It’s a tough question, but asking yourself what problems you are solving for your company, customers or team is at the root of doing meaningful work. If you can’t answer it, you are not alone. I’ve asked this when coaching people and some look at me with a “deer in the headlights” gaze for a full 30 seconds before stuttering out, “Uh … well … I’m not sure.” Others take a minute to think and then blurt, “Not the types of problems I want to be solving.” Worse, occasionally I get someone who responds, “I don’t think I do solve any problems.” Any of these responses are a problem, but one that can be resolved with a little introspection. Let’s take them one by one.
“I’m not sure what problem I’m solving.”
If this is your answer, you might not have thought of your work in these terms before. You might be of the “ours is not to question why” philosophy, which either means that you are simply doing what you are told or that you are concentrating on the tasks at hand but not the ultimate purpose of those tasks.
If you are doing what you are told, you might be new to your job or company. In that case, starting out without knowing the problems you are solving with your work can be okay for a little bit. As soon as you can, however, start to question your team lead or manager about the impacts of your work. Is developing that website helping the client start a business in a new area of expertise? Or is it replacing a process that used to be done some other way? Knowing the problems you are helping to solve allows you to engage more fully with your work and to come up with new ideas for achieving that purpose quicker, more completely, or at a lower cost. Additionally, you will feel as if you are part of a larger picture and your work will take on new meaning. You will also learn quite a bit more about your company, clients or team when you discover what they are trying to achieve.
If you aren’t new to your position or company and you don’t know the answer, your time to ask those questions is now. Why? Knowing the problems you are solving ensures that your solutions will help resolve the problem. If you don’t know the purpose behind the work you are being asked to do, you can’t apply your own initiative and creativity to resolving it. This means that you aren’t contributing all that you can. You need to shine, and to do that you need to understand the need so you can fulfill it.
“Not the types of problems I want to be solving.”
This answer points directly to a mismatch between you and your role or between you and the type of work you are doing. If you are in the wrong role (look into Belbin team roles for more info), you will feel as if you are not able to be authentic in your work. If you are expected to lead the team but you hate conflict and you just want everyone to get along, you might be better off using your natural skills of mediation and community-building to shape the team into a tighter working group. In an opposite situation, if you are constantly butting heads with others on the team (or even your team lead – yikes!) about how things “should be done” you might be cast in the role of follower when your natural strengths are leadership and your commanding presence. Recognizing that the role you’re being asked to fill goes against your authentic tendencies is the first step in changing your situation. The second is learning how to communicate your authentic style, and the third is figuring out how you can change your role to one that suits you better.
If the role you occupy on the team fits you but you still feel unfulfilled in your work, you are probably doing the wrong type of work. Do you love working with tangible problems and objects, but feel pressured to focus on concepts and ideas instead? Do you love initiating new projects and getting things started, but find yourself being asked to create repeatable processes that can be applied over and over again? Are you naturally drawn to people, but expected to work on systems or tools? These are the questions that will help you determine the work that will seem meaningful to you and will help you find the work you were meant to do.
“I don’t think I do solve any problems.”
If this is your response, you are likely developing a solution for a problem that either doesn’t exist or isn’t a high priority. This can easily happen when you have a new idea to do something and you get so wrapped up in it that you haven’t taken the time to think through who will use it or how. In the small Texas town where I grew up, they called this “fixing what ain’t broke.” You might want to change a process to be more efficient, but if your changes don’t save a lot of time or money they will not be adopted and you will be spinning your wheels on creating a solution without a problem.
Today’s Strength Building Challenge
Take a few minutes during work today to identify the problem you are solving with the work you do. If you can’t come up with one, keep asking questions until you get an answer. Yes, it takes time – but it’s time well spent.