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Purposeful Work

02 July 2017

It's well established that if you want someone to do a good job then you should give them good job to do. A job that offers purpose not just activity. A chance to switch the brain on and be more (much more) than just a cog in the machine of work.

But is this always possible or is some work just inescapably dull or menial? Is purposeful work a privilege that can only be afforded to some, while others just need to shut up, switch off and crank the handle? I'm not so sure...

Today, as I sit at my kitchen table and type this, there are a crew of workmen filling potholes in the road outside my house. They were here doing the same a few months ago and a few months before that.

The last time they were here I asked them why they were only filling the potholes that had white or yellow circles marked on the road around them. Wouldn’t it be cheaper and better to sort all of the potholes on one visit?

Everyone in the crew agreed that doing so made obvious sense… but they weren’t going to do it. They told me that they are not responsible for deciding which potholes to fill; that is the surveyor’s job. They also told me that they are not responsible for when the potholes get filled; that is the scheduling team’s job.

Their job is to turn up where they are told, when they are told and in order to fill only what they are told; that pothole over there with the circle sprayed around it by the surveyor can be filled but this one here that’s bigger and exactly where car wheels will hit it must be left. After all, when the survey was done a few weeks ago it was fine and how was the surveyor to know when the crew would be scheduled to do the work?

In work designs like this no-one wins, least of all the organisation. They breed a jobsworth outlook, a sort of profession-ism that disguises and excuses itself as professionalism. Pride in work and a desire to maximise contribution are replaced by defensive reasoning and a preoccupation with compliance. Responsibility and common sense are sent away to die; however, none of this is the fault of those doing the work…

Design For Purpose

A couple of years ago a colleague told me about her experience working with a roads department just like the one outside my front door and with all the same dynamics and defensive reasoning in tact. 

She had worked with the crews, surveyors and schedulers to change the way their work was designed. Together, they determined that the surveyors’ job would be to identify the stretches of road that most needed attention, not the individual potholes. They would estimate the approximate size of a job and advise its priority but would no longer specify the detail.

The scheduling team would then use this information to sequence and resource work. Crews would turn up as scheduled, determining what repair was most appropriate at the point that work was ready to start. If there was a material disagreement between the work that the crew decided was needed and the time allowed by the schedule, the scheduling team would be advised and the crew would carry on and do the right repair as they saw it.

As a result of this redesign, costs plummeted and the road network improved. Crews were able to go to a job and remain until they had completed the right repair in full, preventing the cost, hassle and lost time of moving their kit and personnel between jobs then back again ad infinitum.

Critically though, the crews’ focus had shifted. Now their work had a purpose that engaged their agency and judgement; do the right repair.

In one lovely instance, buoyed by their new found sense of purpose, a crew realised that the only reason that they were repairing a particular stretch of road was because of run off water from adjoining fields. The water was pouring onto the road surface and washing it away. One of the crew approached the farmer responsible for the fields to ask if he would plough them lengthways rather than breadthways. This would send the water into the ditch between the fields rather than onto the road. The farmer was happy to oblige and, following the necessary repair work, the road surface remained intact.

Let It Be

The lesson that I take from stories like this is that menial work is just work where the value and meaning have been designed out. When those doing work have agency in making decisions about what work to do, how to do it and what success looks like, purpose emerges. Moreover, the quantum of value that is created is transformed. It’s better - usually a lot better - for everyone. 

Meeting our human need for purpose and finding ways to make that need the engine of a new and better type of organisation is not a privilege reserved for certain roles or industries. It is an opportunity that can be made available to everyone. All work can be purposeful, we just need to let it be.


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