Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

Filtering by Tag: Peter Drucker

Understanding your Context, Purpose and Skills (Drucker, Part 2)

This is the second post in a series on applying Peter Drucker's four factors of a theory of business to the way we work and think as organizers and individuals. The first factor Drucker suggests we ought to wrap our minds around is the need to understand our context, purpose, and skills as individuals. What does that mean?


Coming to grips with your context is a challenge. It involves stepping back from where you are right now (in your organization, in your career, in your life) and taking an honest look at your environment and your role in it. It requires asking yourself questions like these:

  • Who, really, are the people you share your daily life with, and what drives them?
  • What kind of environment do those people create?
  • What kind of environment does your behavior create?
  • What constraints do your day to day commitments put on the opportunities you can pursue?

Your answers to these questions--if they're honest, and not-self-serving--can help you form a realistic picture of the slice of the world that surrounds you. If you want to understand how to move forward from where you're standing, you have to know where you're standing. Getting to know your context is key for that.


Do you know why you do what you do? Maybe this one is easy. Maybe you get up in the morning and run to work because you do work you believe in. But can't that get hard to remember sometimes? When you're knee-deep in a tedious slog, maybe working with people you don't like, maybe unclear on how this project fits into the vision you're pursuing? This is a question where it's useful to be a little selfish: why do you do this work? What does it mean for you, what do you get out of it, how does it transform you? What's the end you're pursuing with this work?


What are you capable of? Do you stretch your capabilities to test the limits of your skills? Do you need to learn more to continue to grow? How would you go about doing that? What needs to shift in your life to make time for the new learning you should be doing?

If we want to continue to develop as members and leaders of our communities it's crucial to understand our place, our reasons for action, and the projects we're capable of taking on. Just as important as understanding these three categories, though, is that they all reinforce one another. I'll say more about this in the next post in this series.

the druck is here for you: 4 factors to figure yourself out

Why do you do what you do?


Peter Drucker, you'll often hear, was the man who invented 'management.' Strictly speaking, that's not at all true--if 'management' is the theory and practice of getting workers to be as productive as possible, then modern management can be, and has been, traced back to the era of American slavery. That theory and practice was further developed by a well-worn list of names in the earliest days of the robber barrons: Frederick Taylor and his "Scientific Management,", led into the softie human relations approach of the 1930s (which might be how they still run things at your office), and eventually came our friend the Druck.

There are a lot of reasons--especially, I think, for open-minded radicals--to like the Druck. There's his skepticism of centralized authority, his insistence that an organization should be driven by something more meaningful than profit, and his distaste for "the boss" as either an order-giving autocrat or a smiley-faced fascist therapy leader. Ultimately what I like about his thinking best, though, is his insistence that we should find fulfillment in the stuff we do; that if we don't find fulfillment in the way we spend our time--whether it's at a desk or organizing a rally--then we're ultimately missing the point.

In his well-regarded essay "The Theory of Business" Druck lays out the notion that most attempts at doing something cool and new eventually fail because they don't change their thinking as the environment around them changes. They may start out well thanks to a clever or novel approach to a problem, but the world keeps turning, and often an organization will find itself gasping for air as it becomes increasingly apparent that it's running based on an outdated picture of the world. If a project is to stay successful, he argues, it has to be running on a solidly founded but testable theory of business.

But who the hell cares? Why am I talking about this?

With all the competing demands for our attention in our working and organizing lives, it strikes me as profoundly valuable to evaluate our approach to our work and our time using the kind of thinking Drucker lays out. The stuff in this classic is also applicable to the choices you make every day moving through the world--as a worker, as an activist, as a leader, as a family member. If you want to make sure that your approach stays nimble, and that you don't wind up gasping for air, a modified version of Drucker's "4 specifications of a valid theory of business" might be worth working through. Here's my mildly bastardized human-scale take on the Druck's four specifications--in order to be consistently successful, you need:

1) Your understanding of your context, purpose, and skills to be honest and realistic.
2) Your context, purpose, and skills to be mutually reinforcing.
3) Your knowledge of your context, purpose, and skills to be crystal clear.
4) Constant willingness to re-evaluate your thinking on all of the above.

What do these things mean? I'll tackle them one by one, and tie them all together, in posts over the next few days. First up, tomorrow: understanding your context, purpose & skills.