Want employees to find more fulfilment at work? Get them closer to the things you make and the people you make them for.

 

I recently watched the CEO of a packaged goods giant talk about the challenge of competing with the Silicon Valley for the best young talent in the US. After the talk, people in the audience were chatting about the coolness of startup culture, the lure of huge exits and replaying the excuse that only small businesses can really offer these things. I’d say there’s a third factor that matters more: these smaller businesses put employees closer to the process of creating value (the making real things for real people) which makes working for them more fulfilling.

The closer people are to the value businesses create, the more fulfilled they are, but as businesses grow, they put distance between the creation of value and most people’s day job.

On one of my favourite projects, a Fortune 500 company wanted a new product created from scratch in 8 weeks. In this instance, that wasn’t a lot of time, so they asked us what it would take to speed things up. We suggested relocating their New York-based team to a pop up studio in Bangkok for the duration of the project, putting them in the middle of the region they were designing for.

Over 8 weeks, we travelled across the region, spent time in the homes and lives of the real people we intended this solution to serve, engaged monks and traditional medicine experts for inspiration and insight, experienced the complexity of traditional retail up close, worked through 29 iterations of a solution and ended with an awesome product that’s now a real thing in market.

We’d solved a business problem, but we’d also watched a senior team come alive with a sense of purpose rooted in how their organization delivers value to the world.

 

 

Businesses create value by making useful things for real people. People in business derive value from their proximity to that process.

Smaller businesses have always kept people closer to the process of creating value. The first businesses made things in actual workshops, knew their customers because they sold to them directly, and responded to their needs intuitively. It’s no surprise to find that the introduction of job satisfaction surveys corresponds to the rise of the assembly line. Work that disconnects us from the bigger picture of how businesses create value for real people just isn’t satisfying.

When I watched the CEO on stage talk about competing with the Silicon Valley, it seemed to me that this competition is really about proximity to value creation. Smaller companies (even those with billion dollar valuations) have a habit of keeping employees closer to the making of products and the people that use them. That closeness benefits everyone: being closer to the process of creating useful things for real people leaves employees more fulfilled and results in products that are better designed to suit the needs of everyone.

Big businesses approach the creation of meaningful products and the creation meaning for employees as separate functions. The reality is that the former feeds the latter.

Maintaining that connection gets tricky as businesses get bigger, but it’s not impossible. We regularly work with companies that are creating innovation labs dedicated to eliminating distance between their employees, their consumers and the process of creating new products.

After years of putting distance between their people and what they do, businesses are re-connecting the dots. The result is more meaning for people at work and a learning that the closer we are to the things we make and the people we make them for, the more fulfilling work becomes.

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London and Singapore. We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.