Assessing The "Worthiness" Of Companies' Missions

Recently, I've stumbled upon a discussion somewhere (I believe it was on Quora) about whether people who state that they'd only work for companies with whose missions they can strong empathize are mostly being hypocritical. The author of this argument used Uber as an example, stating that it seemed highly unlikely that so many people had suddenly found themselves so interested to work for a company that at its core remained a taxi hailing business.

While I believe that Uber and its competitors are so much more than just taxi hailing services, I found the question itself rather intriguing. How much does the company's mission actually matter to most of us? Should it even matter? And how might we approach assessing this mission in the first place?

Those are, of course, deeply philosophical questions, and I don't entertain any illusions regarding my abilities to provide the answers that would be universally applicable to everyone. I also don't have any desire to argue whether people have to care about the mission of the companies they work for. Rather, I wanted to share my take on the second half of this question - how we might approach thinking about the companies' missions and values - in the context of the tech industry today.

First, it's useful to consider how the nature of the tech products we use has evolved over the last 10-15 years. In the past, we often evaluated the products and services we used based on the new features or functionality they offered us. Today, however, that's not the case anymore: we would often be hard pressed to name even a few new features the new generations of the apps and services we use bring us, and not because we don't care for that additional functionality, but rather because what we really value today above everything else is convenience.

The New York Times has just published an essay called "The Tyranny of Convenience" on exactly this topic, which I found rather entertaining. Still, the reason I believe the change in our priorities matters in the context of this post is that it actually makes so much more difficult to answer the questions asked in the second paragraph in any reasonable fashion.

In the world that valued features, assessing the importance of the work done by many tech companies was relatively easy: the users typically had a certain type of problem, or pain point, they required solving, which in turn created an opportunity for the companies to come with a software product, a hardware device, or some combination of both, that would allow to solve that issue. Of course, it was still entirely possible that the users didn't realize that they actually had a problem, but most of the time, at least some indicators were there: the office workers of the early 1980s probably didn't know that they desperately needed spreadsheets, but someone who decided to pay close attention to the work they were doing for a reasonable amount of time, might have noticed that there was a huge potential to digitize their activities, in one way or the other.

In the world of convenience, however, the situation seems remarkably different. First of all, the users often might not even realize that they have a problem to begin with. Did most of us know that we actually need that 2-hour guaranteed delivery? What about those sophisticated algorithms that allow us to create discover new compositions based on what we listened to in the past? Or the opportunity to upload the photos to the cloud on the PC, and immediately access them from our phones? There are a thousand things we can't imagine our lives without that we would have a really hard time even dreaming of 10 or 15 years ago.

Next, in this strange new world, there is no way to solve the problem once and for all, as there is often no limit to how much something can be improved upon. Getting a guaranteed 1-day delivery from Amazon is nice, but why not focus on 2-hour delivery next? Uber and Lyft might be so much more convenient that the traditional taxi services, but the cars could still arrive even faster, and, by the way, wouldn't it be nice if it cost less? And while Amazon Echo is helping us to make some of our routines so much more efficient, it can definitely be further improved by integrating with additional services, and employing more sophisticated machine learning capabilities.

All of that implies that there is no task or problem that isn't worth solving, as long as it improves the experience for the end users (not to mention that the large advances can sometimes start as minor efforts to solve a particular issue). By extension, this also means that the true complexity of the systems aiming to provide the users with a more convenient way of doing something is often hidden from the eyes of those users. Most of us have no idea of the amount of efforts behind Spotify recommendation engine we take for granted nowadays, or the cloud infrastructure that the majority of the services we interact with today are built upon, or Amazon 1-day guaranteed delivery. Moreover, we don't care: the entire point of convenience is that the users don't need to concern themselves with all of that to benefit from those services.

Now, going back to the initial argument, if we look at the Uber from the perspective of feature-driven world, it undoubtedly is just another taxi hailing service, albeit a much more convenient one compared to the traditional taxi services, where you had to call a local company on the phone. However, in the world of convenience, Uber and the likes of it are so much more than that: they help us save time and money, while also feeling more secure and experiencing a nicer way to travel. Moreover, they hold promise of bringing us an entirely new level of convenience in the years to come, once the self-driving cars hit the roads. And when you frame the problems Uber is trying to solve like that, it seems unsurprising that they might want to recruit some of the best engineers or businesspeople, or that those people would be genuinely interested to come work for Uber and its peers.

That, obviously, doesn't mean that everyone out there does (or even should) care for the mission of the companies they work for. Rather, I'd like to argue that the question itself is somewhat flawed, at least in relation to the tech companies, given the realities of the world today.

Learning To Appreciate The Design Thinking Process

One of the degrees I'm pursuing right now is MS in Design Innovation (the other being MBA from Kellogg School of Management), and one of the key goals for this program is to immerse the students in the design thinking process (if interested, you can read more about it here).

You might argue that I must have been interested in learning about the design thinking if I chose to pursue this program. The truth is that I was actually fairly skeptical about the entire concept. While I liked the idea of learning about using a holistic approach when it comes to innovation, and appreciated the importance of human-centered design at a high level, I wasn't necessarily convinced of the value of specific processes and frameworks associated with the design thinking. I generally tend to question any kind of process that you are asked to just blindly follow, plus it didn't seem plausible that any kind of "creative" thinking could be done by following on a specific set of guidelines.

Suffice to say, my opinion has changed a lot since then. After applying the design thinking principles to the challenges posed by Harley-Davidson and McDonalds on multiple occasions, I can safely say that while the design thinking process might not be entirely perfect, it sure does help to evaluate the situation at hand, tackle complex problems, and then guide the search for appropriate solutions. And, funnily enough, it's the structure of this approach that I appreciate the most now.

Take, for example, the step when you are being asked to come up with the insights and so called 'How Might We?'s based on your initial primary research results. Truth be told, at first, I was fairly frustrated with the entire idea. Why do we need to do it this way? What's the value of coming up with those (rather generic) insights? How does putting every problem assessment in the rigid 'How Might We' structure going to help us? And why the hell aren't you allowed to criticize the ideas the others came up with?

Well, turns out all of that was for a reason. Coming up with the insights and HMWs helps to distill the key points uncovered by your research. Putting everything in the same format helps to be able to assess the ideas more easily. And building off the others' ideas instead of arguing about their viability helps to ensure that everyone on the team feels comfortable to share, and as a result allows you to capture the entire breadth of the insights.

There are two takeaways here, as I see it. First, while the healthy skepticism about the processes being pushed on you might be a good thing, it's also worth looking into the underlying reasons for those principles to exist in the first place: one might find that the approach in question is actually more than reasonable. Second, even when feeling uncomfortable about a particular routine, it often makes sense to go with it a couple of times to see what results it would yield: you might be surprised by how effective it turns out to be. While those insights might look obvious, they certainly weren't for me (and, I suspect, wouldn't necessarily have been for others as well).