Why the boring stuff matters

Lately I have been in the car a lot, and my strategy for making the drives enjoyable rather than dreaded has been listening to audiobooks. I recently finished As You Wish, which is the actor Cary Elwes’s reminiscences of the making of The Princess Bride. I will readily admit that I fall into the camp of those who think this is one of the best movies ever. Besides the fun of listening to Cary and the other actors tell their own stories, I was struck by the clear portrait it painted of the work of making a movie. It is amazing to think of all those smart creative people in a room (or soundstage) together. But it is also a good reminder that making a movie also involves more mundane work of fitting costumes, building sets, working through lines, and honestly, I imagine there is some boredom mixed in during all the waiting around.

I am not saying that movie stars are just the same as you and me, even when they admit to feelings of inadequacy and worries about being fired in print. But understanding the details — in fact, the banalities — of what other people do helps us to both build empathy and to find openings for forming better working and personal relationships as well as creating something new and transformative in the world.

There are many examples of how looking at everyday life has led to breakthrough products and services. One well known instance was the development of Yoplait’s Go-Gurt, which was inspired by Sue Squire’s direct observations of families at breakfast. Her work revealed that breakfast is more than eating — it is a confluence of social interactions, intentions, and availability.

In addition to opening up opportunities for new product development, understanding other peoples’ day to day activities and challenges can lead to better working relationships improve results for cross disciplinary teams. When individuals from different lines of management, working toward different objectives, are put together toward a “common goal,” it is crucial for them to understand that the common goal may not be the only goal, or even the most important goal, each of them has. I have frequently been in situations where I needed to work with colleagues in different parts of the organization. I have found it crucial to have at least a basic understanding of how they see their job and objectives, in order to know what else is pulling on their time and figuring into their priorities. At the very least the real empathy builds mutual understanding, and often can enable me to help them be more successful, rather than have them feel what I am asking of them is taking away from their primary goals.

This approach extends beyond working horizontally, and has helped me engage executives as well. Several years ago I ran an internal initiative to lead opportunity forums. This initiative began at the recommendation of one of the Big Consulting Firms during a corporate reorganization. The forums were framed as multiday events, built out of weeks or even months of advance work to bring together the appropriate data and people to brainstorm big ideas an build them out into strategic roadmaps. We engaged Smaller Consulting Group to help run the first couple of sessions, but unfortunately the roadmaps that emerged from these sessions were not gaining much internal traction. Looking closely, it wasn’t because they weren’t good ideas — it was because there wasn’t ownership.

Although internal sponsors had signed on, and had even participated in some advance meetings and the big workshops, they had not fully engaged with the process — they had not framed the big questions, and more importantly, they had not truly been part of the advance data gathering work. How could you expect a VP or above to commit that time?

When I took over the process, I adapted it to accommodate the schedule of the executives. They had to commit their time, but I narrowed the commitment to manageable working sessions, scheduled at their convenience. These were true working sessions, not a time of listening to reports and results. The executive and one or two direct reports, along with some other team members, actively engaged with the data and information. Later, over email, we would ask them to prioritize the outcomes they wanted to bring into the larger forum. These opportunity forums, which I adapted to the way executives work and the time they had to give, led to roadmaps that they were eager to own and pursue.

Understanding daily work of others does not mean you must then always be accommodating to their desires — but even being able to show you truly get it can lead to compromises all around, as well as increase the chances that others will be more open to hearing what you have to say. My work environments have not been as glamourous as movie sets. But I also know that movie sets may not be as glamourous as we imagine. At the same time, I am sure they, like any other environment of quotidian work, have many surprises hiding in their mundanity.