How Do We Make Meaningful Work?

March 28, 2017

We’re in San Francisco this week for the second half of our two-week whirlwind tour with our good friends at Apogee. They are in the process of writing a book and creating a conference about Make Meaningful Work. There’s a lot of overlap in thinking where Dan and Jo (who run Apogee) are at and where Kristin and I are at.

We want to make meaningful work. Of course, who doesn’t? But the truth is, we all contribute to meaningless work. Up to the point we decide to not do that. And that’s where we, the four of us, and others, find ourselves now.

Dan Szuc at a Refresh Portland event.

Dan presenting at Refresh Portland in Fine Design’s space.

Dan arrived in Portland from Hong Kong and the next day we drove to Seattle for a few days. I joined him for presentations at Facebook, Amazon, and the local IxDA chapter. After each presentation, Dan and I talked about what worked, and what didn’t, and refine the flow of the content. By the time we arrived back in Portland for a presentation at Refresh Portland, the presentation was in a great place and it found a willing and highly engaged audience. Not to brag too much about an event Kristin and I co-organize, of course.

Kristin driving, me navigating (“Go south on I-5 ‘til you get to San Francisco.”), and Dan reading.

Two days later, Kristin and I drove Dan to San Francisco, and picked up Jo at SFO on Sunday. We have a presentation scheduled Wednesday evening at WeWork, and we’re looking forward to seeing how the audience reacts and engages, what questions they have, and what ideas they have to make meaningful work. We’re also taking the opportunity to meet other people while we’re here and do some touristy things as well.

Dan, Jo, and Kristin on our first visit to Japantown.

The aspect of the Make Meaningful Work presentation that is somewhat a hard sell at this point is the fact that there aren’t any direct answers being given to event attendees on how to make meaningful work. Right now, the purpose is to establish a questioning framework, to help attendees understand their current state; which, or course, is the only way to get to a future state.

Design doesn’t hold the patent to making something meaningful. Neither does tech, or business, or any one industry. Ultimately, we all have to determine how we can make meaningful work for ourselves. We, as individuals, are the only ones we can control. We can influence others, through small nudges, to help them understand how best to make meaningful work, but ultimately it is up to us to figure out how to best contribute.

Me, Dan, and Jo. Likely the cover of our next album.

That said, we can be very intentional with how we work with others. It’s rare that we work alone. When we collaborate, we can start by agreeing how we want to work together. This is how we approach projects at Studio VO. It goes beyond, “you’re the designer, you’re the product manager, you’re the stakeholder.” We all have to play those roles, but ultimately we’ve come together, hopefully, to make something that has meaning and we don’t necessarily have to fall into Industrial Age hierarchies in order to accomplish our shared goals.

Making Meaningful Work isn’t a tool, or a process, or a method, or a book, conference, or anything else. Yet it will likely be all of those things. The important thing to remember is that it is an intention. It is a choice. And while it may be a choice that only those with the privilege of time will be able to act upon, it should be acted upon by all of us whenever we have the chance, and do it, as Jo says, one sparkle at a time.

Kristin and me on a trolley in San Francisco, running late for dim sum.

Studio VO will be collaborating with Apogee and other companies and individuals over the coming months and years to help define the questioning framework as well as generate some possible answers. We'll be helping with interviews for the Make Meaningful Work book, running workshops, and nudging along everyone we can to help people, teams, and companies identify better ways to work together and better work to focus on. 

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