More on Purpose

Regular readers may be familiar with the name Carolyn Tate from my previous blogs on purpose, and the Slow School of Business. Last week, Carolyn launched her latest book, The Purpose Project, a distillation of the past seven years of her work, and quite possibly a road map for anyone wanting to take control of their own destiny at work.

I would describe The Purpose Project as a cross between a first aid kit for a disillusioned workforce and a survival guide for the modern workplace. But as with defining your own “purpose”, the value is in the mind of the reader, rather than in any prescriptive solution or outcome.

Having spent the past few years working with Carolyn at Slow School, I know that her views on this topic have subtly changed. Slow School itself initially appealed to, and was designed for, independent consultants (“solopreneurs”) and aspiring consultants (“corporate escapees”). But as the concept of finding purpose in our work has started to take hold, Carolyn now encourages her readers to find their own purpose where they are, rather than rushing headlong into a new job, a new company, a new career or even into entrepreneurship (which as we know, isn’t for everyone).

I first connected with Carolyn at the Slow School, when I was exploring my own purpose as an independent consultant (and sometime corporate escapee….). Slow School provides a community of like-minded souls with a “safe” space to test new ideas, a playground to kick around new concepts, and an environment to challenge our own assumptions. Unsurprisingly, a key part of The Purpose Project is a list of 50 questions designed to help readers dig deeper into their own purpose, modeled on the Japanese concept of ikigai”. There are also some tools and practices to bring purpose to life in our current work.

In my own case, I still think my purpose is a work in progress, and is never settled – much of my career has been driven by a need for new ideas and experiences, work that is intellectually stimulating, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning (while feeding an enduring curiosity and maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism). These factors, even more than formal qualifications or faddish management theories, have helped me to build resilience and navigate a rapidly changing work environment.

One point where I may disagree with Carolyn is this notion about finding purpose through staying in your current role or workplace – that it’s not necessary to leave. While I agree that it may be possible to reshape your current job to suit your personal needs and preferences, staying in an unrewarding job or remaining with an organisation that does not value you is like persevering with an unhealthy relationship.

In short, I’m quite pessimistic about the ability for large corporations and large institutions (as they are currently framed and constituted) to help us connect with our individual purpose, or even to provide the space to do so. And of course, rapid changes in the very nature of work, the way we work, the economic structures and business models that have traditionally underpinned employment and the value exchange of labour require us to take more control over where, how and with whom we choose to spend our working time.

Next week: Agtech Pitch Night at SproutX



Expert vs Generalist

My recent blog on the importance of experts prompted one reader to comment that he preferred the term “specialist” (in a non-medical sense) to “expert”. This got me thinking about the notion of “experts” as distinct from “generalists”, and whether we need to re-evaluate our assessment of skill, competence and aptitude when assessing someone’s suitability for a task, project or role. (And these days, is “generalist” itself something of a pejorative term?)

A few days later, I was having coffee with a strategic consultant who is known as a future thinker. He describes himself as an “extreme generalist” (with no hint of irony), because he has wide-ranging and multiple interests, some of which, of course, he has deep domain knowledge and experience. But because his work and his curiosity take him into different realms, he maintains a broad perspective which also allows for the cross-pollination of ideas and concepts. (I think we all recognize the value of analogy when problem solving – taking the learning from one discipline and applying it to a new scenario.)

Separately, but in a similar vein, I was discussing career options with a senior banking executive, who did not want to be pigeon-holed as a banker, because her core skills and professional experience would lend themselves to many industries, not just financial services. So in her case, this expertise would best be applied in a particular type of role, not in a specific domain, or a specialist capability.

And during an earlier discussion on leadership with yet another futurist, I found myself debating the notion of situational styles, as opposed to structural models – both of which require skill and expertise for CEOs and managers to be successful. But broad experience will be just as important as formal methodologies, and general business knowledge just as valuable as technical specialisation. (On reflection, as with so many constructs, it’s not a case of either/or – more a question of adaptation and dynamics.)

As a result of this ongoing dialogue, I was challenged to develop what I might describe as a 3-D model, comprising the following axes:

“Generalist”/”Specialist”: In product management terms, for example, the generalist understands the full end-to-end customer life cycle and the production process. Whereas, a specialist might know their particular part of the process extremely well, but has little to no awareness or understanding of what might come before or after. (Think of those frustrating customer calls to utility, telco and insurance companies – in fact, any business with highly siloed operations – where you get passed from one “specialist” to another, often revealing contradictory information along the way.) At the extremes, this dimension might be described as the difference between knowing a subject “a mile wide and an inch deep”, and knowing it “a mile deep and an inch wide”.

“Novice”/”Veteran”: This is probably obvious, but I don’t necessarily mean seniority, age or tenure in a specific role. When it comes to new technology, for example, someone who is new to the role, but who has just been trained on the latest software and equipment, may have better technical ability than someone who has been doing the same role for several years (and thus, has more knowledge and experience), but has not refreshed their skills. Although I concede that in many situations the incumbent veteran may have better developed problem-solving, trouble-shooting and decision-making capabilities. This axis is also really important to consider when transitioning older employees to new roles within the same organisation or team – if they were younger, they would probably be given more time to adjust, adapt and grow into the role. Whereas, an older employee may simply be expected to “pick it up” much more quickly, with less leeway for learning on the job, because of assumed expertise.

“Broad”/Narrow”: Here I am thinking about aptitude, rather than the degree of specialisation. Drawing on the idea of using analogies, someone with wide experience and a broad perspective (sees the big picture, displays both critical and design thinking) will have quite different qualities to someone with a very narrow focus (especially within a very specific domain or area of practice). Based on the particular context, do you need an all-rounder, or a placekicker? This axis also relates to the age-old issue of organisations only wanting to hire square pegs for square holes – it might make sense in the short-term, but risks stagnation and lack of fresh thinking over the long-term.

Assessed along these three dimensions, we might see that an “expert” could be qualified according to how highly they rate based on their overall “depth”, measured by criteria such as experience, knowledge and reputation, as well as formal qualifications.

Next week: Making an Impact at Startup Victoria’s Pitch Night


The Future of Work = Creativity + Autonomy

Some recent research from Indiana University suggests that, in the right circumstances, a stressful job is actually good for you. Assuming that you have a sufficient degree of control over your own work, and enough individual input on decision-making and problem-solving, you may actually live longer. In short, the future of work and the key to a healthy working life is both creativity and autonomy.

Time to re-think what the “dignity of labour” means? (Image sourced from Discogs)


In a previous blog, I discussed the changing economic relationship we have with work, in which I re-framed what we mean by “employment”, what it means to be “employed”, and what the new era of work might look like, based on a world of “suppliers” (who offer their services as independent contractors) and “clients” (who expect access to just-in-time and on-demand resources).

The expanding “gig economy” reinforces the expectation that by 2020, average job tenure will be 3 years, and around 40% of the workforce will be employed on a casual basis (part-time, temporary, contractor, freelance, consultant etc.). The proliferation of two-sided market places such as Uber, Foodera, Freelancer, Upwork, Sidekicker, 99designs, Envato and Fiverr are evidence of this shift from employee to supplier.

We are also seeing a trend for hiring platforms that connect teams of technical and business skills with specific project requirements posted by hiring companies. Many businesses understand the value of people pursuing and managing “portfolio careers”, because companies may prefer to access this just-in-time expertise as and when they need it, not take on permanent overheads. But there are still challenges around access and “discovery”: who’s available, which projects, defining roles, agreeing a price etc.


Meanwhile, employers and HR managers are re-assessing how to re-evaluate employee contribution. It’s not simply a matter of how “hard” you work (e.g., the hours you put in, or the sales you make). Companies want to know what else you can do for them: how you collaborate, do you know how to ask for help, and are you willing to bring all your experience, as well as who and what you know to the role? (As a case in point, when Etsy’s COO, Linda Kozlowski was recently asked about her own hiring criteria, she emphasized the importance of critical thinking, and the ability for new hires to turn analysis into actionable solutions.)

In another blog on purpose, I noted that finding meaningful work all boils down to connecting with our values and interests, and finding a balance between what motivates us, what rewards us, what we can contribute, and what people want from us. As I wrote at the time, how do we manage our career path, when our purpose and our needs will change over time? In short, the future of work will be about creating our own career opportunities, in line with our values, purpose and requirements.*


From an economic and social policy perspective, no debate about the future of work can ignore the dual paradoxes:

  1. We will need to have longer careers (as life expectancy increases), but there will be fewer “traditional” jobs to go round;
  2. A mismatch between workforce supply and in-demand skills (plus growing automation) will erode “traditional” wage structures in the jobs that do remain

Politicians, economists and academics have to devise strategies and theories that support social stability based on aspirational employment targets, while recognising the shifting market conditions and the changing technological environment. And, of course, for trade unions, more freelance/independent workers and cheaper hourly rates undermine their own business model of an organised membership, centralised industrial awards, enterprise bargaining and the residual threat of industrial action when protective/restrictive practices may be under threat.

Which is why there needs to be a more serious debate about ideas such as the Universal Basic Income, and grants to help people to start their own business. On the Universal Basic Income (UBI), I was struck by a recent interview with everyone’s favourite polymath, Brian Eno. He supports the UBI because:

“…we’re now looking towards a future where there will be less and less employment, inevitably automation is going to make it so there simply aren’t jobs. But that’s alright as long as we accept the productivity that the automations are producing feeds back to people ….. [The] universal basic income, which is basically saying we pay people to be alive – it makes perfect sense to me.”

If you think that intellectuals like Eno are “part of the problem“, then union leaders like Tim Ayres (who advocates the “start-up grant”), actually have more in common with Margaret Thatcher than perhaps they realise. It was Thatcher’s government that came up with the original Enterprise Allowance Scheme which, despite its flaws, can be credited with launching the careers of many successful entrepreneurs in the 1980s. Such schemes can also help the workforce transition from employment in “old” heavy industries to opportunities in the growing service sectors and the emerging, technology-driven enterprises of today.


I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever our chosen or preferred career path, it is essential to engage with our creative outlets: in part to provide a counterbalance to work/financial/external demands and obligations; in part to explore alternative ideas, find linkages between our other interests, and to connect with new and emerging technology.

In discussing his support for the UBI, Eno points to our need for creativity:

“For instance, in prisons, if you give people the chance to actually make something …. you say to them ‘make a picture, try it out, do whatever’ – and the thrill that somebody gets to find that they can actually do something autonomously, not do something that somebody else told them to do, well, in the future we’re all going to be able to need those kind of skills. Apart from the fact that simply rehearsing yourself in creativity is a good idea, remaining creative and being able to go to a situation where you’re not told what to do and to find out how to deal with it, this should be the basic human skill that we are educating people towards and what we’re doing is constantly stopping them from learning.”

I’ve written recently about the importance of the maker culture, and previously commented on the value of the arts and the contribution that they make to society. There is a lot of data on the economic benefits of both the arts and the creative industries, and their contribution to GDP. Some commentators have even argued that art and culture contribute more to the economy than jobs and growth.

Even a robust economy such as Singapore recognises the need to teach children greater creativity through the ability to process information, not simply regurgitate facts. It’s not because we might need more artists (although that may not be a bad thing!), but because of the need for both critical AND creative thinking to complement the demand for new technical skills – to prepare students for the new world of work, to foster innovation, to engage with careers in science and technology and to be more resilient and adaptive to a changing job market.


As part of this ongoing topic, some of the questions that I hope to explore in coming months include:

1. In the debate on the “Future of Work”, is it still relevant to track “employment” only in statistical terms (jobs created/lost, unemployment rates, number of hours worked, etc.)?

2. Is “job” itself an antiquated economic unit of measure (based on a 9-5, 5-day working week, hierarchical and centralised organisational models, and highly directed work practices and structures)?

3. How do we re-define “work” that is not restricted to an industrial-era definition of the “employer-employee/master-servant” relationship?

4. What do we need to do to ensure that our education system is directed towards broader outcomes (rather than paper-based qualifications in pursuit of a job) that empower students to be more resilient and more adaptive, to help them make informed decisions about their career choices, to help them navigate lifelong learning pathways, and to help them find their own purpose?

5. Do we need new ways to evaluate and reward “work” contribution that reflect economic, scientific, societal, environmental, community, research, policy, cultural, technical, artistic, academic, etc. outcomes?

* Acknowledgment: Some of the ideas in this blog were canvassed during an on-line workshop I facilitated last year on behalf of Re-Imagi, titled “How do we find Purpose in Work?”. For further information on how you can access these and other ideas, please contact me at:

Next week: Designing The Future Workplace

What might we expect in 2017?

On a number of measures, 2016 was a watershed year. Unexpected election results, fractious geopolitics, numerous celebrity deaths, too many lacklustre blockbuster films, spectacular sporting upsets (and regular doping scandals), and sales of vinyl records are outpacing revenue from digital downloads and streaming services. What might we expect from 2017?

Detail from "The Passing Winter" by Yayoi Kusama (Photo by Rory Manchee)

Detail from “The Passing Winter” by Yayoi Kusama [Photo by Rory Manchee]

Rather than using a crystal ball to make specific predictions or forecasts, here are some of the key themes that I think will feature in 2017:

First, the nature of public discourse will come under increased scrutiny. In the era of “post-truth”, fake news and searing/scathing social commentary, the need for an objective, fact-based and balanced media will be paramount. In addition, the role of op-ed pieces to reflect our enlightened liberal traditions and the need for public forums to represent our pluralist society will be critical to maintaining a sense of fairness, openness, and just plain decency in public dialogue.

Second, a recurring topic of public conversation among economists, politicians, sociologists, HR managers, career advisors, bureaucrats, union leaders, technologists, educators and social commentators will be the future of work. From the impact of automation on jobs, to the notion of a universal basic income; from the growth of the gig economy, to finding purpose through the work we do. How we find, engage with and navigate lifelong employment is now as important as, say, choosing high school electives, making specific career choices or updating professional qualifications.

Third, the ongoing focus on digital technology will revolve around the following:

  • The Internet of Things – based on a current exhibit at London’s Design Museum, the main use cases for IoT will continue to be wearable devices (especially for personal health monitoring), agriculture, transport and household connectivity
  • Fintech – if a primary role of the internet has been for content dissemination, search and discovery, then the deployment of Blockchain solutions, the growth in crypto-currencies, the use of P2P platforms and the evolution of robo-advice are giving rise to the Internet of Money
  • Artificial Intelligence – we are seeing a broader range of AI applications, particularly around robotics, predictive analytics and sensory/environmental monitoring. The next phase of AI will learn to anticipate (and in some cases moderate) human behaviour, and provide more efficacious decision-making and support mechanisms for resource planning and management.
  • Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality – despite being increasingly visible in industries like gaming, industrial design, architecture and even tourism, it can feel like VR/AR is still looking for some dedicated use cases. One sector that is expected to benefit from these emerging technologies is education, so I would expect to see some interesting solutions for interactive learning, curriculum delivery and student assessment.

Fourth, and somewhat at odds with the above, the current enthusiasm for the maker culture is also leading to a growing interest in products that represent craft, artisan and hand-made fabrication techniques and traditions. Custom-made, bespoke, personalized and unique goods are in vogue – perhaps as a reaction to the “perfection” of digital replication and mass-production?

Fifth, with the importance of startups in driving innovation and providing sources of new economic growth, equity crowdfunding will certainly need to come of age. Thus far, this method of fund-raising has been more suited (and in many cases, is legally restricted) to physical products, entertainment assets, and creative projects. The delicate balance between retail investor protection and entrepreneurial access to funding means that this method of startup funding is constrained (by volume, amounts and investor participation), and contrary to stated intentions, can involve disproportionate set up costs and administration. But its time will come.

Finally, as shareholder activism and triple bottom line reporting become more prevalent (combined with greater regulatory and compliance obligations), I can see that corporate governance principles are increasingly placing company directors in the role of quasi-custodians of a company’s assets and quasi-trustees of stakeholder interests. It feels like boards are now expected to be the conscience of the company – something that will require directors to have greater regard to the impact of their decisions, not just whether those decisions are permitted, correct or good.

One thing I can predict for 2017, is that Content in Context will continue to comment on these topics, and explore their implications, especially as I encounter them through the projects I work on and the clients I consult to.

Next week: The FF17 Semi Finals in Melbourne