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Reflections on Making Meaningful Work

November 20, 2017

We just presented at CanUX 2017, in Ottawa, Canada. Like all good conferences, Can UX created a place for community, conversations, learning, and connecting with local and global practitioners. The conference provided reminders of why we do what we do and opportunities to look at practice patterns that may connect to the practices we use in our own project work. This experience definitely prompted some reflections on our intention to make meaningful work. When asking how we can make meaningful work, we should consider the following core elements:

  • character—We must be aware of the dimensions of individuals and teams that contribute to identity, values, beliefs, intention, and impact.
  • perspectives—Our character forms our essential perspectives.
  • barriers—It is important to recognize the barriers that get in the way of our seeing all the dots we must connect.
  • intersections—These are the connections between the dots—whether those dots are people, disciplines, roles, or the conditions that are necessary to promote and harness meaningful conversations.
  • impacts—The impacts of our work include those on ourselves, our teams, our communities, and the entire planet.
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The conditions necessary to creating a successful team and making meaningful work include the following:

  • trust
  • moments that collectively constitute practice
  • understanding of all disciplines in a practice
  • intersections in both practice and production
  • allowing risk in practice
  • structured feedback loops that enable continuous improvement going forward
  • connecting to a narrative that provides direction
  • commitment to reducing the impacts of people making biased assumptions and being overly opinionated
  • strengthening practice, capability, integrity, and maturity along the way

Reflecting on Sustaining Practices

As you read this article, please reflect on the practices you follow in your work, the intersections that matter, and how they impact the work you do, your intention, and the work you want to be doing next. Consider the practice tree shown in Figure 1 as part of not only recognizing the practices in your work, but also honoring practices that may be hidden from view or lie under the surface. These practices are always present—even if they do not have our full attention when we’re determining the practices that nurture us now and those we wish to sustain going forward into an enlightened future.

Figure 1—A practice tree that can sustain an enlightened future
A practice tree that can sustain an enlightened future

Why Make Meaningful Work?

Let’s unpack this together:

  • make—To cause something to exist or come about; to bring about.
  • meaningful—Having a serious, important, or useful quality or purpose.
  • work—Activity involving mental or physical effort that we do to achieve a purpose or result.

Projects are part of a larger system that we call work. Unfortunately, people often spend considerable amounts of time at work in pursuit of projects that have little value. When intention and meaning are lacking in people’s work, limited thinking can lead people to make extreme statements that are not supported by any evidence. When there is a lack of critical thinking, people often end up working on meaningless projects for which there is no narrative based on a shared understanding people’s needs. Trying to make sense of other people’s stories and determine their own place in the project work becomes a struggle. As a result, people sometimes feel their work is

  • wasteful
  • unhealthy
  • purposeless
  • stressful

What is the overall impact of such meaningless work on people? When people’s work lacks meaning, they may feel that they are sleepwalking at work. What does sleepwalking at work feel like?

  • frustration
  • limited choices
  • busywork
  • overwork
  • no time to think
  • no energy
  • numbness

To make meaningful work, we need to be intentional about what practices contribute to the intention of wellness—for people, work, projects, communities, and economies—and create an enlightened future.

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Transforming the Way We Work

What if we…

  • explored multiple tempos for our project work, for which speed is not necessarily the predominant factor?
  • created intentional moments for people to practice and reflect on work that gives meaning?
  • enabled everyone—independent of their role, function, and discipline—to feel connected to a sense of purpose?
  • challenged assumptions unless they are backed up by evidence, reducing busywork and waste?
  • discovered an alternative answer to the usual answer—busy—to the question “How is work?”
  • found the time and space to look ahead and reflect on the implications of what’s happening now?

Let’s consider some sustainable work practices that can give meaning to our work.

Committing to Continuous Learning

Continuous learning creates flexibility and fluidity in our work. The intention to learn continuously is key here. People must have moments when they can reflect on which practices speak to them, identify their practice strengths, and just as importantly, recognize their practice gaps. The practice gaps are particularly interesting, lending themselves to asking questions about where to go to gain a deeper practice and who could potentially provide guidance to help people define intentions that are important to them.

Encouraging Curiosity

Do workplaces encourage people to take enough time for reflection and pursuing ideas or practices that pique their curiosity? Most workers do not have enough time for reflection or curiosity. Curiosity can lead people to intersections that prompt discussions about what they need to work on and why—thus, it gives meaning to their work. Our observations of project work have revealed behaviors that demonstrate a hyper focus on process, methods, deliverables, and measures—and the expectation is that people work at light speed. The business language at work reinforces speed as the primary intention—at the expense of mindful consideration of the work and resulting in a lack of time for practice. The rush to keep up, to upgrade, to get ahead of competitors, to launch the next feature, to grow, and the risks of focusing primarily on digital design—at the expense of designing other parts of an end-to-end experience—imply that we may be missing other more important elements and practices at play in our life and work.

This is a matter of grave concern. If people are indeed too busy to think, this could cloud our vision, put blinkers on us that create tunnel vision, and obscure the more important issues at play. Issues that really matter.

Taking Time for Reflection

We need more moments in our work when we can consider the data we’ve gathered—not just the short-term implications of our observations, but what they’ll mean in the long term. We must consider what questions we need to ask and their answers’ implications for the product roadmap, people, their lives, and how our work impacts others’ work. The practice of reflection can afford us moments that encourage the practice of curiosity, prompting new thinking right now and informing a better future.

The questions we ask need not speak to an immediate—perhaps misguided—digital focus or provide an instant—though misinformed—answer that fits into a sprint cycle. Instead, reflection can spark other practices that take us beyond a focus on now to a place where we can make enlightened decisions about a better future. By slowing down, we can gain greater clarity and perspective and look further ahead.

Perceiving Intersections

When we slow down and take the time to reflect, considering the proper perspectives and the implications of continuous learning, we can adopt the relevant practices to help us perceive intersections. We can see the dots we must connect as circles that intersect with each other.

When people with diverse backgrounds and disciplines meet at those intersections, they must develop a shared language. To find the magic at those intersections, they must share a common intention to make meaningful work. These intersections imply that the learnings people share can guide practices whose positive implications will encourage healthier, more caring mindsets, attitudes, behaviors, and intentions, looking at a future that goes beyond just their own local needs to consider global needs.

At the core of these intersections are supportive workplaces where people can discuss and define how they wish to work together and what this means for both understanding and sense making. In such a workplace, meaningful stories about people and their context are commonplace, reminding people of their own assumptions and preventing them from getting caught up in their own beliefs, which can quickly form, cause a loss of focus, and at times, cause them to delude themselves and others.

A Path to Making Meaningful Work

So let’s choose a path that ensures we follow practices that support continuous learning, guide our understanding, help with sensemaking, define meaning, and reduce waste. The path we choose must support our intention and consider the perspectives of people in other disciplines who can help us. The path to meaningful work consists of the following:

  • awakening
  • seeing and connecting the dots
  • confronting and overcoming
  • sustaining

Note that these are not necessarily linear steps; nor do they have to occur in this order. Rather, they are states that people may experience at any time. The important thing is to be aware of these states and the practices that can help us transition between them.

Awakening

It is all too easy to get caught up in our own thoughts and perspectives. Nevertheless, it is essential that we be open to others’ ideas and viewpoints and appreciate the context of our work. However, companies often write job descriptions just from the point of view of an individual in a particular role. They do not always describe how a role intersects with those of other people in an organization. People often need to discover and develop an understanding of their job’s context through their project work, and this can feel overwhelming—even, at times, scary. When people are unable to see how they can connect to other people in their work, they may become hyperfocused on just their own role.

What practices can awaken us and help us to see the people we need to work with, how their viewpoints intersect with our own sense of our project work, and what intentions define the why of our work—our positive intentions for the present and future? Are there supporting artifacts that can help us understand the context of our work?

What does awakening mean for making meaningful work?

First, Listen Actively and Learn

Be present, listen actively, and learn from others before sharing your own opinions. Forming good work relationships with other people means viewing them as your equals and realizing that they can contribute valuable information and insights during discussions.

Practice: Listen before speaking so you can first better understand the other person’s viewpoint. Remember, you have two ears with which to practice listening.

Be Aware of Your Own Biases

To identify everyone’s assumptions, your team should take a pause and reflect on the evidence you’ve gathered, the approaches you’ve tried, the experiments your project has generated, and your teammate’s reasoning and hypotheses. This will help you to identify your own biases—as well as those of others—and open your mind to external criticism.

Practice: List five assumptions or fears that you need to challenge, then discuss them with others.

Seeing and Connecting the Dots

Once you are awake, you will be in a better position to see beyond yourself. After all, you’re just one dot among many that you need to connect in your work. The key consideration here is what these dots could represent. Other projects, colleagues or teams you need to work with, reports you produce and must communicate to other people, or something else? What do particular dots mean to you? How does each dot connect with other dots at work? What are the lines between you and those other dots? Consider the following as you connect dots together:

  • What are the important intersections between these connections?
  • How do these connections factor into your day-to-day work?
  • Can you see the larger intention of your work?
  • Is there a clear narrative about why you are working on what you are working on?
  • Do you know why you are doing what you are doing in your work?

What do seeing and connecting mean for making meaningful work?

Understand and Define the Problem

You should understand and define the problem you’re solving before proposing solutions. In defining intentions, team members should take the time to interact with one another and their stakeholders, sharing existing knowledge. Develop a plan and agree upon your project’s focus, exploring how this will determine the quality of project outcomes.

Practice: List five attributes of the problem you need to solve, then list contributors to each of those attributes.

Be Aware of the Extremes and Nuances

See the magic in the nuances. Deconstruct extreme statements and look for useful nuances. When sharing observations, a team should come together, read stories about people’s behaviors, and record them in the team’s collective memory. This routine lets you identify surprising or even deeply memorable situations that deserve further analysis by the whole team.

Practice: Consider an extreme statement, then list five questions for which you would like answers.

Confronting and Overcoming

As you connect the dots, gain a clearer understanding, and see some key intersections, you’ll be better able to meet at those intersections and identify what it is important to discuss and debate. Sometimes people avoid debate because they are not clear on what to discuss and how this connects to direction. You must define your priorities accordingly.

Teams do not always set up safe, trusting environments in which better conversations can take place. Plus, they may lack an understanding of the attributes that would enable them to determine the right priorities—which should be supported by relevant data, including customer data—providing a compelling direction that speaks to needs and clarifies meaning.

It is imperative for a team to align behind a shared intention and priorities. However, we often observe false alignment in meetings and within entire organizations.

What do confronting and overcoming mean for making meaningful work?

Engender Trust

Model being an open, trusting person. While people often perceive trust once it’s already present, the way we build trust is often unconscious, or instinctive. Our ability to build trust comes directly from our ability to be vulnerable and accept other ways of doing things. While this may sound counterintuitive, one way to build trust between people is to start trusting others before you have their trust.

Practice: Identify a task you haven’t delegated because you don’t trust that someone else would do it as well as you.

Sustaining

As we awaken, we are able to see more dots beyond ourselves. When we can see more dots, with the help of others, we can also see more connections and intersections between the dots.

When we can see intersections, we can also determine which intersections require additional discussion and debate to help us better define what dots matter and why. This implies a practice of zooming out, then zooming in, between the bigger picture and the details within that picture.

We also need to consider what practices are important and sustain the practices that matter. Consider the importance of doing the following to gain greater perspective over time:

  • slowing down—Zoom out to see the bigger picture, other dots, and yourself as one dot in that bigger picture.
  • listening—Make sense of project stories and understand the people around you. Listen both to yourself and the team members and partners with whom you work, making sense of the contexts for which you’re designing a solution.
  • being curious—Curiosity helps you gain other perspectives and see the benefits of anticipating and looking forward.
  • reflecting—Reflection on both yourself and the people you work with brings clarity.
  • making sense—Gain clarity on the overall narrative and encourage focus, intention, and continuous learning.
  • connecting the dots—Use data from multiple sources to help create feedback loops.

What does sustaining mean for making meaningful work?

Create Flow

It’s important to maintain positivity and create flow rather than taking a negative approach. Businesses are often conservative by nature, so avoid taking risks. But the world needs big thinkers and big dreamers — people who are willing to look beyond the day-to-day operations and current constraints to discover ways to inspire.

Practice: List five positives in a situation, then discuss them with others.

Find Commonality

Recognize similarities before differences to find commonality among people, roles, and teams. When people experience positive emotions, they can take advantage of opportunities to bridge to other positive moments, then quickly link up all those moments through design. However, when people experience negative emotions, they must find opportunities and devise techniques for addressing them. They need to be able to assess people’s feelings — from moment to moment — and understand what approaches get the best from the people around them.

Practice: Introduce yourself to people on other teams with whom you need to work, then learn more about what their job entails.

Engage in Life-long Learning

By engaging in continuous, life-long learning, you can pursue opportunities for incremental improvement instead of seeking massive changes. To learn and improve, we need to get out of our cubicles, get out of the building, and understand how our products and services fit into real people’s lives. To communicate our understanding of human needs, we need to capture rich stories in the voice of the customer, as well as photos and videos. We must encourage businesses to foster perpetual curiosity about how they can better serve people.

Practice: Read at least one article each week, then share what you’ve learned with others.

Conclusion

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

Getting everyone on a project team and in a business to understand that they play a role in creating a well-understood narrative for a solution is important if the business is to deliver on the promise of meaningful work for everyone — 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 now and future.
  • Move people from sleepwalking — that is, being stuck, frustrated, lost, and numb — to sparkle — that is, flowing and being present, purposeful, and engaged.

With continued practice, following these practices strengthens a project’s narrative by helping you to connect the dots and understand the connections between them. 

A thank you to—Michael Davis-Burchat, Jennifer Fabrizi, Davide Casali, Andrew Mayfield, Matt Nish-Lapidus, Matthew Oliphant, Chris Marmo, Bas Raijmakers, and Geke van Dijk.

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Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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