What are you working on?
For most people, answering that question means one of two things: reciting a seemingly endless list of projects and assignments that amount to more work than they have time for; or gathering every item on an ever-expanding To Do list under one overarching goal — get the budget approved, hit the numbers for this quarter, take the company public this year.
But there's another way to think about this question: What are you working on that truly matters? Beyond your day-to-day work, beyond even the overarching business goals that guide your day-to-day work, what are you working on that determines your purpose in life? What gets you excited about your work? Where in your work do you find value? And, perhaps most important, where is your work taking you?
To help answer those questions, we present The Agenda — our second annual recognition of the people, teams, and organizations that are addressing the business issues that matter. The four trailblazers featured in this issue are exploring the principles that define the work of the future, and they are developing new ways of working that will take us there. These organizations each have overcrowded To Do lists and overarching goals — but, at the same time, they each see the world through a powerful, unchanging lens that puts all of their day-to-day work into a sharper, more meaningful focus.
Meet this year's Agenda setters:
On board the USS Benfold, a $1 billion destroyer, you'll find lethal missiles, some of the world's most advanced radar equipment, 300 highly trained sailors — and Commander D. Michael Abrashoff, who practices the art of Grassroots Leadership. The Agenda item: Replace command and control with commitment and cohesion — by engaging the hearts, minds, and loyalties of workers. Abrashoff's grassroots-leadership approach: "The most important thing that a captain can do is to see the ship from the eyes of the crew."
In the offices occupied by Tivoli Systems Inc., on a wooded IBM campus in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, you'll find a group of bright young techies playing "headball," a late-model sports car that rotates to the top salesperson each quarter, regular Friday-afternoon beer bashes — and a way of working that creates Fast Change. The Agenda item: Find a way to use the entrepreneurial energy and the fast pace of a new-economy startup to kick-start an old-economy giant. Tivoli's fast-change approach: Treat IBM's purchase as a "reverse acquisition." Says one Tivolian: "We're not blue, and we're not red. We're purple. We're the best of both worlds."
At the famed Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minnesota, you'll find art hanging on the walls, professional greeters welcoming patients as they arrive, doctors' offices that are each as cozy as a den — and a model for practicing medicine that defines Total Teamwork. The Agenda item: Overthrow conventional wisdom about medical economics, doctors' egos, and professional hospital administration, and replace it with an "old-fashioned" approach that delivers fast, smart, patient-centered care. Mayo's total-teamwork approach, as defined by one of the clinic's founders: "The best interest of the patient is the only interest to be considered."
At the headquarters of the Freeplay Group, in Cape Town, South Africa, you'll find cool products, creative engineers, a workplace that resembles a clubhouse — and an absolute commitment to promoting Social Justice. The company's transparent windup radios operate without electricity; its factories offer jobs to handicapped people, battered women, ex-convicts, and others looking to establish stable work lives. The Agenda item: Find enough long-term capital, enough marketing clout, and enough powerful allies to turn a brilliant idea into a pair of revolutionary products — ones that will allow you to make money even as you make a difference in the world. Freeplay's social-justice approach: "We're creating a whole new industry that can improve people's lives, whether they're in Los Angeles or Lagos," says Rory Stear, Freeplay's co-CEO and cochairman.
There's one more Agenda item, and it applies to you: Consider the lessons presented by these four Agenda setters and reflect on your own day-to-day work life. Ask the question "What am I working on?" — and use the answer to set your own Agenda.
A version of this article appeared in the April 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.