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Winning at Working


Nan Russell

Sep 23, 2018

What Are We Busy About?

Once upon a time, a prince and princess lived in stressful palace, surrounded by a stressful village, inside a stressful land. They knew it was stressful because everyone said it was. Their parents, the king and queen, worked from sunrise to sunset hearing issues from their kingdom, weighing the requests, and appropriating the collective harvest to the people of their land.

The people also worked from sunrise to sunset, doing their assigned tasks, completing their logs, filing their reports, and seeking an audience with the king and queen to request their needed resources. So it went, year after year after year. And the land became known as Stressland.

When the princess and prince grew up and took over the responsibility for the kingdom from their retiring parents, having watched and listened and learned the process for years, it was second nature for them to share responsibilities according to their talents.

But it happened that the young royals grew tired of their inherited routine and began to feel the stress they had only heard spoken of, but never experienced personally. "Enough of this," said the princess to her brother. "Enough," said the prince to his sister.

The young leaders spent the next day behind large palace doors, dissecting the tasks that stressed them, that busied them, and that they had inherited with their positions. They asked questions that had not been asked for centuries, if at all. "Why do we do this?" the princess asked. "What purpose is served?" queried the prince.

For three weeks the prince and the princess gathered in the largest palace hall and asked questions of each other, of the royal staff, of the villagers, and of the people in the far off parts of their lands. "How does this task help the kingdom?" he would ask. "What is the reason to continue doing this?" she wondered aloud.

Every task in the kingdom was discussed and questioned. Soon everyone in the land was asking three questions: First: "What is its purpose and how does it support the kingdom's goals?" If they determined it to be important to the kingdom, the second question was asked, "Why do we do this task, this way?" And a finally, "How can we do it better, faster, more efficiently?" And so it went until the stressful land lost its name, becoming instead a land of ideas, excitement, and opportunity.

Our fractured tale is not far from what happens in many workplaces. People do what they've always done, often not knowing if that report they spent three hours preparing every week is even reviewed. I remember in my first management position inheriting a weekly status report that provided little status of anything. A few weeks into the job, I asked my boss if he minded me tweaking the report. "Do whatever you want with it" he said. "I never look at it." Eliminating it was an easy decision.

Routines become layered year after year. And while technology may streamline the data collection, the why behind the work may have been lost years before. In an era where stress, reduced resources, and not enough time to complete ever demanding jobs are common workplace themes, finding and eliminating meaningless "work," or figuring out how meaningful work can be done more efficiently, should be as expected as eliminating closet clutter by giving away clothes unworn for the last year.

People who are winning at working have a powerful skill. They ask thoughtful questions. Their curiosity brings reflection, consideration, and new thinking. Their questioning elicits ideas, increases learning, and sparks new possibilities. Asking the right questions keeps them, and their work, aligned with their organization's goals and objectives.

People who are winning at working follow the perspective of Henry David Thoreau: "It's not enough to be busy -- the question is: What are we busy about?"

Nan S. Russell - Gellatio.png
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