Work is so often about completing projects that are utterly meaningless

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Used to have this gig in 2014–2015. It was a 200-person company. It was privately-held and the CEO was everything to everyone. A couple of us peons used to have this joke. Joke goes like this: if you wanted a new project approved at this company, you basically needed a form that said, in essence →

  • Tell me what the project is
  • Tell me how this is the CEO’s №1 priority
  • Tell me again in different words how this is the CEO’s №1 priority
  • Draw a picture of the CEO interacting with this project
  • Tell me one more time how this is the biggest thing for him in the next six months

It honestly did feel like this, though. Every time someone at this company approached you with anything, it was “This is the №1 thing on Matthew’s (CEO) radar.” I worked on some absolutely meaningless projects at this job. For a while, I was updating this basically internal website that was supposed to eventually go external and whenever we tested it, no one external (partners) understood what it was. It was a travesty of a project, which I’m sure is largely my fault somehow and to some extent, even though I was just following “road maps” that other people gave me. But anyway, point is, literally no one internally or externally cared about this project. Yet, somehow, whenever a person approached my desk about it, what did they say?

“This is Matthew’s №1 priority right now.”

I am not sure Matthew even knew this thing I was working on baseline existed. It certainly wasn’t “a priority” of his. This happens a lot at work. In fact, I have a visual to extend this too!

Here’s a slide from a HR Technology conference

Feast ye eyes:

As you can see, this slide is purporting to discuss employee engagement, a “hot” concept of the past 10 years or so. By “hot” I mean people throw software at it and employees are broadly not that much more engaged. So, you know, fake money and fake metrics. Modern biz, baby!

So does anyone care about this?

Broadly the idea of employee engagement? Sure, somewhat. Although oftentimes if a decision-maker or executive is saying “Employee Engagement,” what they really mean is “I want to offer tacos periodically so that I can keep base salaries down.” Sorry, but that’s reality.

But this slide is a good example of this whole “No one really cares about this stuff as much as people are claiming they do” phenomenon at work. To wit:

  • The numbering system: Calling things “Iteration 2.0” or “Iteration 3.0” is stuff we borrowed from software releases and product launch methodology. It works in those spaces but nowhere else. It looks asinine here. If a company cares about employee engagement, they probably care about a “holistic” set of strategies under that umbrella. No CFO looking at spend is saying “Well, is this 2.0 or 3.5…?” No one thinks like that. This is stuff analysts invent to justify their own worth.
  • 3.0 has nothing about mental health and stress: Uh, that’s a gaping hole. Probably the №1 thing that impacts “engagement” at work is stress level, work-life stuff, mental health broadly, etc. I’ve covered off on this before. So again, this whole thing is “Analyst Speak” for “Throw tech at a human problem and hope something positive happens.” And, about those engagement and stress numbers? They ain’t that good.

Why do people pretend so much matters when it doesn’t really?

Oh, because work is largely about relevance. People are scared of what the future looks like around tech, inequality, automation, layoffs, redundant roles in mergers, and more. When you get scared, you protect the perch you understand. (That also explains why many managers default to micromanaging, FYI.) So, you need to assure your relevance to face down apprehension and fear about your professional future. You assure your relevance by claiming everything matters, be that a project for Matthew or thinking that wide swaths of people in the world are thinking about “Employee Engagement 2.0 vs. Employee Engagement 3.0.”

You’ve got two options at most jobs: Be seen as relevant, or be in control of something. If ya ain’t got either, ya might not be long for the place on a “restructure.” And since control has to be handed to you (organizational vetting), most people aim at relevance. As a result, every single thing is now important — and maybe even urgent. Holler.

How much stuff at work really is that important?

If you believe Pareto, probably 20–30 percent of everything we claim is important is actually important. I’d say that feels right. If you are given 10 tasks/projects in a month, probably 7 of them no one will think about once the boxes are checked. 2–3 might be relevant to the company six months later, and maybe one is relevant a year or two later. Most stuff is honestly just box-checking process and that’s it. We want to believe everyone is out there “being a tech company” and “launching moonshots,” but that’s not really true. If anything, work has largely become more bureaucratic.

And that’s another important point too: In a bureaucracy, with more levels and more tiers — sometimes as many as 14 between top and bottom — well, that’s a lot of different people who can tell you “This is important!” or “This matters to the top guys!” when, in fact, it doesn’t and they have no idea it’s even a deliverable for someone.

A lot of work is about playing and pretending, so it’s ironic that professionalism is supposed to inhibit those characteristics in us aside from “Taco Tuesday” or WeWork keg beer or the periodic team happy hour. We play and pretend and puff about how important we are, but most of these projects don’t mean much to the people who generate the money to pay us. It’s a bit different if you solo-hustle or build, yes. But within the Office Game of Cubicles and Ladders, I’m largely speaking truth.

Oh and hey, what about “employee experience?”

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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