If there is a lesson I am happy to re-learn many times it is the important of purpose in numerous organizational contexts. Its importance for employees’ happiness, for long-term organizational success and for alignment of strategy never ceases to amaze me. In the last few days, I encountered a number of reminders for its importance.
In the fascinating TED talk above Barry Schwartz gives many examples for the importance of practical wisdom. One of them is other the story of Judge Russell:
Judge Russell created the Veterans’ Court. It was a court only for veterans who had broken the law. And he had created it exactly because mandatory sentencing laws were taking the judgment out of judging. No one wanted non-violent offenders — and especially non-violent offenders who were veterans to boot — to be thrown into prison. They wanted to do something about what we all know, namely the revolving door of the criminal justice system. And what the Veterans’ Court did, was it treated each criminal as an individual, tried to get inside their problems, tried to fashion responses to their crimes that helped them to rehabilitate themselves, and didn’t forget about them once the judgment was made. Stayed with them, followed up on them, made sure that they were sticking to whatever plan had been jointly developed to get them over the hump.
This reminded me of something I wrote almost two years ago:
I don’t remember where exactly I read it. I think it was in one of Marcus Buckingham’s books. Anyway, the writer described an interview with a manager of the prison authority in England. That manager told the interviewer about the ways in which that organization became much more effective. Now, when you think of a prison, you would probably think about things in the lines of tightening security. But the most important activity that was described had to do with the way the prison authority measured its effectiveness. Instead of measuring how many people got out or escaped, which was the traditional way to measure the effectiveness of prisons, the manager changed the way that organization measured it success. They started measuring how many people who got out of prison legitimately, returned to prison. The manager said that he realized that the objective of a prison is to make sure prisoners who return to society don’t go back to the life of crime. In how many other places in life do we still measure the wrong thing because of habit or because of the available data?
I think the two stories are connected. Later in the talk Schwartz explains that none of the Vets that appeared before the special court have re-lapsed. None. 108 success stories. When you think about it through the lenses of the right measurement you understand how profound an achievement it is.
And this made even more sense when I read this paragraph from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning:
Much of what modern workers are required to do on the job is dictated by demands that make sense at some higher organizational level, but are obscure to the worker. Why do we need to fill out these forms? What is the purpose of this rule? What is the outcome of this process? And often even if the worker understands what she is doing, it is not clear to her why. Yet without well-defined goals, both long-term and moment by moment, it is difficult to enjoy what one is doing.
Do I really need to spell out the connection? I don’t think so. It is obvious. I wish it was also more common.