After a recent talk, an attendee came up to say thanks, and departed with the comment: “I’m off to so some of the unheroic work you mentioned.”
If you’ve read anything I’ve written in the past few years, you will be familiar with the phrase. I first came across the idea of unheroic work in Jedediah Purdy’s book For Common Things.
The full quote reads: “Yet a political achievement cannot be taken for granted. It is always either a continuing accomplishment or an eroding one. It requires the sustenance of unheroic work.”
When I first read those words I immediately felt you could replace the words ‘political achievement’ and have a statement of what it takes to achieve a brand: ‘Yet a brand cannot be taken for granted. It is always either a continuing accomplishment or an eroding one. It requires the sustenance of unheroic work.’
Brands are achieved not created. They take time and are the compilation of thousands of unsung actions and decisions made daily within organisations. A sustaining and sustainable brand result indeed requires the endeavour of people’s unheroic work.
The attention and credit too often go to the glitter and limelight of the ‘hero’ campaign, high-profile claims or visual makeover. The headline-making antics which people mistake for brand take centre stage and overshadow everything else.
Yes, it is fun to be on that ride, to see the results splashed across billboards, social feeds and on posters around the office. However, the tangible and meaningful things which result in the brand are not found in the grand gesture, they are in the small stuff that people don’t notice — until they do. Because sitting behind every promise is the unheroic work it takes to keep it.
Astronaut Chris Hadfield eloquently highlights the need to “sweat the small stuff” in his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, and I couldn’t agree more. In space flight, an overlooked detail can kill you. In business, the ramifications usually aren’t so dire, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. The news is littered with stories about small things which became big things.
And the small stuff is often unheroic work. Think:
- Keeping the shipping dock free of rubbish and clutter so parcels can come and go smoothly;
- Replacing a hoodie with a broken zip even though it was purchased in another country and the receipt was long gone;
- Remembering the name and coffee order for a person attending a conference, even though you’ll likely never see them again;
- Keeping products on the shelves, making the 100th cup of coffee for the morning, taking a few extra minutes on the phone with an elderly customer, helping a colleague to crunch the data so they can finish the report, double checking the email’s content before you send it out;
- And the list goes on.
Unheroic work is doing the everyday things that keep our organisations functioning and which are the building blocks of people’s experience. It is the small stuff we all do every day, often without thinking, because it needs doing. And it’s the doing that provides that sustenance to the brand result.
But it’s not just any doing. Because when the doing is not aligned with identity, when it is done without care and deliberation and untethered from what we care about, then the brand result erodes.
However, when the doing is aligned with what we care about and helps make it obvious to others who care about it too, the brand is a continuing achievement.
It’s time to embrace your unheroic work. Start today.
See you next week.