Most of us want to do meaningful work; we want it to be impactful and we want a lot of responsibility. And, in fact, as we get older, we tend to acquire more responsibility and move from a position that doesn’t really matter for anything to a position that matters a great deal. That got me thinking about jobs in the abstract, what it really means for work to be impactful or meaningful, how companies should pay their employees, and–perhaps in a kind of a gedankenexperiment–what a job would look like if we took this progression to an extreme.
I realized at some point that in a well-functioning company, decisions are much better indicators of responsibility and impact than actions (there are a few exceptions to this, where a person’s (say, a master artisan’s) skills are so unique that they are worth vast amounts of money). Decisions have a much more far-reaching implications than actions because in a well-functioning company, actions can be delegated or outsourced; and there is a large number of people who have similar skills.
Hence, I like to evaluate the meaningfulness of work by treating it as a series of decisions and assessing the impact of each decision. Everyone makes decisions in their work. A graphic designer decides what color the cover of a book should be. A computer programmer decides which pattern to use in his/her piece of code. CEOs decide who to hire for the top management echelon of the company. Naturally, the impact of their decisions varies: if a computer programmer makes a decision to use a particular pattern, he or she may make it slightly more difficult to alter the program in the future. This one can, theoretically, translate to some amount of money that the company could save (or waste). Similarly, if a CEO makes a decision to hire a particular person, that may have far-reaching implications (which could also be, albeit rarely if ever is practical to be, assessed in monetary terms). You can compare the impact of these decisions–and thus define the responsibility a particular employee has.
Taking this to the logical extreme, I imagine a person sitting in an oversize leather chair, in the middle of a mildly dark room. That person doesn’t talk to anyone, doesn’t have to go anywhere. Every few hours somebody enters the room with a piece of paper and passes the paper to that person. That person reads what’s written on the piece of paper and either nods or shakes his head. The messenger leaves. That’s all that this person does all day.
While it may seem like a scene from some kind of movie (in fact, many movies do play with this concept), it makes sense to me. We can reduce decisions to a series of binary decisions, requiring nothing but a nod of one’s head. We can eliminate all actions from that person’s responsibilities because all actions have been delegated many, many levels below. The person doesn’t need to attend any meetings: the employees one level below do what’s necessary (which may include having plenty of meetings) to distill the work that’s required to a small set of binary decisions. In fact, if you think hard, you’ll probably see that a lot of decisions that you made or see other people make at work can be characterized very concisely; one fundamental decision leads to a series of smaller decisions (which there are many of, but which are easier to make so our Top Guy wouldn’t ever be bothered by them). In fact, many CEOs do something like this today, but their jobs are still not pure exercises in decision-making: they have to attend meetings, write emails, talk to people.
We can see how this Top Guy’s job involves more responsibility than anyone else’s. Even more: his job involves more responsibility that everyone else’s jobs lumped together. His decisions percolate to the bottom of the company, affecting, ultimately, all employees. The fact that a decision was escalated to him means that it was deemed important enough such that nobody below him could make that decision, even when cooperating with others.
What a sweet job to have.