Madison, Wisconsin

This is the third in my series of Suit Yourself essays.

In my experience, people are happy, energized and productive at work when they:

  • know what will count - and be rewarded - as success
  • spend their time doing things that obviously matter
  • do work that capitalizes on their strengths, and
  • work in an environment that encourages and rewards straight talk

No surprises there, right? If that’s so obvious, how come companies aren’t set up that way? Why does study after study continue to indicate that people hate to get up and go to work? Most of us are not even close to content, let alone happy, energized and productive. Why not?

I think it’s primarily because work usually lacks compelling meaning and, despite all our protestations to the contrary, we crave compelling meaning in everything we do. We are not robots, after all, so why would we be satisfied to spend the bulk of our waking hours doing something that doesn’t seem to matter much one way or the other?

Whether your perspective is a senior manager’s or a non-supervisory worker’s or anyone’s in between, you’re probably thinking right about now: "Happy, energized and productive? Sure, it would be great, but there are too many different kinds of people and one size doesn’t fit all and, really, our company doesn’t produce anything earth-shattering, we just make widgets, and the widget-making and number-crunching and mail delivery, etc., etc., etc. all have to get done and there isn’t enough time to insist on meaning or happiness. Who is this woman kidding?"

Also, no matter who you are (unless you used to work with me), you’re wondering why this essay is entitled "Madison, Wisconsin." Here's why.

I have always been struck by how willing most people are to plow ahead without first articulating (1) where they’re headed and (2) why it’s important for them to get there. The more people I became responsible for as a leader and manager, the more I noticed this and the more it looked like the root cause of employee dissatisfaction.

Driving from Chicago to Madison, Wisconsin one day to visit my sister and her family, my own kids asleep in the back, I realized that a car trip was a perfect analogy for illustrating – and, I hoped, solving – this problem. Thus, my "Madison, Wisconsin" allegory was born and it has served me well (not unlike the real place, which is also quite nice).

Here’s how it goes.  Say you’re in Chicago and you’ve decided to go to Madison,
Wisconsin.  That’s your plan.  Pretty quickly after articulating that, you’re likely to
ask yourself, “Highway 90 or Highway 94?  Which car shall I take?  Will the family
want to come?  What time shall we leave?  How about stopping for lunch?  Who will
drive?  Since it’s mostly west, if it’s sunny and we leave in the afternoon, won’t we
have terrible headaches by the time we get there?” and so on.
 
These questions all relate to specific actions or tactics, the kinds of things we all do
every day.  Let’s call them, collectively, the 90-94 level.  There are a few critical
things to understand about 90-94 level actions.  First, there are millions of them. 
Second, they’re relatively easy to identify, understand and measure.  Third, people just love them.  Once you get on a roll, you can completely forget that it’s Madison,
Wisconsin you’re trying to get to and get all revved up over the pie place just off 94
or the need to pack aspirin for those sunset-induced headaches or putting gas in the
car or who’s going to drive.  It’s a lot to think about and there are lots of choices.
 
It’s very hard to make meaningful and aligned decisions on tactics because the
choice among the millions of possibilities seems more a matter of personal
preference than a matter of importance that will affect outcome or impact results.

And that’s true:  in a vacuum, there’s nothing inherently better or worse about 90 or
94.  They’re both perfectly nice roads with too much traffic and construction, and
they’ll both get you from Chicago to Madison.

Dithering over which 90-94 level actions to take is futile and fruitless.  What we need
is a framework, a context, a goal – something to add meaning and measurement
standards to the mix and to make a good decision possible.
 
You might think your plan – getting to Madison – will do the trick here, but try it and
you’ll see that it won’t make the 90-94 decision much easier.  That’s because getting
to Madison is an outcome, not a goal.  An outcome cannot, by itself, make one set of
90-94 level tactics clearly better than another.

If you want to take sensible actions - the kind that will successfully, effectively and productively get you to your goal, here is what you need: 

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