We live in a task-, project-, and objective-based society. How do we bridge that gap between the tasks that rule our lives, and what we really care about? Living our lives from the world of what we truly care about, connected with our commitments, actions, satisfaction, and shared background constitutes the world of the Managed Action Practice (MAP). This post is about how I wrestled with the MAP, seeking tools and ideas to bridge the gap towards greater focus on what we care about.
First, there are a boatloads of task management tools available in the marketplace, as well as tools for project management to organize those tasks. They have some commonalities, but ultimately, they are about managing the WHAT of things that need to get done. More often than not, these tools allow individual tasks to be broken down into smaller sub-task. If you’re lucky, some of these tools support tasks that are dedicated to addressing questions of HOW, which usually falls into the domain of Design.
Conspicuously absent from most task and project management tools is any connection to the WHY that drives the whole enterprise in the first place. If the question of “why” does actually show up, it usually looks like a business case, cost justification, an opportunity, or possibly the need to responding to some threat or regulation.(cf.: SWOT, SOX).
As any system or discipline matures, it starts increasing its level of structure. When it grows to where those structures no longer support its purpose, the system evolves into a new structure. I assess that at this point, the management of tasks, goals, and business objectives is ready to evolve beyond its current state.
So let’s zoom through where we’ve been and then look at one possibility for where we are going. In the beginning, and even today in the lives of many individuals, task management looked like this:
It was disorganized, chaotic, and lacked much structure. In what will grow into organizational life, tasks are pretty close to the atomic level.
When the number of tasks and “todo” items got too overwhelming, we started grouping them around some common themes. Following the analogy of organizational “life,” these themes started to look a bit more like chemicals, molecules, and compounds.
That helped a little, but as the number of themes being addressed continued to grow, even that became unmanageable. Then we started creating hierarchies and priorities while trying to keep track of interdependent themes of tasks. Presently, many task management tools look something like this, and we are getting closer to proteins and cells:
In the case of businesses and corporations, which basically exist for the coordination of people performing tasks to create results of value to stakeholders, the structures above still struggle when taken to an enterprise level. Managing all the moving pieces in a complex organization rapidly gets complicated, and in many places, it stays that way through one breakdown after another.
The next level of reorganization started putting wrappers and boundaries around tasks in the hopes of managing their interaction by dividing them up into distinct domains of action, while trying to coordinate the communication between domains, departments, or objectives.
In overly simplistic terms, that has “Labor” responsible for production, execution, and design – the WHAT and HOW. Labor is also responsible for breaking their tasks into more actionable chunks and plays some role in coordinating the sequence of activities.
“Management” here focuses more strongly on the coordination of action, resolution of competing objectives and priorities, and ensuring smooth communication between people and departments. There are overlaps between management and labor in this view, but both are largely focused on the WHAT of organizational activities.
Lastly, we have the “Executive” team focused on setting direction and strategy. This jives with a common question from lower in the organization regarding “Where is the company going?” To help answer that question, the executives are driven by internal and external forces such as
- Business Cases for new activities
- Responding to new Opportunities in the marketplace
- Responding to various threats from competitors and changes in the environment
- Cost Justifications and Revenue Forecasts for whether or not large projects should be undertaken.
In the best of cases, that high level picture gives the illusion of order. It appears to be focused on the direction the company is going and the actions that must be be performed to get there. However, although the new structure has “organs” fitting together to create the foundation of organizational life, nowhere in there can one find any sign of sentient life. Further, as more functions are automated through computers, ever less from the structure above will require human life to execute.
Even if the structure above has rumors of life here and there, it is difficult for that life to drive the actions of the organization akin to the way any genuine sense of purpose would. Further, on our current trajectory, I assess that no amount of action or resultant output from an organization is ultimately sustainable unless it can tie back to a missing sense of purpose and mission – that is, the reason that gives rise to the organizations very existence in the first place.
There already exists ample literature on mission, purpose, and vision within organizations. There are a multitude of approaches and methodologies for creating, tapping into, or reigniting that sense of purpose for organizations. Were there not such a need for this, I could hardly imagine over 40 million hits for Organizational Purpose on Google and over 6,000 titles on Amazon.
The need for purpose is not my point here – I consider that point already made. Nor is my point to show yet another way to create it. That has been done too. Rather, what I am arguing is that we currently lack tools, systems, or structures for maintaining the connection between whatever purpose exists, and the activities that take place throughout the organization as part of its rhythmic cycles of existence.
Once some sense of purpose has been established, there already exists tools for setting and maintaining one’s strategy for achieving it, such as the Balanced Scorecard and associated software, circa 1990. While those tools have evolved, they still remain principally focused on ensuring forward progress against an externally determined set of objectives or destinations, while glossing over what went into choosing the destination in the first place. If the answer to the WHY-question was kind enough to show up, it seldom sticks around through the execution of strategy.
I am arguing that just as tasks got more and more complex, necessitating the creation of better tools for managing them, that today, the very structures for managing tasks have become so complex that we need tools for managing the purpose for which all that activity is being performed in the first place. Further, that the bulk of the measures that we have in place today, from financial metrics, to performance metrics, to learning objectives, are still missing the mark in that none have a direct correlation back to purpose, save for the occasional off-site retreat where yet another set of slogans and placards are produced as disembodied reminders.
So finally, it is at this point that I am beginning to see the connection and value of the Managed Action Practice to the plethora of activities we engage in so regularly. What follows is my current understanding of the MAP, and my attempts to link it back to the predominant organizational structures we see today. Following that, I have some recommendations for tooling to make that link easier to manage for the purpose of keeping the MAP front and center in organizational life.
At its core, the MAP seeks to answer these questions:
- What do you care about? (it is not static… what do you care about NOW?)
- Where are you now? (relative to all of what you care about.)
- Where are you going? (and do you really care about that?)
- Are you getting there?
- Is there anything you need to DO to make sure that you get there?
- Do your commitments and actions for a particular outcome integrate with all of your other commitments? (e.g: are they integrally consistent?)
- Does it all fit together into a good life?
- Is this still relevant?
- Do you still care?
Fundamentally, the MAP is about the WHY of everything we do. It’s about our cares. It’s about making and focusing on the genuine connection between what we care about and what conversations we have with self or others. It’s also about what commitments we make, whether those commitments are internally congruent, and finally what actions we take to actually satisfy those commitments within some shared background in which we find ourselves interacting with those around us.
It would be easy to state that without the actions (the focus of the predominant paradigm), that not much else really matters. On one level, that may be true, just as without atoms there would be no living beings. Yet without a living being who has cares, passions, concerns, desires, focus, and basically LIFE, then there is no arrangement of those atoms that has any meaning or value. In organizations, meaning and value is actually created by the living beings who perform the actions. It lives within their bodies.
The point is not whether the questions of purpose or actions are more important. Ultimately, we need both. Nor is it about finding a balance between the two, for any balance would be temporary and shifting. Rather, what I am focusing on is what becomes possible when we shift our initial focus or starting point from tasks over to cares. We will always need both… but starting with cares makes some things possible to which we would otherwise be almost completely blind.
If we follow the status quo and start with our tasks to build them up towards what we care about, then maybe we can connect the two if we are organized, structured, disciplined, vigilant, or perhaps even lucky. On the other hand, if we start with our cares and use the MAP as a set of structures for maintaining focus on those cares, then it is far more clear which actions should really be prioritized and performed in the context of our limited capacity. Simply put, the MAP is a tool for taking care of what we care about before taking care of the distractions that impinge on our own personal and corporate worlds.
In some ways, starting with the task-focus is like running a maze. If you start from the beginning, there are many ways to get lost, stuck, or trapped. Yet if you start from the end and work your way to the beginning, it is often far easier to connect back to the beginning with fewer mis-steps down dead-ends and traps.
So that all sounds good on paper, but the next challenge becomes one of HOW to shift focus from tasks back up to our cares when almost every structure in our society is focused on starting from tasks and actions. That brings us to the ‘P’ in MAP – Practice. Without practice, we will fall back into what we are familiar with, as well as what our structures and society at large currently support.
I assess that two things are required to make this shift. The first is to make the connection between our cares and our actions more obvious. The second is to put tools and structures in place to keep these connections from disappearing into the fog of every-day task management. Without tools and structures that are bigger, simpler, and more powerful than the status-quo, the existing systems will win out over nearly any effort to bring about a change in focus. That means that the challenge is far greater than any single paper, blog-post, presentation, or article that I might write on the subject. Fundamentally, it will require a shift in the larger conversations of corporate society. Clearly, this is one Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal (BHAG).
So lets start with the connections between cares and actions, down to the task level that dominates our culture. For most of us, there are lots of things we care about, some of which are common to our family, group, culture, or background, and some of which are genuinely unique to who we are as a single living being on this planet. From among those things that we care about, there is a subset of things that we have enough commitment around to take concerted action to the point where we are actually satisfied that our cares have been taken care of.
Satisfaction here means that of the the things we are committed to, that we have prioritized them relative to each other. It means that we have resolved internal inconsistencies between competing things that we may be committed to. It means that we have a picture of what kind of results would constitute an assessment that our cares have been sufficiently taken care of. It also means that where we need to turn to others to tend to our cares and commitments, that we have assessed their quality of work and competency relative to their ability to deliver on what we care about.
In terms of actions, this does not take us directly back into the domain of tasks to be managed, though this is is the avenue back there. Here, actions are more focused on the offers we make to others where they are the customers for the fruits of our labor. Actions are also focused on the requests we make of others to perform where we are the customers for actions they take to produce things that are of value to us.
In the case where the requests or offers that we make require actions larger than can be performed by us or any single individual, we need to form teams to deliver effective results. These teams form the primary linkage between the world of the managed action in the context of a MAP, and the dominant culture of organizational task-based society.
Living our lives from the world of what we truly care about, connected with our commitments, actions, satisfaction, and shared background constitutes the world of the Managed Action Practice. Teams, choosing a strategy of action to accomplish a stated objective (now derived from our MAP) constitutes the world of Executive functions, the world of MBA’s and the balanced scorecard. Lastly, prioritizing those tasks down to the level of a work-breakdown-structure, delegation of resources, and the ultimate execution of action to produce results is the world of traditional project management.
The big picture thus fits together like this:
So at this point, the MAP is fine as a conceptual theory, but unlike the hundreds if not thousands of tools for managing tasks, we don’t currently have tools for the management of MAPs. That means that even with the best of intentions, the practice of using MAPs is itself yet another task to be performed. It presents the challenge of trying to reorganize or change a system of practice by using only the tools and structures that created the very system we are trying to change. Creating a set of forms, documents, or even web-pages for better organizing MAPs as documents is simply not likely to provide adequate thrust to gain the requisite altitude for significantly altering the status quo.
Are new tools needed? Yes. Will there ever be a tool that is up to the challenge? That has yet to be seen. However, I am committed to positive transformations in the lives of people and organizations. That commitment stems from a deep sense of care for the lives we all live today at work, home, and in our interactions with each other. We regrettably live in a time and place in the world where the background noise of dissatisfaction with work is reaching epic proportions. In their pursuit of greater satisfaction with their lives, people are starting to leave the traditional workforce for the opportunities of entrepreneurship. They are taking other avenues toward making a living with a greater sense of connection with who they are as human beings.
Yet the prospect of discussing “cares” within an organization creates a difficult “chicken and the egg” problem. We need more developed tools and supporting structures in our organizations in order to discuss what we really care about. Yet within most organizations, one cannot simply talk about “cares,” and the notion of tools for doing so is absurd. Cars are just too woo woo, touchy-feely, or “out there” to gain any traction. The fear of actually talking about what individual human beings really care about creates so much fear and discomfort that it has to be masked in the language of people’s objectives instead. There mere notion of talking about why we actually show up for work each day is simply not on the table for discussion. Instead, the most altitude our conversations can gain is the level of strategy and objectives.
I assess that so long as we fly at that low altitude, sooner or later we are going to crash into a mountain of human resistance in our attempts to get people to care about what they are asked to do each day when they show up for work. Why would they care about objectives when their cares were not factored into the original requests in the first place, except as a means to an end that they actually do care about. A down economy and desperation only exacerbate that situation, where people are in fact focused on their care for personal survival, even at the expense of their humanity in mind-numbing jobs that are disconnected from who they are as human beings.
Ignaz Semmelweis discovered the relationship between washing hands and decreasing mortality in hospitals in 1847, but his ideas were initially rejected. Louis Pasteur did not formally discover germ theory until the 1860’s, and he had an uphill struggle to convince people of the importance of his discoveries too. Today, I suspect that an inability to discuss and integrate what people really care about in the workforce is the germ-origin of a highly disengaged, dissatisfied, and disenfranchised society of employees.
Every person and department within our organizations has their own set of cares. To the extent that these cares align with and support each other, and the organization still produces results of value to the stakeholders, then you have the seeds of something sustainable, if not utterly amazing [cf.: The Advantage, Lencioni]. There are in fact some organizations that do this. But to the extent that the very idea of producing alignment at the level of people’s cares is foreign, naive, or unwelcome and instead we look only at corporate objectives, then we have the germs of what will become a toxic and unsustainable corporate environment. It may go on for years, or even decades, consuming new workers and spitting them out the other end as it extracts some part of their lives in the pursuit of cheaper, faster, or better widgets. Or, with the right courage, tools, commitment, and conversations, we can begin to shift our focus to what we all care about, whatever that may be for each of us, and then use that information to design the organizations that we actually want to be a part of, because they are connected to who we really are.
This article is an invitation to engage in the conversation of what we care about and how to bring that discussion to the corporate environment. Its also a declaration that I’m interested in designing software tools to make those conversations more viable and meaningful within today’s business environment by increasing the visibility of the links between cares and objectives. If creating these tools is something you want to participate in from its inception, or even if you simply want to contribute to their success, then please leave a comment below.
Lastly, even though you may not have had the MAP when you entered organizational life, it’s not too late to start creating one now. It starts with a simple question….
What do you care about?