Optimising for Significance

It has been a couple of years since I first read John Doerr’s OKR classic Measure what Matters. You may remember my blog post at the time: There will be caveats: Warming cautiously to OKR. What I might not have mentioned then was that I very nearly didn’t read the book – I found the title quite off-putting!

My discomfort with Doerr’s title – misplaced as it turns out – is explained by a catchphrase I later coined: Meaning Before Method, one of two MBM’s which as a pair actually map very well to OKR.  In recent weeks I’ve read (or rather listened to) the book once more and enjoyed it. As for the title, more accurate but less catchy would be Measure things predictive of success in your clear and audacious objectives, taking care to preserve meaning. No issue with that!

I took the trouble this time to follow up on one of Doerr’s few references, in particular Dov Seidman’s How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything (another being former Intel chief Andy Grove’s High Output Management, which I am still to read). This early quote grabbed me, emphasis mine:

Think of it as a shift from valuing size to valuing significance. Conversations about “how much” constantly echo throughout business, politics, and our personal lives: How much revenue can we squeeze into this quarter? How much debt can we tolerate? How much growth can we generate? How big should government be? But “How much?” and “How big?” aren’t the right questions. Instead we should be asking how we can create organizations and societies that mirror our deepest values.

The expanded edition did feel a little long but I was rewarded for holding on until the end (emphasis his this time):

Before we part company, I want to leave you with one more paradox, the paradox of success, and it’s a corollary to the paradox of happiness. You cannot do success; you cannot achieve it by pursuing it directly. Success is something you get when you pursue something greater than yourself, and the word I use to describe that something is significance. All measures of success share one commonality: They signify the value of your passage through life. You can go on a journey of significance—a journey to do, make, extend, create, and support value in the world; and I believe, in the spirit of the Johnson & Johnson Credo, it is this journey that should bring you success, however you measure it.

Pursuing significance, in the end, is the ultimate how.

I talk quite a bit about meaning in work and I am resolved now to do the same with significance. Noting that close colleagues can vary hugely on the meaning they draw from their work (for some the craft, for some the challenge, for others the meeting of needs, for example), I should say that I don’t believe that anyone has the right to dictate how others draw meaning from their work. Helping them find it though, that’s another matter – it’s one bullet of my three-bullet summary definition of Servant Leadership (see the last chapter of my book Right to Left: The digital leader’s guide to Lean and Agile). Moreover, if leaders aren’t articulating credibly the significance of the work and encouraging others to explore and even challenge it – well that’s definitely a problem.

If optimising for value is a dead end (I can’t be alone in finding much of what is said in Agile circles about value delivery to be empty or even dysfunctional), perhaps we should be optimising instead for significance, expecting meaning (and other good things) to follow. I have a hunch that it’s going to be fun finding out what that really means.

What if we put authentic agreement on meaningful outcomes ahead of solutions?

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