Why are you working on that?

Posted on February 21, 2022.
Not the reaction you want from your team.

If I asked you to look up from your work right now, pause and reflect on the question, “Why are you working on that?”, what would you answer? Would you tell me that it’s because your boss told you to? Would you say because it’s what your company or team has always done? Would you tell me that the scrum master or product owner prioritized it to the top of the backlog? Or would you simply give me one of these ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ? 

Purpose, alignment and strategy matter to your work

For most teams, though they’ll try to rationalize their work, the real answer is they don’t know. Regardless of whether it’s the way you’ve always done things or the big boss’ pet project, working without a clear sense of why ensures teams phone in their work. If you find yourself in this position, stop working right now. Stand up and walk over to your supervisor or stakeholder and ask them why this work is important.

The work you do along with your colleagues should have a shared purpose. You should all know that purpose. That purpose builds alignment. It allows you to point to another team and confidently say how their work aligns with yours and your shared purpose. Purpose and alignment stem from strategy. So many teams don’t know or can’t clearly articulate their product and corporate strategy. Sometimes it’s not shared by leadership. Other times teams don’t seek it out or ignore it. In either case, how do you know you’re doing good work if you can’t draw a line from what you’re doing to the overall goal?

Delivery as a goal is not a shared purpose

Building and shipping products and services is indeed The Work but it is not The Purpose of the work. You can deliver new work forever and never know if it was right, good or valuable work. Teams will often bond over the push to deliver work. This makes sense in that it provides a sense of alignment. “We’re building the mobile app and shipping it at the beginning of Q3!” When asked, the teams focused on this task will answer the why question with responses like, “Because we need a mobile app.” 

But the delivery of the mobile app in no way guarantees that you’ve delivered something usable, valuable or materially relevant to the strategic success of the company. Without a clear shared purpose it’s the delivery that gets celebrated and rewarded. If zero people actually use the mobile app, the teams who built it don’t care because they don’t have the broader context. 

Teams need strategic problems to solve

Align your teams instead with problems to solve. These problems should be strategically important and that context should be clearly articulated for the teams. Instead of pointing teams towards “building an app” point them to “create the most compelling mobile shopping experience” instead. Explain to them that mobile commerce is the primary form of commerce in your target market and that the market size opportunity increases your company’s top line revenue potential by 55%. Tell them a compelling story about the relevance of their work and the impact they’ll have on your customers and ultimately, your business. 

Remember, if teams know why they’re working on something they do better work, they collaborate more effectively and are actively on the lookout for better ways to achieve those strategic goals.