There is an interesting phenomenon that I’m noticing with many groups with whom I work at the moment. If you ask people what it is that their “customers” (the people to whom they provide a product or service) need their services for, they will (more often than not) reply with a description of their service, not the need that it might be addressing.

Let me give you a fictional example. If you ask a bricklayer why their customer needs their services, “Because they need some bricks laying” is an example of simply describing the thing, whereas “Because they need to construct a new building” starts to push at the need and “Because they need more space for their growing family” goes back a stage further.

It is, I guess, another take on the hackneyed old (and almost certainly apocryphal) story about JFK asking a janitor what they were doing when sweeping the floors at NASA and being told that they were putting a man on the moon. But that (along with the Sir Christopher Wren and Pope/Leonardo variants that I’ve heard over the years) is about singularity of organisational mission. Understanding the underlying needs that you address in your work is much more granular.

It’s important, though. If you don’t understand why it is that what you do might be important to someone else, how are you ever going to do it better? Or know if it might be time to stop?

Maybe it is a symptom of the specialisation that is so encouraged within our scaled organisations? That we are encouraged to become so expert in what we do that we lose sight of why what we do might be of value?

Whatever, when it comes to times of change – whether to improve what you do and how you do it, or in times of disruption when what you do is under existential threat, if people generally can’t express the value to their customers of what it is that they do, there is going to be trouble ahead.

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