If what you are doing isn't making an impact, why is it being assigned to you in the first place?
Or, to put that another way: a worker is hired to do things. Their comparative advantage is in doing; time they spend in any other role than doing is labor that would have been better allocated/delegated to someone else, to clear them up for more doing. (It's very clear when you think of high-status "workers"—for example, surgeons. Time the surgeon spends inside the OR is worth tens of thousands of dollars; time they spend outside the OR isn't worth anything. If you can hire an administrative assistant for $30/hr to take admin-work off the shoulders of the surgeon, to ensure that the surgeon spends even one more hour inside the OR per week, then the admin assistant has paid for themselves.)
A manager, meanwhile, is hired to prioritize, delegate, lubricate channels of communication, ensure their team of workers has the resources it needs to "do", and then defend the workers from anything that would take away from their "doing" time. These tasks are the manager's wheelhouse; it's where their own comparative advantage lies. Time a worker spends managing themselves is company money wasted, because a manager would have been able to get that work done far more effectively, for less effort and time input.
You don't want a doctor spending time reading charts to triage patients (i.e. assigning work to themselves.) The intake nurse does that. And you don't want the intake nurse spending time trying to diagnose someone after taking their symptoms. That's what the doctors are for. Each role has their comparative advantage. Let the roles bleed together, and overhead goes up while lives saved goes down.
Why do "old" organizations like hospitals understand comparative advantage better than FAANG? Why isn't it seen as a failure of management to prioritize effectively when everybody isn't always doing the most important thing they could be doing at that moment?
There are a different set of disadvantages to this system, but I just wanted to point out that in Google’s case, management doesn’t assign anything, so an engineer working on something unimpactful is not seen as a management failure but a choice made by that engineer. It’s fine to do and you can keep your job forever doing work you believe in even if it’s not overtly “impactful,” but if you want to get promoted, it’s up to you to align yourself with the higher-level priorities.
Edit: That’s not to say Google never wastes highly-paid employees’ time (like your admin example), but the core difference is Google employees aren’t just hired to “do.” They’re also expected to spend a lot of time thinking, prioritizing, and organizing themselves, so that’s not wasted time.
The real problem for organizations is choosing what to optimize for, and how short sighted they can afford to be to survive. Someone below mentioned that the military in a war time environment is probably something that people who subscribe to this kind of thought would think is the ideal work place. The thing is if you look at these organizations in times of crisis, they may optimize for the quickest way to win the war, when it really should be to ensure long standing peace.
Management DOES do a lot to prioritize/delegate/lubricate channels of communication, etc. That is their primary role.
But you have more engineers than you have managers. You have more people providing a more varied set of insights into what should be prioritized, what general work needs to be done, what opportunities exist, etc.
To a certain extent, you have to be willing to let some people sometimes be working a little sub-optimally to allow the autonomy that results in making some of the crazy cool products and services these companies create. That autonomy being available is one of the big things that drew me to Amazon, and it's something I believe I've taken full advantage of to the company's benefit.
Giving people the latitude to run projects and create PoCs before getting full buy in from management allows people to be creative. But yes, if you've spent a year working on a project, you should be expected to show the results of what you've done. Some stuff is more ambitious, sure - but even when the results aren't immediately obvious, you do need to be able to explain the potential and what data backs up that potential and the ability for the project to reach it.
From my experiences over the past five years, being able to find opportunities for improvement is hugely important to the culture and the promotion process. You need to be able to identify these opportunities, and that generally means some sort of metric is available to work from, and measure against as you try to improve it. (Of course metrics and statistics can be gamed, but I'd argue it's not good to go through life assuming everyone is a bad actor). It's a skill that sometimes needs to be developed, and it's something I work with people on to help them with the process, but I think it's a very good thing in general. I've seen a lot of positive come out of it.
My two cents, anyway.
This ideal state is what people tend to be vaguely gesturing toward when they say they want "meritocracy." Even this state isn't really meritocratic, but it certainly has a management structure that knows what it wants and is actively steering every action of their subordinates to get the highest-ROI goals accomplished sooner than later; and where there is enough demand for skilled work that skilled workers are reserved to exclusively do the work they do best.
† The assumption (that seems to cash out at least somewhat) being that when two armies of equal size clash, the winner will be the one with a better leader-of-leaders, the one who has instilled a better management philosophy into their officers, such that the army as a whole ends up being run well. If there was some way to make entire departments of a company "fight", the way that two army battalions can engage in mock battle to determine their overall relative competence, capitalism might actually be able to succeed in evading the Peter Principle. Anyone have a good idea of how to do that?
That's so good i want to steal it for a chapter in my book