09/27/2010 03:25 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Learning to Think in Terms of Purpose, Not Process

I'm in one of those juice bar places. It's less than two hours until closing time, and the young guy behind the counter is watching me sleepily as I read the menu, at a loss for what I want. Finally, unable to locate what I'm looking for -- a blend of fruit and vegetable juices -- I ask what he recommends.

"The number 7," he tells me, "but the machine isn't put together."

What follows is seemingly endless conversation -- although, in reality, it probably only lasted a minute or two. Using careful questioning, effective listening and just a couple of my anti-anxiety relaxation techniques, I finally learn that the vegetable juice machine is out of order this evening. The number 7, along with any other concoction including vegetable juice, is not an option. By the time he tells me this clearly, Juice Guy is obviously agitated by my slow comprehension. I was supposed to have made the leap myself.

I turn to leave, empty-handed. Not enough information about output, I muse to myself, and a little too much about process.

Flash back about a week. I'm in the middle of presentation in which I encourage -- well, force, actually -- my audience of professionals to speak frankly about their output. I've already given instructions, "talk about the work you are doing," along with a framework, a time limit, and a way for them to summarize their purpose in the workplace.

Now, the activity is in full swing. People are working in pairs, swapping stories quickly. But an odd number of audience members means that at the moment one unfortunate soul -- a professionally dressed, well spoken woman -- is paired with me. She's trying to tell me about the valuable output she produces. Unfortunately, her message about output is getting lost a bunch of narrative about -- you guessed it -- process.

"I'm an ISD certified CPT," she says. "I do instructional design, delivery and systems analysis for high impact content training programs designed to produce measurable, above average rates of behavioral change in participants." I can see she's worked hard to make this statement specific. I also sense she feels a little stilted and uncomfortable. Perhaps that's a natural side effect of being forced to articulate something she has just written. Or, perhaps it's because something in my expression is giving away the fact that I'm lost.

Seriously, I'm confused. I don't understand why her job exists or what she does, and she can tell. But she's good-natured, quick-witted, and open to feedback, so I start working with her and asking questions. Who is the training for? What is its purpose? Why is it important? Who asked you to do it?

In short order, we've begun a whole different conversation. "What I'm doing," she tells me, "is working on training our defect inspectors to be better at their jobs. Better inspectors, better product, better revenue. That's my output!" Her demeanor has changed along with her words: she's energized and excited, obviously proud of her work. Gone is the hesitancy in her voice, replaced with the self-assurance of someone who is doing something useful, and knows it.

Ah, the joy of output. She probably already knew she was doing something useful. Now, we both know it, and she knows how to talk about it.

Flash forward again, to the juice bar. I'm halfway out the door, and imagining my intervention with Juice Guy. My fantasy goes something like this:

ME: "Why are you here?"
JG: "Because I work here, dude."
ME: "Try again. Tell me your job."
JG: "Uh, I operate the juice machines and run the cash register?"
ME: "Except the machine that's taken apart, right? Humor me one more time. Why are they giving you money to be here?"
JG: "Duh, when I sell juice they make money too."

At this point in my fantasy, an illuminated light bulb appears over Juice Guy's head, and his demeanor changes. "Dude, I get it!" he cries. That's how we make money. I make our customers the juice they want, and sell it to them. I produce and deliver our product!"

I didn't do the intervention, I promise. I just went home, juiceless. But maybe I should have. Maybe, if I had spent a few minutes talking to Juice Guy, I could have helped him to realize that long conversations about equipment are far less useful to customers than statements about which products are for sale.

More output. Less process.

I didn't do it for Juice Guy, but I did it for the woman in my session. And within two minutes, she went from describing her process to describing her output. She went from being a cog in a machine to being an important part of a solution. And she went from someone with a job to someone with a purpose -- a purpose she can discuss proudly in front of colleagues and supervisors. The buzzwords and acronyms vanished, and she became engaging and engaged.

Notice that this didn't require anyone else to do anything. Her manager didn't have to manage better, her CEO didn't have to initiate a culture change program, and her coworkers didn't have to become friendlier. Only she had to act, and all she had to do was talk more about her output, and less about her process.

Do me a favor: try talking more about your output, and less about your process. Ask yourself why you do your job. Keep asking until you have a meaningful answer that excites you when you share it. Forget meetings, phone calls, machines, and protocols. Focus on the purpose of your job, and the reason someone, somewhere, decided it would be worthwhile to pay you money in exchange for showing up.

Once you figure out your output, share it. You may be pleasantly surprised at the change in your own perspective, and the response from others. Who knows, you may even begin to influence a shift, subtle at first, in which other people begin to discuss the real value of their jobs, too.

Personally, I dream of a world in which people speak about useful output in terms so plain, one doesn't need an acronym glossary to interpret the work of a teacher, or an equipment manual to deduce the availability of a carrot smoothie.

At a favorite breakfast restaurant I recently asked the server if I could have a special ingredient added to my omelet. "You can," came her hesitant reply, "but it's pretty difficult."

We have a long way to go.