In the world today, there is a lot of celebration of the completion of work, but not as much celebration of the effectiveness of work.
You see this in all industries and in all subjects.
It is very common to see a news article celebrating the fact that some project has been done, and then operating on the assumption that it was successful because it was expensive, or beautiful, or done by some famous person/company. Rarely do you see actual numbers demonstrating the effectiveness of that work.
I see this often in my field, where some company in Silicon Valley will publish an article (or a research paper) about its own technology that it developed. It will celebrate the existence of the technology, how complex it is, how difficult it was to get it right. But it will rarely talk about the important things: Do its users love it? Did it make some measurable impact on the business? Are significant numbers of people within the company actually using it?
It’s true in other fields, though, too. The government will celebrate passing a new law, but rarely look back after a few years and ask, “Did that law actually accomplish what it was intended to accomplish?” Various organizations will celebrate getting huge funding, but only rarely does anybody ask, “Did funding that organization end up having a positive effect on the world—one that was large enough to justify giving them all that money?”
Unfortunately, if we intend to keep having a civilization, we’re going to have to confront some facts. You can’t just endlessly pour support into something that doesn’t return value to its owners or the civilization. Surprisingly, you can do it for a while. But what really ends up happening is the weight of making everything work ends up on the shoulders of the few people who are working like hell to make things go right, and the more support that is given to people who are not making things go right, the harder the work gets for the few people who are doing the work.
If you only think about that on the scale of a whole civilization, it might seem abstract and hard to think about. But you can break it down to simpler examples. Let’s say you have a small business with perhaps 40 employees, and it produces tools (like hammers, saws, etc.) Let’s imagine that five of your employees consistently do work that isn’t valuable for the business. However, their work gets celebrated because they complete it.
The problem here is, the other 35 people will be affected by this. We’re assuming, of course, that those five people were supposed to do something worthwhile. Let’s say they build the benches that workers sit on while they are making the tools. Instead of building the benches themselves (which they could do) they spend a lot of time building a machine to make the benches. The machine builds poor benches and takes a long time to do it. The machine frequently breaks and requires constant human attention. However, it was very hard to build the machine and took a lot of time from these five people. They are rewarded for completing the work, perhaps with pay raises and promotions, or perhaps just with recognition from the CEO.
In the mean time, the workers have poor benches that are getting worse over time. They now can’t get new ones fast enough. What often ends up happening in situations like this is that somebody has to show up and be a hero—get new benches, or somehow fix them themselves, even though it’s not their job. These five people have actually taken other people away from working and made them less able to work. But they are celebrated for this.
Over time, if management continues to validate this sort of work, everybody will get the idea that they should just do things, instead of do effective things. This is not theoretical; this is a frequent cultural disease that I’ve seen in multiple businesses. It’s true that there are some people who always want to do a good job, regardless of how others around them think. But at some point even they will be pushed into doing work for the sake of doing work, because there’s only so much you can push against the tide of many other people inside of a business. (Like, you can only fight 100 people for so long, for example.) Plus, most people don’t know a lot about how to change the culture of a business, so they end up just feeling “stuck” with the culture the company has.
So then what happens is either (a) the people who want to do good work somehow try to do it, in spite of the chaos caused around them by those who don’t produce effective results, or (b) the company becomes a system that pays people for no effective result, which leads to the company fading away and becoming ineffective and irrelevant in the world.
The best option, though, is (c): a transformational leader comes in who helps change the culture of the business. And part of that change should be the change to understanding the actual effectiveness of work and rewarding those who truly are effective.
The amazing thing here is that when you do change a business in that way, almost everybody is happy. It turns out that people want to do effective work, they want to help others. They don’t want to just show up, follow orders like a zombie, get paid, and go home. Nobody has the dream as a child, “I want to grow up and accomplish nothing effective for anyone, but I want everybody to celebrate me anyway.” Kids dream of being astronauts because it means they get to go to space, or being firefighters because it means they get to save lives. Those kids are adults now, they make up the world. Let’s give them the opportunities they wanted—to truly make a difference, no matter how large or small, and thus have some positive impact on the world around them.
It all starts with understanding whether or not the work people are doing is effective.