Seeking Out the Noble Cause

My mother-in-law got her kitchen remodeled, and let her husband and the contractor pick out her stove. When it arrived, this little old lady had a tough time using it. At Christmas, when visiting, I tried it out, being a cook, and found it poorly designed with questionable quality. As the Christmas Dinner chef, I was completely frustrated with it and decided to fix this situation. The next day I took my mother in law to the appliance store so she could pick out a stove she liked, and I would pay for. It seemed criminal that her main tool was unsuitable for her to use. No one understood the importance of a tool that fit her requirements. Husband said, “You’ll get used to it.” Contractor picked an expensive one. Because I listened to her, I realized how important this tool was to her, she spent many hours a day working with it. It dawned on me that discovering the noble cause here was important.

Genentech, a very large pharmaceutical company in South San Francisco, was voted no. 1 best place to work in the ‘Giant Company’ category recently, because they believe in their noble cause – saving lives.   This culture of noble cause starts at the top with CEO Arthur Levinson, who keeps everyone focused on patient benefits during drug development.

I worked on a drug and delivery system recently that when developed, would help millions of sufferers. The technical lead understood the noble cause, but when he tried sell this to management for the project kick off meeting, powers in the culture poo-pooed the idea. For them, the project was just a job, profit sharing, bonus. This project got cancelled for lack of progress.

Imagine how exciting and fun projects would be if we could find the noble cause. It’s there, do we see it? Do we believe it? How about our management, do they see it? Does our customer?


4 thoughts on “Seeking Out the Noble Cause”

  1. User Avatar

    Great post! It touches on the importance of understanding the root problem your project is trying to address, in addition to the worth of the goal itself.

    In your example, the husband and contractor did not seek to understand the true nature of ‘why’ before they decided on ‘how’. This happens in so many projects it is maddening.

    If you look at the flip side, I can think of countless ‘pet projects’ of some executive that had no worthwhile goal to begin with. When you look at the graveyard of worthwhile projects that never made it, while working on one of these worthless ones, it can be so sad.

    Solutions? An empowered portfolio management group, and a consistent project management methodology which ensures practitioners spend quality time and effort on discovering the why, before figuring out how.

    Josh Nankivel

  2. User Avatar

    If we don’t find the noble cause in projects, aren’t we working without passion?
    Look what passion did for the Warriors last night!

  3. User Avatar

    The only reason I can work as hard as I do and take the risks I can in my work is that I have the illusion that I am in pursuit of a noble cause. What else are we here for if not to contribute something to humankind? On some scale nothing matters. Two million years ago no one will care what I did. But I can’t live my life out of that framework. The story we tell ourselves has more to do with reality than so-called reality. If you’re not in pursuit of a noble cause, at LEAST change the story you are telling yourself so that you are! I’ve seen noodle-makers in Japan behaving as if their noodles made a differenc . . . and you know what? They did! – Kimberly

  4. User Avatar

    Your comment reminds me of the distinction between the roles of “project manager” and “project leader,” and how often times our job as project managers includes both.

    As project leaders, our job is to align the team and stakeholders around that “Noble Cause,” which is no simple task! I believe this starts with formulating a personal vision for the project, and sharing aspects of that vision with team members and stakeholders on an ongoing basis. This can as simple as sharing an article that supports the vision, or an inspirational thought that occurred the other day – the important thing is to keep on talking it up.

    Project leadership also includes giving others a chance to express their vision for the project, and incorporating their perspectives as appropriate. I have found that as the dialogue continues, the vision expands and alignment with that underlying noble cause can result.

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