Organisations are made of unheroic work — those thousands of everyday actions and decisions that keep your particular engine turning. Hidden and often unexamined, it is the lion-share of what people do in their jobs.
I call the gap between what you say is most important and how people do that work the lost valley.
Unheroic work lives in the shadows. It’s often the last place people look for purpose and values to show up. So I’m on a mission to make that endeavour the first place they look.
Thinking more deeply about what you’re doing and how it happens can bring fresh air into the musty corners where purpose and values rarely reach. It’s not always little things. It is always under-appreciated.
Your organisation’s unheroic work might include …
Stocking the shelves
Entering the latest data
Greeting people who visit the office
Organising sandwiches for the workshop
Checking references of new hires
Pulling together the company newsletter
Making sure there is milk in the fridge and paper in the copy room
Meeting with the team to check on progress
Talking to someone unhappy about their work
Crunching numbers for the budget
Troubleshooting an outage
Setting up new users on the network
Answering the customer’s question again
Deciding who will get a credit account
Reviewing an insurance claim
Meeting another new prospect
Checking that materials from the supplier are on the way
Assigning people their shifts
Supporting a colleague who’s having a rough day
Proof-reading the tender document …
There’s plenty of low-hanging unheroic fruit. The easy to reach places you can put your purpose and values into action. To get beyond the obvious, you’ll need to climb into the branches of your operations.
Care about sustainability — easy to order jaunty rolls of Who Gives a Crap rather than whatever was cheapest to buy in bulk is easy enough. Less obvious to rethink processes and get rid of the legacy paper trails. Or for someone in finance to add your carbon footprint to the balance sheet.
Customers first tops your list — keeping your call centre in-house or local is a win-win. More radical is making part of everyone’s job, spending at least some time answering calls or working the front counter.
Innovation is your jam — stick a suggestion box channel on Slack to get you started. Still, good ideas can come from unexpected places, so don’t stop there. Invite someone from the warehouse or accounts to the next business brainstorming session. Follow 3M implementing 15 per cent time, a program allowing all employees to use paid time to blue sky their ideas (no, it wasn’t Google who did it first).
Quality is your bedrock — push past a standard guarantee. Then borrow from Patagonia and dig under how you think about quality and scour the enterprise for places to up the ante. Remove those corner piles of rubbish. Keep the work vans clean. Buy things that last and avoid no name, no stick Post-it notes (ok, that’s one of my pet peeves).
Find the intersection between your unheroic work and habits. Click here
Every day, people face choice about what they are doing and how they are doing it. Sometimes both are up for grabs. But, a lot of times, it’s only how.
Unheroic work is often individual, not collective, so it becomes business as usual and viewed as insignificant, almost unworthy of consideration.
Alain de Botton, modern philosopher and founder of the School of Life, captures the lost opportunity in his article about how working life can become more meaningful.
“Each of us considered singly may not be such an impressive thing but we rise to the grandeur of the projects we collectively engage in: a cathedral turns the humblest stonemason into a servant of the sublime.”
So too, when unheroic work is considered collectively and corralled towards what matters most, it’s possible to emerge from that lost valley as a beacon of identity in action. Proof-positive your purpose and values are what matter most.
What does your unheroic work reveal?
See you next time.