What is work? What’s your definition?

Benjamin P. Taylor
3 min readJul 29, 2021

It’s a deeply cybernetic concept — and it’s incredibly useful to realise this.

Work is:

>> ‘effort, to a purpose, using judgement and discretion, within boundaries, over time’. <<

(This is based on two definitions by Elliott Jacques, given with citations below).

This formal definition turns out to be deeply cybernetic, and very helpful in thinking about this engagement. It relates to the ideas of ‘purpose’, ‘the situation’, and ‘sensemaking’.

Critical elements here are:

> Purpose.
A fundamental and powerful idea. The intent to achieve something.
Purpose depends on context, framing, understanding, level of thinking and much more. The purpose and the context must be communicated and understood for work to be done.

> Judgement and discretion.
Also powerful — there’s no ‘work’, no value of a human over a machine unless these are brought into play.
And that means freedom to act.

> Boundaries.
Freedom to act, if unboundaried, is stifling and confusing and would create chaos.
And without boundaries, it would perhaps be creativity or expression — but not really work.

Our judgement and the purpose itself do provide some inherent boundaries, but we too often lose focus on giving clarity to the boundaries of the work we want to do.

This protects the space for discretion and enhances effectiveness by both stopping overreach and confusion and by allowing people confidence in their freedom to act.

The boundaries make the work make sense.

Once we see work as the exercise of effort, to a purpose, using judgement and discretion, within boundaries, over time, so much about effectiveness, teamwork, delegation, psychological safety, ‘human resources’ issues becomes much, much clearer.

>>What questions or ideas does this raise for you?

Elliott Jacques provides a formal definition of ‘work’ as:

‘the effort to accomplish a goal requiring the exercise of discretion within prescribed limits and within a stated completion-time’ Jaques E. (1975) A General Theory of Bureaucracy; Heinemann Educational Books


‘the exercise of judgement and discretion in making decisions in carrying out and enacting goal directed activities’ Jaques E and Stamp G (1990) Development of Stratified Systems Theory for Possible Implementation in the U.S. Army, ARI Research Note 90–74 Brunel University Brunel Institute of Organisation and Social Studies

For me, some primary uses of this are:

  • Helping frontline staff to know their boundaries but to exercise true professional judgement and discretion, rather than be micro-managed by measures of efficiency, proxy measures, de facto purpose (‘spend the budget’ instead of ‘optimise outcomes), and non-value-adding compliance;
  • Helping change and improvement people to know their boundaries and overall intent and exercise judgement and discretion in advancing change in processes, culture, and most centrally, learning, in the best possible way given purpose and context; and
  • Helping leaders give and receive clarity of boundaries and purpose, and shape the culture, so that time is spent in a focused and effective way on value-adding decision-making that is focused on intent and context.

And there’s a lot more — like making sense of ‘accountability’…