Seth Godin’s recently published book, The Song of Significance, looks at how we organize our work and the message is profound if we’re ready to hear the song.
I’ve written about Seth Godin many times in this space. Seth has written about the issues of work and education and making a difference in thousands of blog posts and 22 bestselling books. In his latest book, Seth uses one word to frame is discussion of the nature and consequence of work in 2023 (and beyond). This is not a technical book or scholarly treatise. It’s also not just about work, but the significance of what we make from it.
It’s about education. It’s about organizational design. It’s also about culture. While the byline of the book is “A New Manifesto for Teams” I think this is a misnomer. It’s about leadership in the age of AI, climate change, work transformation, and social change.
It’s a book for now and for making decisions about where we want to go.
What I want to focus on is the keyword significance.
Significance As Process and Outcome
Readers familiar to Seth’s work will identify the rant-like, short-burst format of his writing in this book. Over 140 short chapters (some a paragraph long), we are given a case for why significance is a word worth cultivating in our work and how we might do it.
the quality of being worthy of attention; importance. the meaning to be found in words or events. the extent to which a result deviates from that expected to arise simply from random variation or errors in sampling.Oxford English Dictionary
I’ve written before about how we will need to design for trust for organizations in 2023. Significance forms the basis for trust. When we do work that is significant we are focusing on quality, not volume. Significance is something we can design for by creating the conditions for the people to do their best work. We look after people.
Designing for significance considers the best evidence for how to create beautiful work, support our people (promote wellbeing and performance), and attend to what’s going on in our communities, markets, sectors and industries.
Significance is both a process and an outcome. When we design in for significance we eschew the pull towards volume (at the expense of quality), dehumanization (versus personalization and compassion), and lack of concern for sustainability. It’s why the three pillars of strategic design, health, and evaluation go together. When we design for significance, promote health, and gather feedback it allows us to sustain quality and build in resilience.
This isn’t just some pie-in-the-sky idea. Let me explain why.
Foresight and Significant Futures
The interconnected systems that influence us are becoming more visible and have a much greater sense of complexity. I say “sense” because we don’t have clear measures or data suggesting how the various STEEP-V (social, technological, economic, environmental, political, and values) forces are interacting largely because they are so disparate, broad-reaching, and difficult to measure.
Just consider that in the summer of 2022 the only public discourse on generative AI was on DALL-E and image creation tools (almost no one mentioned ChatGPT), wildfires were largely seen as provincial or state issues not continental ones, the world was still reeling from COVID-19, and returns to the office was still being negotiated. Twelve months later, our discourse has changed considerably on all of these issues.
What will next year look like?
If we are designing for significance, we are looking to create stability within an unstable environment. What we do might change, but the way we do it does not have to. When we design with quality, well-being, and meaning in mind it provides a principled approach to our organizational development and product creation. These things last, even if what we create does not.
If we are looking to survive and thrive, our ability to earn and keep trust and deliver something notable — meaningful — to people goes up. The massification or, as Cory Doctorow calls it, enshitification, is when things stop working well, lose their meaning, or fail to deliver what they promise. It’s harder to find what you want on Google, for example. Our consumer goods rarely last as long as they used to or as expected (or as long as possible), requiring us to replace them more often. This adds to further economic and environmental hardship. As Richard Rumelt illustrates above, more isn’t always better.
Look ahead and it’s hard to envision any scenario where this works to human advantage. We’ve lost the buffers. I know of no reliable foresight model that confidently envisions a healthier planet, happier people, and more robust economies without substantive changes in how we work.
That change needs to be significant to work and significance is a way forward.
Rather than the race to the bottom, we can take a different path. Many companies and service organizations will not take this path, but some might.
Seth Godin’s last line in The Song of Significance is: “Lead together“.
Following that is an Appendix described as an Encyclopedia of Real Skills. It outlines what we can bring to bear to our work that has real value and can create significance organized into five categories:
Within these clustered groups lie words like honesty, resilience, enthusiasm, and delegation for productivity. Seth is a pragmatic optimist and realist. He believes that our use of AI can (and should) replace mundane tasks that add little value to humans only to bottom lines. He wants us to foster enrolment in missions that matter, not compliance to arbitrary goals. Seth also wants us to be critical of our work, while supportive of the people doing it. Learn, adapt, grow, share and care. These are simple ideas that can be manifest in our non-profits, our public service and healthcare institutions, and our businesses small and large.
Seth is seeing around the corner and knows that industrialization of human work is going the way of the dinosaur or it’s going to make us dinosaurs. The choice is ours. Design for significance.
Image credit: Cameron Norman