Sunday, May 20, 2012

On Work

Whenever possible, I try to go to an open space with the kids. I have one I can take them too. Even though it's getting impossibly hot here, if you get out early enough you can get some half-decent weather. Like any well-meaning-well-informed parent I wanted these visits to be "engaging", and a bit more than a mere "visit". But for the longest time it would be a brief stroll, a look here and there, and over. I would try and get a conversation going on the trees around, or taking a run or whatever but it would not go far.

This time it was different. We were walking along the strip that was to have been the walking path (or jogging track if you will). In reality, however, it was a non-path which was poorly leveled and full of weeds, pebbles and had the occasional pot hole. On an instinct, or impulse, I picked up a dried twig and walked about 50 yards down the non-path and etched a line on the ground. Then I walked back to where we had been standing, bent over, and started pulling some weeds out and tossing away pebbles to clear the path. I don't think I said anything. Within a couple of minutes both children were doing the same. A few minutes later a couple of spades and a shovel appeared. That heightened interest further. We figured there were three kinds of tasks to get the job done: pulling out weeds and stones; clearing out the hedge-bed that lined the path; and leveling. We learned that the spade works better with smaller weeds and the larger ones are best pulled out by hand. We took turns initially and then either figured what they were best/fastest at doing; and left the rest to me :). For 45 minutes we were at it non-stop; it was hot and we sweated immensely. We then needed some celebration. A water sprinkler appeared and we sprayed the stretch with water - as also each other; and then a final round of leveling. We were done. Water tasted so good. The 13-year old marveled at the effort it would take to fix the entire path and said: "We will never ever grudge paying someone who works with their hands."

In management literature these days there is far too much talk of "engagement" and too little of work. No doubt engagement is an important pre-requisite for/ by-product of work getting done consistently. However, I think having a visible work product which is different from when you started, is the most essential aspect of work. That is what brings meaning and satisfaction, and the desire to do it again. From school you may remember the equation : 

W = F.d   or Work = Force x Distance 

If distance is zero, work is zero. Also there is an arrow under F usually (which I am unable to insert here for some reason) to signify that only the component of the work in the direction of the movement does work. So, when in a workplace I would look for visible effort (F) and some visible difference (d) as a result of that effort i.e. the visible "after-effect" or result.

Actually this is true for any vibrant, productive, and worthwhile place - school, hospital, playground etc. Which is why sometimes even a walk-through will give you a fairly accurate sense of what the place is about. Is effort being made? Are there any visible work-products around? 

And like I found out on this hot summer day : Having a goal (the end-line), tools (spades), roles, and some fun (the sprinkler) all help. As does having someone who is willing to do what it takes, irrespective of whether the others are doing it or not. Then they usually join in.

What do you think?


  1. Awestruck and *respect*.

    Confused on two fronts:

    1) Is there a way to instill the same belief in the whole team as you see it?

    2) Will the spill over effect be always there on those who aren't working?

  2. I am not sure if belief (or values,or interest, or ownership etc) can be "instilled". However, some conditions can be created where stuff like this tends to thrive. At least that's what my experience is. No guarantees on the spill over effect! But more likely than not at least one guy will shift over to your queue...:)