It has been a year since we introduced the agenda — our version of an awards program, in which we recognize people, teams, and companies whose efforts in the world of work have made a difference. This year, you'll find four more exemplary Agenda setters: a remarkable navy commander who practices grassroots leadership to make his ship the best in the fleet; a fast-paced software innovator that acts as if it had acquired its blue-chip owner; a world-renowned medical facility that uses total teamwork to put patients first; and a South Africa-based startup that uses revolutionary technology to fight poverty and other social ills. But before you turn to these profiles — and to the lessons that accompany each of them — stop for just a moment to think about all that has happened since our last Agenda issue (April:May 1998). In the past 365 days, giant companies have bought and sold one another at an unthinkable rate and for unbelievable sums of money. Hot startups have gone public at enormously high share prices, spawning a large number of new young paper millionaires in Silicon Valley. Because of previously unimaginable turmoil in places like Russia, Japan, and Brazil, and because of an unforeseeable investor enthusiasm for technology companies in the United States, the stock market has gone down, then up, then down, then up, then . . . along the way registering stomach-flipping drops and nose-bleed highs.
In other developments, corporations around the world have announced layoffs — while unemployment in the United States has reached historic lows. Hollywood launched blockbuster movies that made huge amounts of money, put hot new names into orbit, and reestablished the careers of some fading stars. Hollywood also launched obscenely expensive movies that sank without a trace, lost huge amounts of money, and doomed the careers of some of its most promising young stars.
In Washington, politics combined with business to produce front-page news: Tobacco companies claimed that their products did not cause cancer, then negotiated a record settlement that included a nonadmission that their products might be harmful, then watched that settlement fall apart in Congress, and then reached a settlement with state governments — one that involved yet another nonadmission and yet another massive payout. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Department of Justice, untold reams of paper were consumed in an effort to decide the legal future of an industry whose products are entirely electronic.
And so it goes — day in, day out, all around the world. And that is precisely the problem. We tend to get caught up in the dailiness of it all: the relentless demands of bottomless To Do lists, the fire-hose-like flow of information, the emotional roller coaster of wins and losses, of numbers made and numbers missed. All of this tends to obscure what really matters — which leads to this Agenda-setting question: What are you working on?
We see The Agenda as a way of focusing on work that matters. When we talk with people who are excited about what they're working on, what they say usually boils down to a few essentials: Their workplace is inclusive, with leaders at every level who listen to what people say. Teamwork is pervasive, drawing strength from a company culture that builds on systematic collaboration and day-to-day cooperation. Change is not only possible — it's part of their organization's lifeblood. And mission matters as much as money, in that their company links its economic performance to goals that reflect some sense of a greater good.
Now we urge you to read about this year's Agenda setters — and then to answer these questions for yourself: What matters to you? What are you working on? What's on your agenda?
A version of this article appeared in the April 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.