Creating Environments That Encourage Behaviors That Make Meaningful Work

March 18, 2019

In this article, we’ll examine the environments in which we live and work, taking a moment to reflect on how they make us feel. We’ll also consider how to create explicit moments for practicing reflection and helping us make meaningful work. This need not be work that is saving-the-world meaningful, but simply work that is personally meaningful.

Consider meaningfulness in connection with this definition of behavior: “The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially toward others.”

  • Who makes us feel the way we feel and why?
  • How does the environment play a role?
  • Do we have an explicit role to play in our environment?
  • How can we create an environment that thrives, and why is this important?

This article builds on the ideas in our earlier article “Fostering Learning Environments to Generate Sparkle.”

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Doing Work That Makes You Feel Good

What does it mean to feel good? People want to feel good about

  • what they’re doing
  • why they’re doing it
  • how they’re doing it
  • who they’re doing it with
  • what they’re doing together
  • how they’re doing it together
  • the organization in which they’re working

When people don’t feel good about some or all of these thing, their work is not meaningful to them. Or not as meaningful as it could be. People may or may not consciously dwell upon these individual elements of work. Plus, the way they’re feeling frequently changes based on whatever is going on inside them—internal things—and whatever is going on outside of them—external things.

Whether we look at these things collectively or individually, when there is a gap between how good people feel and how good they could feel—that is, when work is not as meaningful as it could be—that is when its quality suffers. People think, I don’t want to be here or I don’t want to do this. Their work feels like a waste of time and energy. They’re on a frantic treadmill and have no real purpose. As a consequence, people

  • experience unnecessary stress
  • become demotivated, disengaged, numb, and are just biding their time—or worse
  • exist in an unhealthy environment

Examining Your Environment

We break the environment into two parts, as follows:

  1. External environment—This comprises people and other objects.
  2. Internal environments—These consist of our own and other people’s feelings.

The combination of both your external and internal environments determines your view of the world—and, in part, your energies and what you can contribute at any given time. When you consider both of these environments, you should also consider your intention and the role you want to play. Both your external and internal environments contribute to either helping or detracting from your ability to make meaningful work.

An Exercise for Influencers

Examining your environment helps you understand that you have a choice and may sometimes be able to influence others’ choices. So let’s try an exercise together. Follow these steps:

  1. Take a blank piece of paper and a pen.
  2. Draw a big circle.
  3. Then draw progressively smaller, concentric circles within the big circle, leaving some room between them. This should start to look like a dart board of sorts.
  4. Now, in the middle circle, draw yourself as one of the central characters in your life.
  5. Then, consider another person who is close to you and, more importantly, influences you in either your work or life.
  6. Ask: What is it about this person's characteristics that enables him or her to influence me? Is this person’s influence positive, negative, or both—and why?
  7. Specifically, consider a person at work who has a positive influence on you and, at the same time, consider a person on whom you have a positive influence.

Creating Positive Influence

Considering the influencers exercise, reflect on your positive influence: What do you do to make other people feel positive? How does that help them? For example:

  • Is it your tone?
  • What you share with them?
  • How you help their work?
  • What you’re teaching them?

Do the same for negative influence: What do you do that makes other people feel negative? How does that hurt them?

In any given moment, you often have a choice, but you must also recognize that there are times when you might not have a choice. Consider specific practices that contribute to the environment and your role in it.

The Two Sides of Projects

Projects exist in an environment. You can intentionally play a role that has a positive or negative effect on that environment. When examining a project’s environment, there are two sides to consider. It is critical that both sides integrate with one another to create environments that allow meaningful work, as follows:

  1. Process side—This helps you to deliver and make a project successful and usually consists of such things as project plans, people, disciplines, process, methods, methodologies; and gaining a sense of direction through vision, mission, and values.
  2. Environment side—This involves having an intentional, explicit focus on the people and practices that help a project not only to perform and deliver but also to create a place where people actually thrive in making together.

These two sides must both be present and work in tandem. Consider the duality and multi-threaded practices that exist on both sides in a connected fashion.

One-sided Projects

Everyone sometimes gets lost in the noise, speed, and deliverables of day-to-day work. We might even forget why we’re working on a project in the first place. This results in our feeling purposeless, stressed, unhealthy, and as though we’re existing in a state of sleepwalking.

People use words such as culture, values, or beliefs, which may have little meaning to the people working on projects and delivering on requirements. Delivery can becomes a matter of delivering only your part of the project, without considering how it connects to the overall outcome, and failing to consider the role you play in the environment and what you’re delivering.

Practices for Sports-Team Environments

Think about a sport you play or have played in the past. Consider a team sport such as soccer and how the people and other elements that make up a team’s or club’s culture help it not only to get onto the field every week to compete and win games but also to help the team sustain its success in the future. This requires attracting a paying audience—or potentially, a club membership—to support the club.

In professional sports, the success of a club usually involves more than the team that plays from week to week or the stars who get most of the attention. Well-aligned professional teams intentionally create a well-structured environment in which they can practice and discuss the way they play to improve their performance on a regular basis. They are looking for ways to thrive.

They have head and specialist coaches and advisors who observe the environment and look for opportunities to do practice spotting, then document practices that are either helping or hindering the environment for both individuals and teams. Sometimes they document these in playbooks. We create sparkle journals.

The head coaches and advisors also look for people who are practice specialists and can help other individuals on their team become better in their roles and at connecting to those in other roles so the team can improve over time.

The Difference Between Play and Practice

Great teams realize that they can learn in both play and practice modes. They constantly look for ways to improve. They don’t see feedback as negative, but as something that helps them achieve improved outcomes now and in a sustainable future.

At work and in personal life, there are various roles you need to play. Depending on your role and the environment, you need to know which practices are relevant and use them. There may be practices that you use in your personal life that are also be useful in your work and vice versa. Knowing what practices to use is critical.

Knowing how to do practice spotting is not tied specifically to any particular job title or function. In a mature environment, doing practice spotting well is something everyone can do. The practices everyone spots contribute to your practice card library, which has a sustained positive effect on the people in environments and on teams.

A Thriving Conference Environment

People create culture. For example, we have been running UX Hong Kong for nine years. Our primary intention has always been the formation of a conference culture and eliciting shared feelings among the people who attend.

“User Experience Hong Kong (UXHK) is a learning event dedicated to bringing all product and service design disciplines together, from research, marketing, design, technology, and the business to name a few, who are interested and passionate about designing great experiences for people and business for a better world for all.”

But what elements does it take to make an environment both conducive to learning and also a context where practice spotting can take place? This also takes intention. We examine the following in our planning and implementation:

  • choosing speakers and considering the characteristics they bring to the event
  • evaluating topics and how they speak to the themes
  • how well-traveled the speakers are and how this impacts their perspectives
  • current and longer-term intentions of the practice of User Experience
  • willingness to push the boundaries on practice maturity without everything always being about User Experience
  • other intersecting disciplines that are relevant in our conversations
  • key practices we want to cover

How do all of these things help us make meaningful work as we consider the intersections and connections between people, teams, and their goals?

Time for Reflection: A Critical Part of Problem Solving

People want to spend more time on meaningful work and working with teams who are engaged in making that happen. Projects on which people’s skills and practice strengths are working well together encourage people to learn, improve, and thrive.

Reflection, as a practice, lets you assess not only the interactions that occur during your project work but also how well your environment is supporting you in your work and whether you have the practices you need to truly make meaningful work. Such reflection highlights the gaps and areas where you need to learn and consider who you can find to support you in remedying specific practice deficiencies.

Intentionally making moments for practice spotting makes a difference and can help you to determine the environments in which you prefer to live, work, and learn.  

At conferences, you can look beyond your day-to-day projects and stop the cycles of speed, politics, and delivery. You can stop long enough to speak to people working within and outside your domain and take the time to reflect on what has meaning for your past, current, and future work. You can also experience different forums and mediums for learning and practice spotting at conferences. There are presentations of various lengths, for which the format tends to be more about passive learning, so you listen to the presenters, and there’s little time for questions.

There are breaks between the sessions, giving you opportunities to mingle with and speak to other people who may be facing problems similar to yours in other environments. There are moments when you can make new friends or meet people who offer alternative perspectives. There are workshops in which you can dive deeper into problem sets and work on problems together.

As conference organizers and hosts, we carefully consider of all these things. Not only the physical environment itself but also how we can help people to connect with other people with whom they need to connect to make meaningful work together.

We also consider the importance of telling project stories to one another. These are not polished case studies that tend to speak of winning outcomes. Instead these stories communicate how we might be dealing with the messiness of a project from day to day, what it feels like to deliver successfully, or what it means to think about the interactions between people and roles and the opportunities to learn from these moments. This is where reflection becomes paramount, and it’s imperative to have these stories live somewhere in the form of practices or practice cards from which others can learn.

Building Your Own Practice Card Library

We have noticed that, in the midst of project work, there is typically little time for people to practice. Plus, people from various backgrounds and functions sometimes lack the intent to work meaningfully together. Be intentional in creating environments and practice moments for meaningful work. These could be as informal as a conversation over lunch. However, for people to improve, you really need deeper reflection and a more sustained environment for practice spotting, writing practice cards, creating a practice card library, and encouraging moments for practice.

Conferences are one type of environment in which different disciplines can come together and discuss what helps or hinders them in delivering meaningful work. They can be safe environments in which people can practice.

Essential Practices for Encouraging Moments for Practice

To derive your practice card titles, do the following:

  1. Stop to reflect. Find an environment in which you can have some quiet time to listen to your own thoughts, take stock of how you’re feeling, and consider what this means going forward. Be present with yourself for a bit.
  2. Find a project story. This project story will be the focus of practice spotting and help you to identify a few practices you can work on. As you collect more examples of practices, you’ll begin to recognize patterns you should encourage and patterns you should avoid, considering the environment you want to create.
  3. Write a practice card title. Also, write down some keywords from your project stories and consider what they might mean for other projects you’ll work on.
  4. Sort your practice cards. As you collect more practice cards and share more project stories, you’ll begin to see key categories of practices to consider—in light of both what is important to you and what is important to others on the team.
  5. Begin your practice. Select a few practices and consider what it would mean to practice them. Who could you practice them with? Who would both support you in this practice and give you feedback to help you improve over time?

Moments for Practice

Now that you’ve created some practice cards, consider what environment would be conducive to these practices. In our earlier sports-team example, we discussed play and practice modes. To create moments for practice, do the following:

  1. Identify the problem a project would solve. Consider project scenarios that would help you walk through the interactions between people and solve the problems you face together. This is less about creating deliverables and more about working through the scenarios together and creating learning outcomes.
  2. Choose a practice or two. Apply practices from the practice cards that are relevant to solving the problem.
  3. Conduct practice exercises. Consider what exercises you might do that would be relevant to the project scenarios—as well as what exercises would have sustained relevance across various project scenarios. The primary driver should be the ability to repeat the exercise to gain depth of practice and, again, reflect on the learning outcomes.
  4. Find someone to practice with. Choose people who can help you do specific exercises, using specific practices together. Who you choose becomes important because it helps you understand who you like learning with and what specific practices different practice buddies can help you confront and address over time. This enables you to gain depth of practice and repeatedly reflect on your learning outcomes.
  5. Put the practice into practice. Practicing a practice can take as little as one or two minutes or much longer for a more structured process.
  6. Reflect on your learning outcomes. Then integrate your new learnings into your practice card library.

Your Practice Card Library and Behavioral Outcomes

Embody all your learning outcomes in a practice card library. Developing your library of practice cards will help you to identify your learning and behavioral outcomes. Consider what behaviors you want to encourage and what behaviors you want to reject.

Behaviors are key. The main point of practice spotting is to determine your intention, who you are, and who you want to work with to create environments that people fundamentally enjoy being in.

Creating Environments for Making Meaningful Work

Work cultures are hard to understand fully without

  • explicitly spotting work practices
  • creating a practice card library to facilitate those practices
  • employing those practice cards in creating moments for practice

Rather than leaving it up to others to create your work environment, proactively take responsibility for it. Encourage others with whom you work to create the environments in which they want to work and live. 

Announcing the Make Meaningful Work Conference—In 2020, we’ll be kicking off a new conference called Make Meaningful Work to help people move along the spectrum from sleepwalking to sparkle, create the environments in which they want to work and live, and make meaningful work.

Acknowledgments—Thanks to all the speakers and participants at UXHK 2019, especially to Neil and Hannah for writing up what UXHK 2019 meant to them and Derek Black and SCAD Hong Kong for hosting both the conference and a recent immersion with Susan Wolfe and Josephine Wong. Thanks to Davide ‘Folletto’ Casali for writing his series of articles about making meaningful work and to all our friends in various countries around the world who have been supporting Make Meaningful Work.

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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