In one of my favorite business books, the New York Times bestseller “Decide” Steve McClatchy writes that psychological studies have confirmed that we can divide all sources of human motivation into two categories: to move toward “Gain” (or something you want) or to “Prevent Pain” (or prevent the loss of something you have).
It has much applicability in the business world too, in that the tasks which consume our time can either be characterized as Gain tasks that propel us toward innovation and transformation, or Pain tasks that keep us stagnant.
In the IT world, a Gain task could mean pursuing your Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) certificate, or helping your IT department achieve better business outcomes and efficiencies by leveraging the right technology.
A Pain task could be chipping away at the 20 Tier 1 tickets logged by your end users for the day.
If we start being cognizant of the time spent on Pain—and instead schedule and defend the time we spend on Gain—we help ourselves, and our organizations, drive toward more favorable business outcomes.
Or, as Steve puts it: “Tasks that you are driven toward by Gain produce more significant results in your life and your business than tasks that you are driven toward by Prevent Pain.”
Core vs. Context
The reality is that all too often, Gain tasks lose out to Pain, especially in the IT world.
Years ago, that reality was more forgiving.
After all, the chief role of IT was to support the company’s in-house infrastructure and keep the lights running.
Over the years, the landscape has become increasingly complex, as mega trends like the digitization of the enterprise and the consumerization of IT increase pressure on today’s IT leaders to be at the forefront of driving innovation for the business.
Suddenly, Pain can’t win over Gain or the IT department’s value to the organization can erode.
Geoffrey Moore, author of the book “Dealing with Darwin: How Great Companies Innovate at Every Phase of Their Evolution,” puts forth the core versus context principle—a concept that also supports the argument that successful business leaders place greater importance on Gain-oriented pursuits.
Moore classifies organizational functions as either core or context activities:
Core activities can be described as your organization’s key differentiators—the things that your business must do much better than the competition.
This is where innovation lives and how businesses increase their value to their customers.
Context activities make up everything else—namely the noise that must be complete before you can focus on growth and transformation.
Though necessary evils, context activities—or chore, or pain tasks—do not push a company to transform, evolve or differentiate.
When you combine the concepts of pain vs. gain and core vs. context, it begs the question: How much time is your IT department actually spending in driving the business forward compared to time spent putting out fires?
If IT leaders considers the notion of core versus context, they’ll find that IT spends most of its time tackling context activities, sometimes up to 90 percent of the week!
But, as Moore contends, these activities add no measurable value to the business. What’s more, since we are preoccupied with context, we have little time left to devote to core, or the growth initiatives that transform the business.
Consider just how much more relevant IT would be to the business if we focused more on core versus context.
Tim Hebert is chief client officer at Carousel Industries, Inc., a leader in communication and network technologies, professional and managed services, and cloud solutions.