Narcotic work vs. What Matters.

Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

I wrote on Sunday about the importance of “not doing”, and that triggered a follow on reflection around how, when we are doing, we go about it.

I think it lies on a spectrum. At one end we have doing at the level of the narcotic. Work so prescribed. familiar and addictive that we spend hours doing it and take nothing from it other than financial reward. At the other end is the work of day to day progress – crossing boundaries, sidestepping constraints, and embracing the risk of failure in the knowledge that we’re learning and doing something that matters more than any money it might bring us.

I see and talk with people every day who live at many points on this spectrum, from those taking mind bending rewards for getting into the stream of money rather than doing anything to create value, to those doing the work that humbles me through it’s generosity of spirit.

What strikes me at the moment is the fragility of narcotic work. It is so easily disrupted, and disorienting for those who suffer the disruption. After all, when we are so heavily embedded into carefully designed, measured, and assessed routines, improv is difficult. like trying to tell a risqué joke in court.

What I notice most I think is what happens to people occupying different places on the spectrum when it all goes wrong, and things are wont to do at the moment. At the narcotic end, it goes immediately to blame, inquiries and statement about “lessons to be learned”. At the progress end, people just adapt as best they can in order to get the work that matters done. No drama, no hand wringing, just improvisation in pursuit of something that matters.

In large organisations, we can often see examples right across this spectrum. In public services – health, education, local government – we see those on the narcotics making excuses, whilst those who do the delivery adapt. I see at the moment an egregious example in our local early years education provision, as deliverers are starved of resources and do things like using their own money resource everything from materials to informal food banks rather than education authority biting the bullet on closing what they have made unviable. It doesn’t make those on the narcotics bad people, any more than drug addicts are bad people, they equally a consequence of the systems they are part of. They just have different pushers.

I think we see similar with businesses as they “graduate” from being powered by the passion of the founders to the quest for certainty and stability required by shareholders, and often sought through processes to eliminate the “outlier” experiences that often signal change.

As Greg Satell suggests in this recent article, we are in a period of ongoing generational stress, and the institutions that have embedded themselves in the culture we have created will find themselves increasingly fragile. Being embedded in, and reliant on, the sort of doing they want from employees does not seem like a healthy place to be.

I loved this short video from Johnnie Moore, that I think carries an important message. Under pressure, it is easy to go to where the easiest answer looks to lie, and technology is very, very good at creating bright lights in what are often rather dingy places, where easy, but temporary narcotic solutions are to be found.

In times like these, we are better doing the hard, uncomfortable work that matters. Work that gives us insight, questions what we have been taking for granted, and shines light into the dark corners where what is next is quietly emerging.

We do not have to do it alone. There are others out there who want to do the same. Sometimes they are constrained by corporate culture, sometimes by our own apprehension, and often the pressures of time.

Shining light into dark corners is best done in a quiet place, in the company of others who can see things we cannot and point them out. Who will look after our back as we go and look at them, and share thoughts on what might be done. Places such as the ones we’ve been experimenting with at Originize.

If we’re going to spend a lot of time doing, investing some time into considering what we’re doing, and why, seems sensible.

There’s a huge gap between doing work that anaethetises us, and exploring work that matters.


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