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Why your work-experience is more important than your to do list

Focusing on the how rather than the outcome


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Jonas Achouri Sihlén

3 years ago | 8 min read

Whether you are a freelancer, consultant or an employee your contributions to your goals and missions at work is very much dependent on how your work is experienced and what you learn along the way.

A bad work experience can be very damaging not only for your career but also for the reputation of the organization you work in.

Picture you are working in a software development project in a multinational company that is undergoing continuous changes.

These changes have resulted in extensive control and compliance activities necessary to not only fulfill the business goals but to adhere to compliance rules in the area they operate in.

It is a traditional top-down management style that sets the tone in the organization and several business areas and units are driven by their own separate agendas, goals and budgets.

This results in the fact that your project is subject to at least 2–3 different ways of reporting risks in 3 different tools. Just to make sure the right stakeholders get the right information in the right format and channel.

Just for risk management you have 3 different tools you do practically the same thing of documenting, following up and updating the same information.

In a learning environment this wouldn’t be a long lived fact but in a dysfunctional organization this can be ongoing for a while resulting in waste of time, frustration, and the most devastating of all for an employee: demotivation.

In a study by MIT from 2017 it was found that employee experiences are made up of two key factors: work complexity and behavioral norms covering collaboration, creativity and empowerment.

The main findings were i.e that companies with great employee experience were more innovative, more profitable and achieved a higher customer satisfaction.

“Employee experience is defined by work complexity-how hard it is to get work done in your organization-and behavioral norms around collaboration, creativity, and empowerment” — MIT Sloan School of Management

A combination of strong leadership and digital capabilities enables the company to ease the frictions for a smooth employee experience, but the question is how?

The industrialized knowledge worker

Have you ever thought about the abbreviation HR? Drilling down on the meaning of this organizational function through history puts us in a perspective of seeing human beings as resources, Human Resources.

It is easy to draw a distinguished line starting with the industrial revolution, when a strong emphasis was put into the manufacturing processes and optimized output, for when it became socially, economically and even ethically aligned to put human beings in the spot of maximized output.

This revolution that boosted our societies, shifting the human species from living based on an agricultural baseline into an industry baseline of producing wealth was surely a great leap in the human society, but everything comes with a cost.

Economies boomed and corporations grew into a game of profit maximization and competitive advantage. Alongside the human players that were part of the organizations a strong emphasis was put into profit over people which resulted in a finite game rather than infinite.

In this profit focused- and finite game of doing business it became a norm to industrialize the employees that were supposed to cram out every hour of its day to maximize their outputs.

Just like a room full of stationary bikes, no output is created unless everyone is checked in by their desk and work, work, work.

The definition of a knowledge worker is basically a worker that handles information and is having knowledge as their main asset.

So if we continue to see the knowledge worker as a “resource” with knowledge as an asset that we want to cram out, we will get the results there after, and also feel the ripples and the consequences.

But this view is really being changed since organizations all over the world starts to see people as valuable knowledge workers, and not just cogs in a huge organizational machinery.

With a better understanding of what really motivates people and how sustainable businesses grow over time it could be worth shifting the view on people from resources to something more organic, human beings.

From a to-do list checking productivity machine to an infinite learner boosting the organic growth of the team and organization.

Focusing on the how rather than the outcome

Realizing the value of its knowledge workers and the fact that the companies are made up of people can truly shift the perspective of the company to a more infinite approach.

Simon Sinek brings the human factor up as a key cornerstone in all of his books. In his latest book, The Infinite Game, one of the key messages is that of the infinite minded leader and organization that puts their full energy to boost the long term vision (even infinite) of its company and puts people over profit rather than the other way around.

“The most valuable asset of a 21st century institution will be its knowledge workers and their productivity” — Peter Drucker

There is a growing body of companies though that for years and decades have embraced a more human approach to work and life in general.

Tech companies in general are probably the ones leading the way in terms of showcasing how the how can really boost the innovation and customer satisfaction for an organization.

An example of such a tech company is Basecamp where most of its culture is based on trust, common sense and meritocracy. You are basically hired because you are a good human being and you love what you do…

The co-founder Jason Fried brings a really important question up in one of his talks that he gives in various podcast shows, i.e the one about Optimizing efficiency when he was a guest at Peter Attia’s The Drive: Why are we always forced into cramming stuff out for every minute at work?

As a contrast to the stationary bikes earlier this is a more reflective approach that puts the modern workspace into a spot where creativity can be nurtured.

Why not actually put an hour of daydreaming into the work-schedule? More and more research and experience shows that daydreaming is actually beneficial to boost innovation and creative problem solving.

If all the knowledge workers working with mostly creative tasks and advanced problem solving, what makes us think that we can be better off by cramming it all the way through midnight? Or is it simply a result of a bad company culture…?

When individual productivity became the new norm

The superhuman productivity machine. Is there actually such a person? During my years as IT- and management consultant at various consultancy firms I started to learn different productivity techniques that boosted my performance and administrative ability to balance between projects, internal development work- and contributions as well as continuously learn new skills.

A high paced environment required a good framework of managing the hours, weeks and months of hard work.

Today the landscape of effective methods and frameworks are not scarce, to say the least.

Productivity methods such as Getting Things Done, that I had the opportunity to learn, is actually great to ease the stress that may occur if you have lots of stuff to keep track of in your daily life.

This is just one of many many methods and frameworks out there that claims to be the ONE solution that will help you boost your productivity.

Lifting the perspective a bit will put us in a position to oversee this landscape and culture of productivity where it is easy to get into a state where the most successful person is the one that get most of the stuff done, but that is of course not the point with such methods, it is more leaned into getting the right things done.

The problem that I want to emphasize on is the fact that all these great models and methods creates some sort of hamster-wheel culture where it is all about checking stuff off from a to do list.

By checking the tasks off creates a comfort and a sense of control and fulfillment of course, but it is so easy to slip into the non-mindful track of simply checking stuff off without reflecting on the journey and why you are checking that project or task off from your list. What was the true benefit and most importantly what was the learning you made, what was the learning experience?

The rise of human potential

Jeff Hunter, co-founder of Talentism elaborates on how we can unleash human potential in an organization.

The interesting approach Jeff and his team has alongside other like-minded thinkers and practitioners within the corporate world is that they believe there is something good in every human being.

By applying this as a foundational mindset in the company and the organization is a crucial start to build on.

Being profitable is still an important survival strategy of course, but it should never be on the expense of the humans that make up the organization.

To use the human potential for what it is made for: learning, growing and sharing is key to continue to grow in the infinite game and to actually create the experience that most of us human beings thrive in.

From Human Resources to Human Experiences

I am myself employed in one of the biggest nordic banks, probably not the type of organization that you intuitively would put on top of the list as promoting human wellbeing over a low cost-income ratio.

But even in a big nordic bank with high focus on cost savings, immense customer retention and huge investments on the digital experience the shift towards a people centric approach is emerging and a strong emphasis is really put into lifting up the people and to smoothen the experience you will sense in such an organization.

This type of work is mostly driven by the traditional HR department that in many companies are now changing the structure into for example having Chief People Officers and People Leaders in the organization. Just by renaming the function would not solve the mission at hand of course, but it’s at least a start…

Depending on the size of the company it is for sure a variable systemic challenge to shift the mindsets, ways of working and the ways of communication to lean on to an increased employee experience.

A common denominator for the companies that top-perform in terms of employee experiences have all prioritized activities to reduce the work complexity and to build the norms that are necessary for great collaboration.

They have truly embraced the fact of boosting the digital capabilities and focuses strongly on growing leaders in the organization which they see as enablers for future innovation.

They have also realized that the employee experience delivers organizational value, not by simply and blindfolded focusing on the customers in first hand, but by enabling its employees to deliver the seamless experiences and services that they claim to stand for.

So the value and customer satisfaction comes more like a secondary effect based on happy employees that can thrive in a digital and meaningful environment.

Positive experiences are rooted in meaningful work and a sense of belonging, trust, and relationship.

This article was originally published by Jonas Achouri Sihlén on medium.

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