FROM THE BLOG

Can Digging Ditches be as Rewarding as Working for the Peace Corps?

In my work as a business consultant and grad school adjunct professor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve invoked Dan Pink’s three-point outline from his brilliant 2009 book, Drive. Employees want three things in their work life –

  • Autonomy – the ability to control what they do, how they do it, when they do it and who they do it with
  • Mastery – doing work that is not too hard, but not too easy.  Growing their skills with the knowledge that their abilities are not finite, but infinitely improvable. Realizing that mastering a task takes determination, effort and on-going practice. And, knowing that no matter how hard they try, they will never fully master their craft – making it perpetually challenging.
  • Purpose – the ability to attach meaning to their work that supersedes the enrichment of investors or employees. Creating opportunities that allow employees to engage in this meaning on their own terms.

 

To be honest, I’ve waxed eloquent on autonomy and mastery many times. They seemed so easy to explain and illustrate. But I can’t say the same about purpose. I’ve struggled to help clients and students understand how to create meaning for employees when their work seems to lack it. Let’s face it, some work, taken at face value, has more intrinsic purpose than others – yes, working for the Peace Corps feels more noble than digging ditches.

Enter the excellent book, Competing Against Luck, by Clayton Christensen. When it comes to attaching purpose to work, it was like someone flipped on the light in a dark room. If you’re unfamiliar with the topic of the book, Jobs Theory, here’s the super abridged version – people hire a person, company or thing to accomplish a “job to be done” – it’s the theoretical framework behind Theodore Levitt’s wonderful quote, “people do not want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter inch hole.” Christensen and his co-authors dig deep into the topic and illustrate it with wonderful real-life examples, but for my purposes here, let me pick out a few gems.

When people have a “job to be done”, it’s generated by circumstances that make their current condition untenable. Some of the circumstances are mildly annoying – “I’m thirsty”, but others demand a solution right now – “I’ve been in an accident, my car is undriveable and I can’t get to work, home or anywhere else”. Hence a job to be done. The job represents progress the potential customer wants to make. The progress might be simple – moving from being thirsty to being hydrated, but many times in the progress is complex – get my wrecked car to the body shop, get all the insurance companies on the same page and get the claim paid, get my car fixed right the first time, in the immediate future get me where in need to go, in the long term get me a rental car to drive and finally don’t cancel my car insurance because of this one accident or raise my premiums through the roof. The person, product or company that delivers on the job to be done in the most complete and frictionless way creates a high-value solution for the customer and creates a probability that they will be hired for that job over and over again.

Towards the end of the book, Christensen explains the amazing transformation that occurs when companies organize, not around products or functions, but around jobs to be done. As I read that, it dawned on me – what could bring more purpose to work than one human being giving their best effort and creativity to do a job that has meaning to another human being. At this point, we can stop asking people to find meaning in accounting, information technology or supply chain management. They don’t even have to find meaning in toasters, hotel stays or a new social network. As we organize our enterprises around jobs to be done, we are connecting the passions and skills of our employees to the heartfelt needs of a customer that has a very-important-to-them job to be done.

 

I first wrote about Drive six years ago. To read that post, click here.

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