The Importance of Important Work

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The pandemic has stressed many organizations to adapt to new circumstances.  The nuclear industry is no different.  However, the good news is many parts of the industry have had their best year ever in terms of operational performance.  But can this be?  Huge numbers of workers were sent home to remotely support the sites, compliance oversight was reduced, and the cadence and means of working at the sites shifted considerably as the industry struggled to figure out how to effectively function in these new circumstances.  If you were to ask industry executives a year ago how the industry would fare given such conditions, they would have universally said that operational performance would nose-dive.  But it didn’t.  It actually got better.

This has elicited much handwringing across the industry as they struggle to understand this dynamic.  How could these results be real?  The answer, of course, is pretty simple and instructive in how it might inform any industry or organization.  The answer to this puzzle is in understanding the impact that important work has on an organization.

COVID represents what I call an ‘Aligning Event’.  Organizations often perform very well in situations where everyone is aware that in order to be successful, they have to fully engage, provide high levels of discretionary effort and quickly discern what is important, and what is not.  The event aligns the organization.  This dynamic reminds me of videos I have seen where a car has somehow rolled onto someone in an accident, and bystanders immediately jump into action.  The work is transparently and critically important, and time is of the essence.  People quickly try different things to move the car off the victim.  They quickly sort themselves and take on different roles; some lift, others try to communicate to the injured, others let the lifters know in real time whether their efforts are working and not causing more harm, still others direct traffic.  There are no team builds, or committee meetings, or planning sessions. People instinctively begin coordinating and collaborating to lift the car off of the unfortunate victim. 

COVID provided a similar dynamic to the industry.  Given the wholesale changes in personnel and process the industry underwent in very short time span, everyone in the industry from executives down to the craft sensed the criticality of maintaining effective operations.  Communication rapidly increased, people quickly discerned important work from the unimportant; and discarded the later.  Teams quickly cycled through different ways of communicating, coordinating, and collaborating to hone-in on what worked and what did not, and managers were forced to grant greater autonomy than they ever had before.  There was a legitimate emergency, and these highly trained professionals responded as they do when engaged in critically important work.  In other words, leadership began to break out all over the place.

What lessons can we glean from this case study?  Recognizing how people respond to important work, I usually advise organizations to think carefully about how they frame the work they do.  Important work catalyzes engagement, curiosity, constructive challenge, and discretionary effort.  Conversely, unimportant work leads to apathy, variable engagement, disinterest and destructive conflict.  This being the case, it makes sense for us to be sure that we are discerning about the work we do and effectively framing the important work we have.  And to proactively discard the unimportant work that we are so often driven to do.  It is critically important to make sure that people are very clear about why the work you are engaged in is important.  And to revisit that importance regularly.  There is great power in this.

It also makes sense for leaders to ensure that the organization actually has ‘a mountain to climb’, as one leader I worked with termed it.  Organizations whose focus is to simply keep the trains running on time and the lights on tend to have more cyclical operational excellence.  Their performance tends to wander because people are engaged in what they would often consider routine and often unimportant work.  Setting stretch goals and leveraging aligning events to accomplish important work drives the organization to adapt and figure out how to achieve its goals.  In the same way that exercise stresses the body, and in turn prompts the body to build muscle mass and cardiovascular capacity, difficult and important work prompts the organization to build greater levels of organizational capacity.  Unintuitively, causing what we might call ‘harm’ to the organization tends to make it better.  But be careful that you do not cause permanent injury.

The big picture lesson is that leaders should modulate important work over time.   Ensure that there is an effective time for celebration after accomplishing the work, but after which time, the next goal is set; the organization positioned for next mountain to climb. 

Important work is the key to creating high performing organizations and teams.  When work is important, people want to accomplish it, they want to engage with it, and they are willing to lend their most extravagant efforts to ensure its success.  Conversely, unimportant work has the opposite effect.  And we do far too much unimportant work.

In a real way, if you want teamwork, then give the team work.  Or more precisely, give the team important work.

Thane Bellomo is an organizational development consultant working in the nuclear industry.  He is an author, speaker and has consulted with Fortune 500 companies for over 20 years studying how leaders and organizations most effectively form and function.