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Meaningful Work: An interview with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong

Gerry Gaffney Design thinking, Teams Leave a Comment

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Marcus Gaffney

This is Marcus Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. Today I’m joined by the wonderful people behind an interesting project called and Make Meaningful Work, Daniel Szuc and Jo Wong.

Hello guys.

Jo Wong

Hi.

Daniel Szuc

Thanks for having us.

Marcus

Of course. So let’s start by having you guys share a little bit about your background. Tell us about Dan and Jo.

Jo

Hi, I’m Jo. I’m a user researcher for the past 21 years.

Dan

Hi, my name is Dan. I’m also a user researcher and have been in this field that’s gone by different names for the last 25 years starting in Melbourne, Australia where I met Gerry, Gerry Gaffney. And then when I moved to Hong Kong, starting Apogee together with Jo Wong.

Marcus

Okay. So you guys have been researching the question of how to make work meaningful. Where did this make meaningful work idea come from and why?

Jo

After about 15 years into our business in Hong Kong we started to look at what we’ve been doing with our work. It’s almost like a stock-taking. And it started to feel a lot of the projects that we have been working on, we might think we have done a good job in terms of our user research and, and our input into the product. But it seems like it doesn’t have much values to the customers as well as the society as a whole. And at the same time we’ve seen a lot of people that we work with in the project teams are not healthy and not happy and very stressed. They do not like what they do.

Marcus

As a result of the work you’re saying?

Jo

Yeah. And also they don’t really like who they work with…

Marcus

The people or the companies would you say?

Jo

I will like to say both.

Dan

So yeah, agree with all of that. As co-creators and partners on this project. I guess for me I have perhaps a different starting point to Jo. I think we’ve both been involved in great projects and we’ve both been involved in projects whereby we’re actually… I think they’re rare, but where we’re working on something valuable, purposeful, meaningful. But as Jo hinted the environments in which people are making together are not always conducive to great making. And so what that means is, is that there tends to be more of a focus on the delivery and the transactional process nature of the project. And sometimes not as much… I’d even dare say often not as much on the people-to-people relationships. And so my starting point that I keep coming back to was when I had some amateur and professional theatre experience when I was very young. And what I loved about it, I’m using, we use this word deliberately, what I loved about that environment is that it was a very respectful, trusting, open place for people to do great work together.

And there was something very intentional and explicit about setting up those environments to do that. And that to me in the projects that we had done together and when Jo said we’d done the stock-take on those projects, that explicitness, that intention to create those great environments and being really, again, intentional and explicit about the practices that you need to make it more conducive to making work meaningful or making meaningful work just wasn’t there.

The last thing I’ll add is I think also from Jo’s perspective and feel free to chip in on this, I think for you also waste was a considerable part of that too. Do you want to offer a few words on that?

Jo

Yeah. I think we also see a lot of waste in terms of both tangible and intangible waste. Waste in terms of people’s time, people’s brain power, monetary resources, the time that we wasted working on these products or services, that we’re not using it to other things that are more in need for the whole society is a total waste.

And a huge waste is also on health. So I think that’s something that is really hard to get it back.

Marcus

So could you share about the framework of Make Meaningful Work and some of its key elements?

Dan

Sure. So I think what’s been really lovely for us is that we’ve, we’ve enjoyed having literally hundreds and hundreds of conversations over the years with really nice and smart people globally.

Marcus

Like this one.

Dan

Exactly like this one. That’s right. Definitely with two very smart and lovely people. So I think what that means is we took a very, I think we took a very open-minded approach as to how the framework would take shape because I think certainly with our framework we didn’t really know what the components of it would be. And so it took us a good three years, I think Jo, to arrive at a question that we thought was quite a difficult problem, a question and a statement, which is how can we make meaningful work?

And then we went on our way thinking about what the framework would look like. So I think a lot of it is actually in our logo. And in our logo what we have is we have a tree and we have a clear delineation between above the soil and under the soil. And so above the soil, what it tends to, what it’s trying to demonstrate is above the soil is what we think we can see. So if you liken that to projects it tends to be things like deliverables or project plans or methodologies or tools or processes. And these are the things that we can see on projects, but they don’t always give you the full picture of the health of an environment and then naturally, in the logo what we also have is under the soil and under the soil is what you can’t see.

Now if you look at the logo, what you have going into the soil is beginnings of the roots of the tree. But the roots of the tree actually are in the shape of a key. And the key is meant to be, you are intentionally inserting a key that we’re actually calling in part practice sensing or practice spotting. And what you’re trying to do is practice that by inserting the key into the environment. And what you’re going for is depth. You’re going for trying to understand what’s happening underneath, not just what you see. So actually underneath what you begin to see is what we call implicit practices. So above the soil is explicit practices and under the soil is what we call implicit practices. And so what we found is as we talk more with people and we go deeper through practice sensing and practice spotting and getting people to share stories, we’re actually able to ascertain what’s really going on in projects, in how people are relating to each other.

And then the last bit I’ll share then I’ll hand over to Jo, is it also interestingly with Make Meaningful Work because it’s M, M, W. Interestingly, it also stands for, so it’s make meaningful work and it also stands for what we call… The first M is the me. So it actually starts with the individual. It’s not about the individual only. It starts with the individual by saying, I am going to take responsibility for inserting meaning into an environment. We hop across to the W. The w actually can also mean it means work, but it can also mean the We and then the middle part is still the same. It’s about meaningful, meaningfulness and meaning. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get the individual to connect to something bigger than themselves, in reference to meaningful work and in reference to going deeper to the practices that really mattered to them, to the me and the we or the individual, the team.

Marcus

Could I just ask, would you argue that those roots are more important than the tree itself?

Jo

Yes, that’s exactly the idea. Because usually we see things above the ground and we always, or often forget about what’s underneath and makes the tree healthy. and also that’s something I would like to add is wrapped around this is the environment they’re wearing. So the environment means we have a physical environment, but when we go into teams and companies the majority of the environment is made up by people’s behaviours.

So how you feel… Inside yourself is an inside environment and that drives how you behave and how you behave affects someone next to you and then someone next to you. So that is very important to the framework as well.

Dan

Indeed. I’ll just say one last thing. I mean it’s like this week I’m with you visiting Hong Kong. This is your first time to Hong Kong, you’re acclimatizing to many things in, in reference to the environment of Hong Kong including, which was interesting the first few days, your reaction naturally to the very hot and humid weather. It was almost somewhat overwhelming that feeling between going between an air conditioned inside environment and an outside, humid environment.

Marcus

From Melbourne where it’s freezing right now.

Dan

Yeah, exactly. A very big contrast. And the other thing, another environment could also be you staying with us. You’re spending time with Jo and myself, a little bit of time with Jo’s family and also within a different home set up, which is a much smaller apartment than what you’re probably used to say in Melbourne. So yeah, environments to do explicitly and implicitly impact us as Jo said, both the external and them internal.

Dan

The Make Meaningful Work framework isn’t… In many respects it’s not about work itself. So if you actually remove the word “work” and replace it with words that matter to you, like make a meaningful environment, make a meaningful planet, make a meaningful work place and so on and so forth. The strong driver for the project going all the way back to five years ago when we started the project. But way further back for Jo, I’d say almost 25, possibly 30 years, is this idea that when we see systems that are broken and we see systems that are fractured and continuing to do damage, why would you want to continue using that system? It just doesn’t make sense. So we have a huge challenge in front of us, but we’ll try and do our bit.

Jo

I want to add a little bit more. So Make Meaningful Work starts with your individual. So sometimes we will see, oh the things are too big for me to change, meaning usually people would think it’s something that’s out there I need to look for. But what we’re trying to say to people is meaning is in you and you need to insert that into your daily lives on a daily basis. And when you look back to your life, all these actions add up to the meaning in your life. And so when we talk about, oh, government policy I can’t change, corporate things I can’t change. But these organizations are all made up by people. If everyone do what [is] within their reach, I think that will do…

Dan

And maybe it’s actually the focus isn’t necessarily about change. Maybe, to borrow from other people, maybe change is constant because it is, I mean, yeah, we’ve aged by the time we started this to the time this podcast is finished, we would have aged. We don’t sense that we’ve aged, but somethings changed. Something’s changed in the way that we’re seating, like we would have adjusted our position to feel more comfortable. Perhaps another way of looking at this is, maybe what this is all really about is continuous learning and maybe what this is all about is betterment. Being able to see where you can improve and to have a plan. You know, I love plans, to have a plan to improve and better yourself and the people that you live in your work with.

Marcus

All right. That was very interesting. Thank you, guys for coming on today.

Dan

Thank you for having us.

Gerry GaffneyMeaningful Work: An interview with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong

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