How Can You Make What You Do Meaningful?


Monday, 9.28pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning. – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky is blunt about what happens if you are forced to do work without meaning – in the end you go mad.

But even when you have a choice how do you know that you’re doing meaningful work?

The reason I ask such a question is because of little examples that have come up in recent months.

The most recent was a trip to a well known fast food chain.

When you use their automated order placing machine it gives you a shortcut to a commonly placed order.

When you select that and mistakenly realise that it’s a large rather than regular option the interface has been designed to keep you moving forward.

What I would like to do is cancel the order and start again.

The interface choices aren’t designed to do that – they’re designed to get you to complete the order.

Now I’m sure a very well-qualified person has A/B tested that interface to death – and realised that by a simple optimisation of the words used in the menu choices on what is effectively a landing page they can close more customers who give in and just place the order.

There’s undoubtedly a statistically significant increase in orders through the use of an intentionally confusing screen.

But, is that ethical?

Is that good for the customer?

And is that meaningful work by that designer or programmer?

There are a few other such examples bothering me – including how ethical it is to manipulate people and how open you should be in your dealings with others.

Some people come down very strongly on the side of rights and morals while others are more comfortable with stretching the interpretation of morality and right to suit their pursuit of profit.

And it’s not an easy thing to take a position because logically both positions are justifiable.

Both positions have historically resulted in great good and great evil, after all.

However, if you leave the philosophy to one side and accept that there is no general answer.

What matters is what you want to do – and is there a framework that can help with that?

I found an interesting one, shown in the picture above, in a paper by Lips-Wiersma and Wright.

Their research suggests that meaning doesn’t come from just one place – instead it flows from multiple sources.

Let’s start with the job of just being yourself.

If you aren’t comfortable with who you are, with what you’re doing then you’re not going to be happy.

Many people have experienced the dissatisfaction that comes from being pressured into a high-paying career but hating every day they go to work.

And then there is the job of being with others – your family, work, friends.

Is that going well or could you do better?

When it comes to what you do day after day are you focused on yourself?

Do you climb the corporate ladder, step-by-step, always kissing up and kicking down?

Or is your job to hold the ladder and help others get on – to serve others?

Clearly, if one’s life is situated entirely in any one of the quadrants then unhappiness will generally follow.

The trick, this model suggests, is to find balance.

Balance between finding inner peace and healthy relationships.

Balance between making yourself money and being of service to humanity.

I think if that food chain asked the question at the end of its ordering process “How easy was it to order what you wanted today?” they might drop a few points on the conversion ratio but increase their customer’s happiness a little.

And maybe even make their entire operation a little more meaningful.

Small steps for large organisations – ones they should know they need to take.


Karthik Suresh

When Is Something Really Worth Doing?


Wednesday, 9.09pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Everything that I’ve learned about computers at MIT I have boiled down into three principles: Unix: You think it won’t work, but if you find the right wizard, they can make it work. Macintosh: You think it will work, but it won’t. PC/Windows: You think it won’t work, and it won’t. – Philip Greenspun

I was at the supermarket today picking up a few things and noticing the way technology had infiltrated my life.

I used the self-scan tool at the supermarket, wandering about and scanning purchases as I went and marking them as bought on the grocery list app that we use as a family.

What was interesting about that exercise was that I literally didn’t need to speak to anyone – not even my other half.

Either of us could add items to the shared list, pick them up, notify the other and get on with life.

We now have a shared stock control management system, formed by linking together these pieces of technology.

And that got me thinking about when technology is good and when it’s rubbish.

There’s a concept called additionality which in essence says what extra do you get when you do something new over what you would get anyway if you did things the same way as you’re doing right now.

And I think this is important because we can think an innovation we come up with will result in additionality but it really doesn’t.

It could make things worse, or make such a small difference that it isn’t worth doing.

And a LOT of technology results in exactly those things happening.

Take Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems, for example.

The one thing you can guarantee when using a CRM is that the amount of time you need to get the job done will increase.

That’s because you now need to log everything you’re doing – make notes and share information. You’re adding to the work involved and what are you getting as a result?

To understand that you need to do four things.

1. Understand the outputs from the innovation

What do you get exactly from this innovation?

Is it a report or some analysis?

With my shopping example what I get is an electronic shared todo list.

The app has more features but this is the only one that we use successfully.

It’s not always clear what the outputs are from something.

Often you’re told they can be anything you want – which now needs you to know what you want – and that isn’t easy to answer either.

2. Can you measure the impact?

If the answer is yes then it’s probably quite a simple innovation.

As the saying goes not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that can be measured matters.

Be careful when you try and measure the impact of anything.

3. Are the outcomes real?

An outcome is a claim that something has improved as a result of doing something.

Let’s say sales improve as a result of implementing something new – can you be sure that there is a cause and effect link there?

On the other hand if you point to a survey that says people are happy you need to check that you aren’t seeing the Hawthorne effect in action.

This is where people who are being asked a question give you the answer they think you want to hear or show you what you’re expecting to see rather than the real thing.

4. Are you controlling for loss

With anything new the chances are that something else starts to go wrong somewhere else.

It’s the unexpected consequences of change – and that can cause all kinds of problems.

Comparing business as usual with the new thing

If all this seems negative it’s because change is not always a good thing.

New things aren’t always better and don’t always result in improved quality.

The bad effects are not always obvious.

When you’re doing something like trying out a shared shopping app the consequences of failure are low.

No one is going to get fired or divorced as a result.

When you try a major infastructure change the impact may be larger.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t change – it just means that you should try and get a clearer grasp of additionality – what you really get over and above what you have now.

You may worry less and sleep better when you take a rigorous approach to assessing additionality for any project.

As an aside why did I start this article with a computer quote?

If you work a lot with text, as I do, and are a committed Unix fan, all you need to produce work is a text editor and a terminal.

The application that has truly provided some additionality is Dropbox – with its ability to store files in the cloud.

Almost every other tool degrades my attempts to write.

But that’s my business as usual scenario when contemplating a change.

Your situation will vary and how you make the decision will be very different.

Which is why there is almost never one true way.

There is only the way that works for you.

And the way you choose to go as a compromise when working with others.


Karthik Suresh

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