Tuesday, 8 July 2008

The Search for Meaning

I've previously posted about the increasing importance of organisational capability, and how this needs to be developed around a core theme, purpose, differentiator or mojo which is internally rather than externally generated (as is generally the case in BHAGs for example).

I explained that the first type of mojo is something that is absolutely central to organisational strategy and which is going to make this strategy real and achievable.

Mojo does this by providing meaning for people working in the organisation, in the way that an externally focused goal (eg 'beat the competition') often struggles to do in the longer term.

A good example is GE's leadership brand.  This is absolutely key to the company's success (and my bet is on it recovering) and also provides a focus for its staff (at least its managerial employees).  It provides a major reason why you might apply to join, and helps clarify what's important to the company when you're there.

Mojo provides a basis for developing best fit rather than simply best practice processes (as in Zappos' WOW! customer service, Toyota's collaborative nerve system, Yahoo!'s life engine, Reckitt Benckiser's innovation, AXA's financial planning and BP's peer assists.  Some of these examples look a bit tarnished now, but I think that's fine.  All mojo can do is to stack the odds in your favour, but there are still a whole load of other factors which are going to influence the success of your business too.

And mojo provides the basis for your employee value proposition - outlining what's important to you and therefore what you think you can offer or what sort of meaning you can provide, and increasingly attracting employees who will value this offer.

Lucy Kellaway noted recently that lack of meaning is the most popular problem submitted to her agony aunt column in the FT:

"I am used to people telling me that their jobs are meaningless. In fact this, is the most popular problem that readers submit. Lawyers, bankers, fund managers and all sorts of people with grand jobs write in with the same complaint: the money may be good but where is the meaning? How can I make a difference, they wail.

There are two things that give work meaning. First is the satisfaction that comes from the work itself. I am lucky in this way: I (mostly) enjoy putting one word in front of another, and that is meaning enough for me. Yet this sort of simple pleasure in the job is not open to most people: the majority of jobs are either boring or beastly or both. The second strand is the more dangerous one. That meaningful work must be somehow worthwhile; that in doing it we must feel that we are making a difference. This way of thinking can only lead to despair. If you start asking if your job is worthwhile, you have to conclude it isn’t. Viewed this way, all work is pretty meaningless, whether you are journalist, banker, busker or government minister."

She refers to a Work Foundation report and summarises its conclusions as:

"Meaning is a subjective thing: what counts as meaningful work to one person won’t to another. This means that companies, for all their insistence on 'employee engagement programmes', can’t create meaning and should not try."

This can't be the right answer!  Yes, different people seek different types of meaning, but this doesn't mean organisations can't and shouldn't provide an environment where individuals are able to create meaning.

And I think that it is increasingly by focusing on what a company sees as important (on its mojo) that is the way to do this.