Over the past few years, I was obsessed with one thing: making sure professionals found meaning in their work, in order to lead fulfilling careers. This article explains how this mission informed company decisions at Protégé, how it has now changed and why it’s important to listen to what the world is telling you, instead of telling the world what to do.

This is mission-drift gone right.

I used to get annoyed, even angry when I saw people who thought that their work shouldn’t be fulfilling. When they saw (or accepted?) a job simply as a means to profit and not an end. When they didn’t ask themselves whether they should be spending 8, 10 or 15 hours per day in their office.

I got even angrier when I saw people who thought their work should be fulfilling but did nothing about it. When they complained about their work environment or the lack of meaning in their day-to-day job but took no actions to change it.

I cofounded Protégé to change this. We wanted to help people draw fulfilment from work by giving them access to mentoring. We thought this would allow people to understand what it is they want; to ask themselves the question: “What is Success for Me?”. Then they could go ahead and execute with a clearer objective in mind.

This was before. Now, I realize this is an impossible thing. First, I’m starting to believe that work isn’t constructed to give you fulfilment — perhaps it never was (this is the topic for another post!). Most importantly however, the majority of people aren’t open to asking themselves that question.

We were creating a product which demanded of users to question their work-choices. To ask themselves whether they were confident enough, whether they were in the right job, in the right company or in the right field. These are frightening questions. Most of us ask them once or twice in our lifetimes. Some of us, never do. We tend to prefer to put them in a sealed mental box, switch on Netflix, browse Facebook or Instagram; engage in escapist activities.

It’s no surprise then that users didn’t use the product for the intended purpose — they adapted it to their own needs. They started asking “simpler” questions such as “How can I get a pay-rise?”, “How can I better manage my team?” or “How do I implement X framework?”. They would get answers and a confidence boost by talking to experienced leaders — mentors were happy to lend an ear and share experiences.

This put me in a tough spot. On the one hand, my desire was that users ask the “tough” questions, assuming that it would bring them closer to finding meaning in their work-lives. On the other hand, that’s not what they seemed to be doing. And so, the question became: What should our role, at Protégé, be?

Two things started changing my viewpoint (and kudos to my cofounder for pointing them out). The first is that the effects of our intervention were not clear. It’s impossible to know whether, by “forcing” someone to ask the deeper questions (e.g. “How can I define my next career challenge?”, “How will I know that Project Management is for me?”), we are actually leading them to better work-lives. What makes us claim that we know better than the user? We have no evidence of it today and, until we do so, the next best thing is to let the people decide what’s best for them.

Secondly, Protégé is a for-profit company, operating under market conditions. Markets are a wonderful tool for providing consumers with what they want: if they don’t want something they don’t buy it. If we are to operate in such an environment and succeed, we have to follow its rules. And the rule is simple: finding market fit can’t be about changing what people want. Thus, if you have strong behavioral signals that your users want something, which, you have no evidence to believe is harming them, give it to them.

The mission changed. It’s no longer centered around helping professionals find meaning at work. Rather, we’re aiming to reduce professionals’ anxieties, and, in extension, become happier at work. We’re providing answers to questions such as: “How do I identify great people in interviews?” and “How do I manage an internal transition to a new department?”. People seem to be coming out more confident and knowledgeable after using the product.

And if that’s good for them, it’s good by me.

Interested in all things design, technology & entrepreneurship.

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