Mission to “Make Meaningful Work”

On the projects we’ve worked on, it’s easy to get caught up in meeting deliverables — and the speed at which we need to deliver them — and the constant, internal meetings that are driven by people’s egos. With all of that, it’s sometimes all too easy to forget about the people we design for and the meaning of our work, if any, on a project.

This describes our mission for making meaningful work, which comprises an integrated framework and core elements that can help you make your work meaningful.

We’ll outline what you should consider to move from being stuck — what we call sleepwalking — to flow, or sparkle, in your project work. We’ll describe what you need to do to stage your project work and give it a better chance of being meaningful and successful for the people who are involved.

The Problem Statement

Move people from sleepwalking — that is, being stuck, frustrated, lost, and numb — to sparkle — that is, flowing and being present, purposeful, and engaged.

Getting everyone on a project team and in a business to understand that they play a role in creating a well-understood narrative is important if the business is to deliver on the promise of meaningful work for everyone in their system of work — including leadership, staff, partners, suppliers, and customers. So how can you achieve the following goals?

  • Create a project-team culture in which the people for whom you design are present in your daily project discussions and you represent them faithfully in the artifacts you make.
  • Establish routines that contribute to an intention of wellness for the people, work, projects, communities, and economies in an enlightened future society.
  • Move people from sleepwalking — that is, being stuck, frustrated, lost, and numb — to sparkle — that is, flowing and being present, purposeful, and engaged. For more on this topic, read our article “Make Your Work Meaningful and Go from Sleepwalking to Sparkle.”

A Hypothetical Story About a Bus Journey

You have just arrived in Hong Kong after a trip to Shanghai, and it’s late. You’re tired and just want to get home. You get off the plane and go through border control. You pick up your luggage and head out of the airport to the bus station, check on the bus number, go to the bus stop, and wait for the bus that will take you home.

You check the bus app on your mobile phone to see when the next bus is arriving and whether it will take you to a stop close to your home. Good news! It looks like there’s time to go and get a drink before the next bus arrives. You leave the trolley holding your luggage at the bus stop because you cannot see anywhere else to put it. You don’t feel good about leaving your trolley just anywhere, but assume the airport staff will take care of it. After buying your drink, you come back to the bus stop and board the bus.

As you board your bus, you pay with your value-add card, then place your luggage on a series of racks at the side of the bus. So you won’t have to keep your luggage at your feet by your seat. You take a moment to recognize the convenience of this, then find a vacant seat for the journey home.

As you sit down in your seat, you realize that there are some USB ports available next to your seat, so you can charge your mobile phone. You again take a moment to recognize the convenience of this feature, then begin charging your mobile phone. This turns out to be a good thing because you hadn’t been able to charge your mobile phone on the plane and, after a two-hour plane ride, your battery level is low. You also notice a sticker on a window, indicating that there is free Wi-Fi on the bus and, again, reflect on the convenience and kindness of the bus company in providing this service to you.

As the bus journey continues, you glance over at a TV that is displaying the overall bus route from start to finish, and notice that your stop does not appear on the TV. So, while the map of the route on the TV is useful, you and your partner question whether there is, in fact, a mistake on the display. You say, “That’s strange,” because you had noticed your stop on the bus app on your mobile phone before boarding the bus. You decide it’s probably best to check with the driver to see whether this bus will actually stop at your bus stop or you’ll need to consider an alternative route.

So you get up from your seat and walk to the front of the bus to speak to the driver, hoping to confirm that the bus will indeed stop at your bus stop. Unfortunately, the driver tells you that the bus will not stop at your bus stop because it’s an express bus to the terminal. You then ask the driver why the mobile app did not indicate that this bus would not stop at your bus stop.

The bus driver explains that it’s his job to drive the bus adhering to the routes and schedules, and he has nothing to do with the people who make the mobile app. That is not his job. So what you’d thought would be a smooth ride home now feels broken, and the driver, who is the one person who could help you or at least offer some useful explanation is not helping. Instead, he is trying to blow you off.

With the new information the driver has provided, you decide to take your seat and work out a new route that will get you home. You start considering other transport options for that time of night and their implications on when you’d actually get home to sleep. You are now feeling very tired.

Reflections on This Story

There were helpful features of the bus system that delivered a positive experience, but also clear disconnects between the information about the journey in the mobile app and on the bus.

This is a pretty standard story for a bus journey whose goal is to get you home, and there are moments along the way that either are helpful or present obstacles to your getting home. There were helpful features of the bus system that delivered a positive experience, but also clear disconnects between the information about the journey in the mobile app and on the bus.

The driver had added to the problem by stating that he was not responsible for the representation of the route in the mobile app or on the bus and has nothing to do with that part of the business. Plus, you found it frustrating that he told you to call customer service and wasn’t open to taking feedback to pass along to right people in the business so they could improve the bus journey next time. Again, he said this was not part of his job.

Let’s take a step back and look at this problem holistically, in an integrated fashion. To address this problem, we’d need answers to the following questions:

  • What are the bus company’s organizational culture and practices that impacted the driver’s attitude and choices?
  • What rewards would have motivated the driver to offer his help? What rewards would be counterproductive?
  • Who in the organization is responsible for the consistency — or lack thereof — between the maps in the mobile app and on the TV on the bus?
  • What would motivate the driver to pass on passengers’ feedback to the relevant people and teams?
  • How could the bus company better define and strengthen the feedback loops between passengers, drivers, the mobile app team, and other relevant stakeholders in the bus company to set them up for both meaningful work and success?
  • Did the bus company empower and enable their drivers to take decisions, deviating from the predetermined script?

The Importance of Feedback Loops

Ego-driven design results in the creation of features or technologies that sound intriguing, but no one will use.

When you are awake and aware, you’ll readily notice that the conversations and interactions companies have in a narrative with their customers and the moments customers experience with products or services often break.

The feedback loops in the bus-journey story we related earlier were broken, and the company had no intention of subsequently fixing the issues for other passengers. The driver’s lack of care and respect for passengers shows that he was sleepwalking to a degree and probably did not notice the issues.

Over many years of working on projects, we have observed that there are common contributors to such interruptions in service narratives, as follows:

  • People are unclear on both the overall narrative and the priorities for what they must do. Sometimes, there is a real lack of strategic understanding, and people do not know why they need to complete specific work. Often, the people working on a project cannot perceive a product’s or service’s interconnected moments — thus, teams do not know how to prioritize features.
  • Companies do not understand customer motivations or local needs. For the most part, companies do not consult or involve customers when designing products and services, and they create solutions without any consideration of local needs. Why?
  • Business requirements are poorly written.
  • There is limited customer understanding, if any.
  • Product teams have no understanding of the people for whom they’re designing a product — whether employees, users, or society at large.
  • Ego-driven design results in the creation of features or technologies that sound intriguing, but no one will use.
  • Teams use out-of-the-box solutions and platforms without taking customer needs into account.
  • False assumptions are widespread. People tend to make false assumptions about customers’ needs, injecting their own biases, opinions, and egos into their decisions about what they think customers need.
  • There is a lack of clarity on the problems teams needs to solve. When a team lacks a deeper understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve, they sometimes focus on the wrong problems or fail to see interrelated problems. This makes their intention unclear.
  • Sheer waste results in failure. Companies waste enormous amounts of resources in making products and services that customers do not need or want. We have seen them waste literally millions of dollars because of a lack of planning, not taking sufficient time to consider what problem they’re trying to solve, and not listening or being able to make sense of customers’ concerns. Instead of committing the time and resources necessary to experiment, many companies suffer from a lack of strategic clarity over many years, so their people work on crap that does not help anyone, especially themselves. Imagine how much better it would be if we could devote these wasted resources to doing things like dealing with global energy resources and poverty-related issues.

Fulfilling the Intention to Make Meaningful Work

Silos and other divisions that exist in a business prevent their people and project teams from delivering their best work.

These observations made us assume that the bus driver in the story we told earlier didn’t understand the overall narrative, so he could see only what he must do in his role as a bus driver for the company. Problems occurred when there were gaps between the expectations of the passengers and the intentions of the driver.

Silos and other divisions that exist in a business prevent their people and project teams from delivering their best work. Silos create roadblocks that deter deep conversations and cross-disciplinary collaboration.

Now, let’s consider how the intention of making meaningful work impacts projects. Fulfilling this intention would require getting answers to the following questions:

  • How do we help people — independent of their role in a business — to be able to see and understand their role in the narrative?
  • How can we increase people’s trust so they can find the courage to go beyond the boundaries of their own jobs and make experiences better for themselves and the people they serve?
  • How can we see all of the moments in a narrative and help connect the dots?
  • How can we provide feedback loops at the most important moments to strengthen opportunities for improvement?
  • How can we strengthen existing feedback loops to ensure that we see gaps as opportunities for continuous learning and improvement?
  • How do we look for gaps and bridge them so we can strengthen the intersections in a journey?
  • How can we rally people around a way of thinking and making that helps ensure the people for whom we design are omnipresent in our daily discussions and interactions?
  • On projects, how do we ensure everyone is taking responsibility for gaining clarity on who we’re designing for?
  • How do we support businesses in getting back to their original intent of providing value to their communities, instead of exploiting them?
  • How would a manifesto and best practices help establish optimal routines for project work, if they would? Knowing what routines would be good for us to practice as a group involves the following:
  • Defining our intentions
  • Identifying prior assumptions
  • Generating experiments in advance of judgment
  • Sharing situational observations
  • Interpreting everyone’s observations

Defining Our Mission

A mission is a “a public declaration of policy and aims” — and a mission statement of sorts. So what is our draft mission statement for making meaningful work.

What if we could enable continuous, self-reflective moments in work and life to help people take the time they need to continuously awaken and learn, in the pursuit of continuous improvement? By establishing supporting routines and practices that help people and teams to glide from sleepwalking, or being stuck, to sparkle, or flow, we can collectively clarify how we can make meaningful work together.

Employing an Integrated Practice Framework

To make meaningful work, a supporting, integrated framework of work practices — including roles, routines, tools, artifacts, and soft skills — must exist to help people.

A narrative that lacks clarity can lead to misalignment. As work proceeds on a project team, it’s all too easy for misalignment to creep in. Misalignments are caused by a lack of communication, limited time, poor project management, and micro and macro issues that get addressed too late and cause friction between people.

How can we make our work practices contribute to the intention of wellness for people, work, projects, communities, and economies in an enlightened future society? To make meaningful work, a supporting, integrated framework of work practices — including roles, routines, tools, artifacts, and soft skills — must exist to help people. This integrated practice framework helps us do the following:

  • See and understand the narrative and connect the dots, or moments.
  • Understand the importance of people’s roles — not just their job functions — in the overall narrative.
  • Define the important moments in the narrative, where key interactions and conversations take place.
  • Connect the moments in the narrative to achieve the narrative’s intention and goals.
  • Define feedback loops.
  • Strengthen feedback loops to ensure feedback gets to the people who need it, at the right time to improve both the connections between moments and the overall narrative.
  • Strengthen relationships through trust and shared, or aggregated, goodwill.
  • Create a caring and respectful work environment in which people can safely seek continuous learning and opportunities for improvement.
  • Create spaces for sensemaking of data.
  • Gain clarity of intention. (See Jared Spool’s “Design Is the Rendering of Intent.”)
  • Define the core meaning of your everyday work.

Identifying Core Elements of Making Meaningful Work

Sensemaking [lets you] gain clarity on the overall narrative and encourage focus, intention, and continuous learning.

We would like to learn about you, your projects, your roles, and the problems you face to help us identify and clarify more of the core elements that make meaningful work.

Some core elements of making meaningful work include the following:

  • Reflection on yourself and the people you work with
  • Curiosity to help you gain other perspectives and see the benefits of anticipating and looking forward
  • Listening to make sense of project stories and understand the people around you — including listening to yourself and the team members and partners you work with — and making sense of the contexts for which you design
  • Sense making to gain clarity on the overall narrative and encourage focus, intention, and continuous learning
  • Connecting the dots using data from multiple sources to help define and connect feedback loops

Improving the Bus Journey

We all need to create safe spaces in which trust can blossom, self-improvements get recognized, connections get made between interactions and conversations that matter, continuous learning occurs, and teams employ the core elements and practices of making meaningful work.

Earlier we told a hypothetical story about a challenging bus journey, then shared our reflections on the causes of its pain points, as well as some things to think about in addressing the problems. Now, as we reflect on our manifesto and the opportunities it presents for sparkle, let’s again consider that story about a bus journey and how we could remedy its problems.

  • What if the bus driver were given permission and incentives to provide the passenger’s feedback to the mobile app team, bridging the gap that created the disconnect?
  • What if the bus driver took the passenger’s name and email address and ensured the feedback got the appropriate attention, making the passenger feel heard?
  • What if the map of the bus journey were improved to display the information passengers need to determine whether their stop is included on a specific bus route?

We all need to create safe spaces in which trust can blossom, self-improvements get recognized, connections get made between interactions and conversations that matter, continuous learning occurs, and teams employ the core elements and practices of making meaningful work. When all of these conditions exist in a workplace, teams have a better chance of making meaningful work together.

Next Steps

Our goal to define an integrated practice for making meaningful work that provides a framework for our user research.

It’s taken us about five years to hone our focus on making meaningful work and understand the whys behind meaningful work by talking with and learning from people, participating in practice discussions, writing, presenting, and designing the future of business. In 2017, we’ll continue our user research by reaching out to you to help us understand your project stories.

Project stories are our unit of analysis for better understanding the frustrations — such as sleepwalking — and opportunities to sparkle that you encounter in your work today. Our goal to define an integrated practice for making meaningful work that provides a framework for our user research.

Note to the Reader — Since our framework has arisen from continuous learning, please let us know your thoughts on how to improve it.

Acknowledgments — Making meaningful work is a challenging topic, and there have been many questions to answer, so thanks to the many people with whom we have enjoyed conversations and who have offered practical advice and direction over the years. You have all helped us to arrive at our Manifesto for Making Meaningful Work. Special thanks to Bas Raijmakers, Geke van Dijk, Michael Davis-Burchat, Andrew Mayfield, Jen Fabrizi, Louis Rawlins, Davide Casali, Kim Lenox, Matt Wallens, Matthew Oliphant, Steve Portigal, John Philpin, Michael Lai, and UXmatters for being continuous contributors to our effort, as we all make meaningful work together.

Join the Make Meaningful Work Conversation — You are welcome to follow updates and join discussions on our Manifesto for Making Meaningful Work:

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