Mental Yardsticks

There are a whole lot of approaches, but very few that take into account that most elusive and unquantifiable thing called a feeling of accomplishment. At the end of the day, no matter how many things you've added, tagged, reassigned, delegated, deferred or written off your task list(s), the one thing you should try to figure out is

Have I really accomplished something today, or did I merely shunt the bullshit around?

Because, you see, no matter how busy and gung-ho you feel, and no matter what sort (and amount) of output you're able to churn out, it's all rendered ultimately meaningless if there isn't a sense of purpose. You will eventually start asking yourself if you're actually getting somewhere, and start losing it.

It's not something you can buy at the chemist's in neat little tablets - you either have it, or get it from someone else. It doesn't grow on trees or fall out of the sky.

There are a number of mind tricks to kick yourself out that sort of downward spiral, but that's not the point here. My point is that it's not just a personal thing - I have a theory that it can also be largely a cultural thing, made worse by the reckless use of trendy new organizational philosophies without taking into account local conditions.

Organizational Chessboards

Modern organizations go to great pains to try to instill purpose into themselves by translating it into organization charts, mission statements - i.e., the usual frills and trappings of inane corporate protocol, which almost always miss the target by miles when it comes to instilling purpose (and, incidentally, that complement known as motivation) into individuals.

So, just to get things started, you're mostly left to your own devices in defining what your daily accomplishments are, because they sure as hell won't be emblazoned on the mission statement - it's far too high-level a goal to be of any use for getting your motivational feedback loop going.

To make things interesting in these great enlightened times of ours, recent management gurus have figured out that pyramids are lousy organizational templates for knowledge-oriented companies, so the whole thing is now supposed to be flattened out into cross-functional planes headed by a few individuals, trying to group people by their core competencies, prevalent occupations, etc.

When Informality Isn't Your Cup Of Tea

Do that in a strict, formal anglo-saxon culture, and you get a bunch of quiet, orderly people feeling around for where their new boundaries lie. They are all reassured by being at the same level, they all have a single immediate reference for leadership, and as they loosen up from the removal of layer upon layer of hierarchy, communication becomes a lot more informal between groups.

Accomplishments become more immediate and personal, because they are most often about communicating effectively with the other groups - and humans being social animals, we get a warm, fuzzy feeling from getting our point across without bouncing it up and down the hierarchy, even if we're British. Or German - it's irrelevant, you see, because the point is that you're breaking down cultural barriers inside the organization.

Unbridling Entropy

But do that in a laid-back, individualistic culture where people are constantly jiggling about and talking to other groups anyway, and you get an unruly mob that lacks purpose, because at one point you get a hell of a lot less signal than noise.

Exponentially so.

I wish I could figure out exactly why, but I can tell you right away that peeling away several layers of leadership does not help much when they (for cultural reasons) weren't very effective in the first place.

Accomplishment becomes nigh on impossible to measure (or even identify), because there's so much chaff in the air that people spend too much time understanding it, ranking it, and figuring out what should get done next.

Bags of Mixed Nuts

Now throw in a few tough-minded, focused individuals (in short, people who possess a strong sense of purpose) into each mix, and you'll find that they become team leaders in the first case (because they both provide a sense of purpose and help define what the group's accomplishments are) and utterly frustrated people in the other (because they will eventually lose their own sense of purpose amidst the mess, and they don't have enough hierarchical clout to make things move).

The key, I guess, is making sure that there is enough of a hierarchy to counter your culture's tendency for generating entropy, and as little as possible to prevent it from restricting communication.

Any which way you do it, though, people have to get their sense of accomplishment from purpose, and not mock goals and windmill guidance.

And no amount of salted peanuts will make them feel any better at the end of the day.