Drive’s third key element: Purpose

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(this is part of on ongoing series on the book Drive, the Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us)

The final element of “Drive” is purpose. Satisfaction and well-being require not only that people have goals but that they have the right goals. People who are working towards a purpose achieve more.

Over and over again, I have talked with people in technology organizations who are either excited about a system they’ve built that has really made a difference for the people who use it or who have had the opposite experience and are frustrated that they spent so much time working on something that was never rolled out. The difference in the job satisfaction of those people is clear.

So I agree: purpose is the critical third component here. Even if you were given complete autonomy to work they way you want and you got to operate in flow, working towards mastery, most of the time, it would eventually feel a little empty if there were no purpose.

Here’s where I think Drive breaks down. In this section, the book focuses almost entirely on organizations who are shifting their focus from “for profit” to “for benefit”. It is very inspirational and I love hearing the stories, but I disagree with any implication that companies can’t have a purpose if they are primarily in business for… well, business!

The success of open source alone seems enough proof that people don’t have to be doing something truly philanthropic to be fulfilled. I see it in companies too. Technologists are truly proud when they create an application that their users love because it simplifies their life or helps them make better decisions. And on the flip side, go back to the example of the technologist who works for a year on a project that is completed but never used. How much better would it have been for everyone involved to have stopped that project in its tracks halfway through? Companies look at the financial aspects of those mistakes but rarely consider the motivation aspects.

It’s the same thing in consulting. Thank goodness at Thought Ensemble we have the luxury of saying no to projects and clients where we don’t think we can make a difference. We also get to walk away from a project or a client when we don’t think we are helping any more. Already in 2011, I’ve told two clients that I’d be happy to give them money back if they weren’t going to do what it would take to keep the project moving forward. In one case they got their ducks in a row and the project back on track and then I was once again really able to make a difference there. The other… we’ll see, but I’m perfectly happy with either outcome. I feel lucky to be in the situation where I can make those choices.

In some ways, consultancies have the most opportunity to find purpose, as they get to constantly choose which new projects they work on and which companies they help. But many consultancies get into the trap of razor thin margins or bumpy revenue where they are forced to take any project they can get. So draw your own conclusions there.

Technology organizations have a more complex challenge, as they often feel at the whim of their businesses. And now I’ll make a plug for our book, Reboot (coming very soon), where we talk a lot about the criticality of defining a real technology strategy that helps inspire and align people around a common goal of how technology will change their business and industry. More on that soon!

I have one more blog on this topic in me… coming soon. I’m going to wrap by talking about the book’s assertions on compensation systems. Coming soon.

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