh. That sounds like a "why?" response that's quite common among hackers and software developers. Nothing earth-shattering there... except why is that so rare in a business context? Why isn't it common to answer questions like "what is our group mission statement" with answers like that?

This is what I missed in the TED talk, and what the subsequent discussion with my co-workers brought to light for me. I think Sinek was getting at this, but I think he buried the lede. The "why?" should be something that excites you. Something that you're passionate about. Something that you believe in. He says that's because other people will then believe in it too and will buy it from you. I personally don't care about (or, to be honest, have active antipathy towards) that particular outcome, but that's fine; that's not the point. The point is that a "why?" comes from the heart, from something that actually matters, and it creates a motivating and limiting principle. It defines both what you want to do and what you don't want to do.

That gives me a personal answer. My "why?" is that I want to build elegant solutions to problems and do work that I find engaging and can be proud of afterwards. I automate common tasks not because I particularly care about being efficient, but because manually doing common tasks is mind-numbing and boring, and I don't like being bored. I write reliable systems not particularly because that helps clients, but primarily because reliable software is more elegant and beautiful and unreliable software offends me. (Being more usable and less frustrating for clients is also good; don't get me wrong. It's just not a motive. It's an outcome.)

What does that mean for a group mission statement, a group "why?"

Usually these exercises produce some sort of distillation of the collective job responsibilities of the people in the group. Our mission is to maintain core infrastructure to let people do their work and to support authentication and authorization services for the university, yadda yadda yadda... this is all true, in its way, but it's also boring. One can work oneself up to caring about things like that, but it requires a lot of effort.

But we all have individual "why?" answers, and I bet they look more like my answer than they do like traditional mission statements. If we're in a place where we have the luxury of worrying about self-actualization questions, what gets us up in the morning, what makes it exciting to go into work, is probably some variation on doing interesting and engaging work. But it's probably a different variation for everyone in the group.

For example, as you can see from above, I like building things. My happiest moments are when someone gives me a clearly-defined problem statement that fills a real need and then goes away and leaves me in peace to solve it. One thing I've learned is that I'm not very good at coming up with the problem statements myself; I can do it, but usually I end up solving some problem that isn't very important to other people. I love it when my employer can hand me real problems that will make the world better for people, since often they're a lot more interesting (and meaningful) than the problems I come up with on my own.

But that's all highly idiosyncratic and is not going to be shared by everyone in my group. I'm an introvert; the "leave me alone" part of that is important. Other people are extroverts; what gets them up in the morning is, in part, engaging with other people. Some people care passionately about UI design. (I also care passionately about UI design, but the UI designs that I'm passionate about are the ones that are natural for my people, who are apparently aliens from another galaxy, so I'm not the person you want doing UI design for things used by humans.) Others might be particularly interested in researching new technology, or coming up with those problem statements, or in smoothly-running production systems, or in metrics and reporting... I don't really know, but I do know that there's no one answer that fits everyone. Which means that none of our individual "why?" responses should become the group "why?".

However, I think that leads to an answer, and it's the answer I'm going to advocate for in the meeting tomorrow. I believe the "why?" of our team should be to use the leeway, trust, and credibility that we have because we're successful to try to create an environment in which every individual member of the team can follow their own "why?" responses. In other words, I think the mission of our group should not be about any specific technology, or about any specific set of services, or outcomes. The way we should use our success is to let every member of our team work in a way that lights their fire. That makes them excited to come into work. That lets each of us have as much fun as I had in the past two days.

We should have as our goal to create passionate and empowered employees. Nothing more, but nothing less.

This is totally not how group mission statements are done. They're always about blending in to some larger overall technological purpose. But I think that's a mistake, and (despite disliking the presentation), I think that's what this TED talk does actually get at. The purpose is the what, or sometimes the how. It's not the why. And the why isn't static; technology is changing fast, and people are using technology in different ways. Any mission statement around technology today is going to be obsolete in short order, and is going to be too narrow. But I think the flip side is that good technological solutions to the problems of the larger organization are outcomes that fall out of having passionate and inspired employees. If people can work in ways that engage and excite them, they will end up solving problems.

We're all adults; we know that we're paid to do a job and that job needs to involve solving real problems for the larger organization. All of that is obvious, and therefore none of that belongs in a mission statement. A mission statement should state the inobvious. And while some visionary people can come up with mission statements around technology or around how people use technology that can be a rallying point for a team or organization, I think that's much rarer than people like to think it is. If you stumble across one like that, great, but I think most teams, and certainly our team, would be better served by having the team mission statement be to enable every individual on the team to be passionate about their work.

What should our group work on next? Figure out what the university's problems are, line those needs up with the passions of the members of the team, ask the people most excited about each problem how they want to solve that problem, and write down the answers. There's our roadmap and our strategy, all rolled into one.

Posted: 2013-01-24 23:13 — Why no comments?

Last modified and spun 2014-08-09