Throughout history, the great majority of people never had to ask the question.
What should I contribute? They were told what to contribute, and their tasks were dictated either by the work itself as it was for the peasant or artisan — or by a master or a mistress — as it was for domestic servants. And until very recently, it was taken for granted that most people were subordinates who did as they were told. Even in the 1950s and 1960s, the new knowledge workers (the so- called organization men) looked to their company’s personnel department to plan their careers.
Then in the late 1960s, no one wanted to be told what to do any longer. Young men and women began to ask. What do / want to do? And what they heard was that the way to contribute was to “do your own thing.” But this solution was as wrong as the organization men’s had been. Very few of the people who believed that doing one’s own thing would lead to contribution, self-fulfilment, and success achieved any of the three.
But still, there is no return to the old answer of doing what you are told or assigned to do. Knowledge workers in particular have to learn to ask a question that has not been asked before: What should my contribution be? To answer it, they must address three distinct elements: What does the situation require? Given my strengths, my way of performing, and my values, how can I make the greatest contribution to what needs to be done? And finally, What results have to be achieved to make a difference?
Consider the experience of a newly appointed hospital administrator. The hospital was big and prestigious, but it had been coasting on its reputation for 30 years. The new administrator decided that his contribution should be to establish a standard of excellence in one important area within two years. He chose to focus on the emergency room, which was big, visible, and sloppy. He decided that every patient who came into the ER had to be seen by a qualified nurse within 60 seconds. Within 12 months, the hospital’s emergency room had become a model for all hospitals in the United States, and within another two years, the whole hospital had been trans- formed.
As this example suggests, it is rarely possible — or even particularly fruitful — to look too far ahead. A plan can usually cover no more than 18 months and still be reasonably clear and specific. So the question in most cases should be. Where and how can I achieve results that will make a difference within the next year and a half? The answer must balance several things. First, the results should be hard to achieve — they should require “stretching,” to use the current buzzword.
But also, they should be within reach. To aim at results that cannot be achieved — or that can be only under the most unlikely circumstances — is not being ambitious; it is being foolish. Second, the results should be meaningful.
They should make a difference. Finally, results should be visible and, if at all possible, measurable. From this will come a course of action: what to do, where and how to start, and what goals and deadlines to set.