San Gimignano towers

Working with intent

“Why?” is the question of the moment.

  • Why do you want me to do this?
  • Why are you doing that?

Fewer and fewer people accept what they are told at face value. Many organisations, professions and individuals are treated with a modicum of mistrust. Until we know and accept why someone is behaving as they are, we may be suspicious of their motives.

In particular, the way we think about work is changing. After a century of treating work as a mechanical activity, typified by the Taylorist school of management, we are being guided by a number of critical thinkers to wonder why things are organised the way they have been for so long. We know that even a simple instruction will often be freighted with meaning — the bigger picture. Until we know and accept what that picture shows, we may be cynical about the task.

San Gimignano towersThere are many reasons for this suspicion and cynicism. Everyone will have their own combination of factors. But one stands out for me. The pervasiveness of alternative sources of information means that it is harder to conceal the impact of decisions made.

These sources of information are not the traditional media or sanitised official channels, but networks of individuals sharing items of genuine interest. And in that sharing, as Euan Semple pointed out earlier this week, intent is critical.

Intent also came up in an article by Eric Kraus on Medium, “Social Intent:
Interested vs. Interesting”. Eric’s article is particularly illuminating in the way he distinguishes between the core intent prevalent in public social media and that which is most useful in the use of social tools within organisations.

Facebook and Twitter are social networking platforms I’m sure many of us are familiar with. They were created and became popular during the Culture of Personality. It’s not surprising these social platforms define success by things called “Likes” and “Favorites”. While there are many great benefits to these platforms, many people use them to share personal information. And on these tools…they strive to be the most “interesting” or liked person.

In our professional careers, having a message ‘Liked’ by our peers doesn’t necessarily have a great correlation to our success. So, it doesn’t make a lot of  sense that the way we use Facebook and Twitter today would be helpful in collaborating with or leading our teams.

I argue, it’s actually not a problem with the tools. It’s a problem with our intent. I’ve heard from many leaders who say they struggle with enterprise social because they fear posting messages that are not insightful to their team… Their intent is to be interesting. I think they have it backwards.

The ‘Culture of Personality’ that Krause refers to was posited by the historian Warren Susman as a development resulting from the 20th century decline in natural communities in favour of larger cities and organisations where it was hard to know people well.

During this time, we think of people with qualities like knowledge and communication skills. People valued “personality” more so than ever. Are you outgoing? A good public speaker? Are you liked among your peers?

In prior times, when small farming communities were more prevalent and people had real connections within and to those communities, Susman identified a ‘Culture of Character’.

We think of people during this time as having qualities like being helpful. People valued, above all else: “Character”. Were they good people? Were they generous? Did they benefit and provide value to their community?

Kraus argues that meaningful use of social tools within organisations demands that people use them with the kind of intent that comes with a culture of character.

This resonates with something I have linked to before — Pixar’s ways of selecting people to work well within that organisation. The key factors are described by Randy Nelson (then Dean of Pixar University and now Head of Artistic Development and Training at DreamWorks Animation) in this video clip.

The key section for now is transcribed below.

What we’ve gotta find is people who are extremely broad. And the predictor there, we want somebody who is more interested than they are interesting. Yeah, anybody can have a pink Mohawk and enough piercings so that wind blows, you whistle without pursing your lips.

That’s interesting and that’s easy to get. Interested is tough. That’s a real skill and I’m sure all of you have that sense, somebody in your life who you just always think of when you think, that’s the person I want to talk to. Why? Because they’re so bright? Yeah they’re bright. But what they do is they amplify me. They give me what I need. I say, I’ve got a problem and they lean in. They don’t say, “Oh yeah, I got problems too. I bet my problems are more interesting than your problems.” No. They want to know what you want to know. They want to know what’s bothering you.

That’s the kind of intent that builds an organisation where people should be less cynical and suspicious because they understand why others are behaving the way they are — their intent is clear.

Surely that is a meaningful goal for any organisation? Increasingly, good people will move away from the places where being interesting is valued more highly than being interested.

[Picture note: this is a view of the famous towers of San Gimignano, built for no other purpose than to express the power of rival Guelph and Ghibelline families.]

2 thoughts on “Working with intent”

  1. Interesting.

    I’ve long considered curiosity to be an asset: in relation to any area of work, and certainly in my own. (No kidding) I have this very lunchtime been thinking something similar to the topic of your post: that to be good at my job, to have any chance of success, I have to have complete conviction that what I am doing will create something of value. If I can’t be convinced myself, I have no chance of convincing others. I’m not a man of faith, so I have to investigate, research and question in order to find and test that conviction. Therefore, being interested is indeed the key.

    Thanks as always for feeding my curiosity.

    1. I like that way of putting it David. And your reliance on investigation, research and questioning must be right. I am sure we have both seen examples of conviction from blind faith leading organisations astray.

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