Archive | January 2012

How Do You Motivate People? By structuring the organizational environment!

The first point that resonated with me in Dan Pink’s TED presentation on motivation is that there is a gap between science findings and business practices.  This is the same point made in Pfeffer & Sutton’s book on “Evidence-Based Management,”  which I reviewed earlier, as well as Ghoshal’s critical assessment of business schools in his essay on “Bad Management Theories,” which was the focus on of my first post.  So, the notion isn’t new, but it still hasn’t caught the full attention of the public, and definitely not the right kind of management attention.

whatever motivated me…painted 2 paintings this week!

The central issue in Mr. Pink’s indictment is motivation techniques, especially the old school “carrot & stick” approach.  Scientific studies have demonstrated, again and again, that when groups are provided with monetary incentives to pursue a task demanding innovative solutions, against groups without incentives, the monetarily incentivized groups lag behind.  However, if the task is a matter of mechanistic routine, the incentives do drive better performance.  The reason why potential rewards don’t produce positive outcomes when seeking innovative solutions is that the groups become too focused; their thinking gets channeled and their creativity becomes blocked.  The important distinction here is tasks involved in mechanical skills vs. those requiring cognitive skills.

Such studies have been replicated in different cultures.

Higher incentives lead to poor performance?!  As Mr. Pink stated:  This is one of the most robust findings and yet also the most ignored.

So, why are CEOs getting tens or hundreds of million dollars in compensation?

We also need to be reminded, often, of the distinction between “work for the sake of work (mechanistic)” and “work for accomplishment (results).”  One of my repeated criticisms of management is its obsession with creating more oversight for people, not necessarily for productivity or innovation, but just to make sure people are not “shirking!”  Such structured activities are de-motivating rather than motivating.  One of my friends occasionally has to go to Afghanistan.  Whenever he’s there, he and his colleagues work all but Fridays, but then, they live in tents i.e. their lodging is barren, as well as their local life, so they all end up working on Fridays.  Here is a perfect example where structure propels people to work, but to what end?  I have no doubt that the majority of these people are dedicated, committed, productive, and work damn hard, but for whom is it healthy?  For them? For our war effort there? Or for the local government? or population?  When people are worn out, not only productivity decreases, creative solutions become even more remote possibilities.

Most jobs, in the majority of the 20th century, did fall into the category of relying on mechanistic skills for which extrinsic incentives did work most of the time.  As manufacturing jobs are shrinking, jobs relying on solutions that require “out of box” thinking are growing.  Mr. Pink makes the case – he stresses that this isn’t a philosophy but a “case” – that in the 21st century, organizations need to structure in such a way that people will find intrinsic motivation to pursue their work:



                    Purpose (larger than ourselves)

Now, here is a cogent argument for a right-brain artistic approach that is lacking in traditional management literature, and it isn’t just for management only.  And you notice that none of these criteria are what truly motivate people – you can’t externally motivate people – but are for structuring the organizational environment so that people find resonance to motivate themselves.

2nd painting

Organizations that recognize these principles are likely to be the leaders in this century.  I greatly appreciate Mr. Pink’s statement, “management is an invented concept.”  Indeed, prior to the industrial revolution, there wasn’t much need for management.  And as our businesses evolve beyond the old industrial era, we need to rethink what management means, or if we need it any more.

And there are organizations that are already practicing such principles, such as Atlassian’s practice of “FedEx Days!”  Employees of this software company are encouraged to volunteer to participate in this exercise where for one day a year, everyone gets to play with ideas of their own choosing, and they present these ideas to colleagues the next day.  Hence, the “FedEx Day” although the actual coordination is a little more complicated.  (Google the phrase, and you’ll be delighted by the read.)  Essentially, this organization gives employees a day to just daydream, to pursue whatever they like…in other words, to play!  What a concept!  Actually, “playfulness in organization” was advocated by James March in the early ‘70s but even with March’s stature in the management field, the idea was treated mostly with “nice…but…”  Google also encourages its employees to devote 20% of their work time to “play;” I’d say so far, they seem to be doing pretty well, and I don’t mean just their stock price.

Mr. Pink describes such practice as “results oriented work environment.”  As he points out, the idea of “Wikipedia” could not have been feasible 10 years ago; yet, it’s now thriving.

Furthermore, what I like about this type of intrinsic motivation is that it’s egalitarian; all employees are given opportunities.  Why not?  Accessing one’s right brain for creative solutions isn’t just for managers or business leaders, is it?!

awesome sunset…will be an inspiration for a painting someday

So set aside some time to play, will you?  Encourage others to do the same.  Better yet, if you are in a position of power, structure a day-off for people to dream!  Till you actually do so,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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Technology Isn’t Equivalent To Knowledge

This is a short entry since I just spent a few days in San Jose, primarily to witness my mom’s headstone being put in place, but I took some time to visit our favorite haunts, as a way to remember her, honor her, and to comfort myself.


Recently, I came across two TED talks that fascinated me; today I will focus on the “Norden Bombsight” by Malcolm Gladwell, famed for “The Tipping Point.”  In the next post, I will discuss Dan Pink’s case on motivation.

The major moral of Gladwell’s presentation is that while gizmos can be fun and cool, they cannot substitute for thinking and knowledge.  Tools are just that, tools.

The Norden Bombsight was designed by Mr. Norden before WWII, intending to give the bombardiers a useful tool for accurate delivery to target.  The US Defense Department was awestruck with Mr. Norden and his invention, and committed 1.5 billion (in 1941 value) dollars for its development and installation.  The outcome?  Reality trumped this best design; the accuracy it enabled was about 10%.  When the atomic bomb (cost US $3 billion) was dropped on Hiroshima using the Norden bombsight, it missed by some measure, not enough to matter especially for a nuclear weapon, but certainly not pinpoint accurate.  Again, of course, being that it was the atomic bomb, the lack of accuracy was moot.

Decades later, our technology has improved tremendously.  During our first war in Iraq, we dropped thousands of missiles intending to take out Iraqi’s missile launchers.  The technological information would have us believe that every missile fired hit the target.  However, after the war concluded and we did a ground survey, we found ZERO hit on the launchers.  Reason?  We didn’t really have good intel on where those launchers were actually located.

In the current “war on terror” (truly a misnomer that has damaged our national psyche), our drone attacks have been very accurate in taking out targeted terrorists.  But for every terrorist we have taken out, we have encouraged several times their number of new recruits for terrorists, and their suicide and IED attacks have escalated.

While this seems like it’s about politics, it really is about how we have allowed technology to dominate our lives, our thinking, and even our pursuit of knowledge.  My recent post on VW and its Blackberry policy is related to our obsession with gizmos.  The internet and computer technology certainly have given us a lot of valuable information and even helped promote some knowledge, but I don’t think it has really created any major breakthroughs for human advancement.  Advances such as antibiotics, airplane travel, light bulbs, etc.  predate the internet, which admittedly has increased the speed with which some of these existing technologies morph and mutate into altered forms and manifestations, but what – and where – are the internet’s truly new material creations?

To bring this topic closer to business, look at computer and stock trading.  Arguably, stocks were never tangible commodities, but the computer technology has certainly made the trading more wild than before, and I haven’t been able to detect how that has helped our management or economy.

I think Gladwell’s presentation affirms for me, once more, that we are ever in need of time to think, contemplate, play, and dream.  Dan Pink’s presentation on motivation also touches on this.  That’s coming up!  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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The Many Paradoxes Of Group Dynamics: In this case, knowledge does help action

I am not one to willingly join a group; I go out of my way to avoid group projects.  One of my favorite professors once altered his syllabus so that I could opt out a team project (and thereby kept me in the class!).  That was the pinnacle of my “no group work” principle in school, and since then the more I study groups, the less I desire to be part of them.  However, I have also, willingly, been involved in some fabulous group works, and the main reasons for these groups to have succeeded were because (1) all of us are familiar with group dynamics, and therefore (2) we were all willing to engage in the group processes, the invisible meta work of our particular group dynamics, in order to accomplish our professed projects.

There are natural and unavoidable tensions within groups, independent of what ordinary development would entail.   The lack of understanding of such dynamics has aggravated many a group into adopting attitudes that only increase these tensions.  Some of the tensions are problematic, but a good portion of them fit what Kenwyn Smith and David Berg describe as “the paradox of group dynamics,” insolvable paradoxes inherent in a group.  I love their language:

…instead of seeking to resolve (emphasis theirs) the conflicts that create paralysis, we need ways to release these conflicts…central thesis is that group life is inherently paradoxical, and when group members are unable to see this they adopt approaches to group experiences that ‘create’ conflicts out of processes that are ‘conflictual’ only because of the way they are understood.  When group dynamics are experienced as oppositional, members act as if the conflicts must be ‘resolved’ before the group can move on, thereby making ‘unresolvable’ that which needed no resolution until it was defined as needing resolution.”

And so we have management vs. labor, men vs. women, black vs. white, etc.; in other words, the “we vs. them,” the “either-or” trap.

The classic example for illustrating paradox lies in the juxtaposition of the following statements:

The below statement is true.

The above statement is false.

Each on its own is perfectly accurate, but putting them together, they create the self-referencing and self-contradictory paradox.  They further suggest that being confined inside the frame of these statements, we are trapped, but using an outside frame, as in pretending you are not a member of this group, we maybe able to make some sense while allowing the paradox as it stands.

The authors list seven group paradoxes:  The paradox of identity, The paradox of disclosure, The paradox of trust, The paradox of individuality, The paradox of authority, The paradox of regression, and The paradox of creativity.  I will focus on the first and the last one.

One of Smith’s teaching points that really struck me and has stayed with me is:  The group doesn’t want the whole of you; it only wants part of you.  And the corollary is:  You want to be part of a group, but also apart from the group.  During the initial formation of a group, if we bring all aspects of our identity into it, like everyone else would like to, the group would not gel well.  And initially, everyone (including the group as an entity) is “hedging” by disclosing only limited information about himself/herself/itself, which also hampers the group to gel.  However, in order to strengthen the group, a degree of trust has to be invested.  And so we constantly gauge the situation, asserting our own identity or individuality or independence while surrendering a little here and there for the common good of the group.  Yet, without the group, our sense of individuality or identity may be weakened.  We are always becoming, as are groups.

One of the origins of forming any group is our reaction toward the other groups or entities whose actions we don’t like or have concerns for.  Even forming any committee at workplace is a reaction to something we need to address, and usually stemming from some dissatisfaction.  “If only the others would see our way, or would change their behavior…” However, if we allow the “others” their ways, behaviors, or opinions to stay, treat them as natural expressions of differences within a functional group, not only would we eliminate or minimize conflicts, we increase the diversity of thinking, thereby may bring more resources to address the real task at hand.

As groups mature, norms follow.  Usually no one defines norms – because they are implicit rules — till they are broken.  I remember this great exercise (I had to do it myself) in teaching norms:  We tell students to think of a norm and then go out and break it.  The major condition is:  do no harm to self or others.  Usually norm breakers don’t experience fear when committing the act, but a LOT of anxiety.  Some examples are:  riding in elevator facing others; going to a gay bar as a straight, ordering from menu backwards, as in dessert first. Try it sometimes, very educational!

Once a group feels settled, then comes the challenge of how to be innovative and creative.  “The paradox of creativity is that the creative process, the making of the new, involves destruction, the very antithesis of what creativity symbolizes, yet the refusal to destroy blunts creativity’s possibilities.”  Before we think a group in constant flux has more potential to be creative, we should remember why we need to be part of groups sometimes.  As the group gains maturity, through patterns (norms) and rituals or rules, it allows individuals to grow with it.  And in order to change, you need to be able to define what, among that which has been established, needs to be destroyed.  This is very much in line with system thinking; we need to understand context and grasp bigger pictures.

Now here comes an interesting point.  Usually a group would allow only one or two individuals in the group to be the “creative” ones.  Here is another teaching point I have learned and loved:  If you want to be a deviant, be the first one.  This is the one into whom the group can deposit all their creative energy.  However, while the group loves this individual’s creativity, it also hates her.  If these love and hate feelings get too intense, then the group is likely to split into two: members joining the positive side viewing the creative/deviant as a hero, and members with negative view of the creative/deviant, inclined toward scapegoating.  Yet, the underlying dynamics driving each side indicates that what each offers to the group is identical to the other.

The major point of understanding all these paradoxes is:  Accepting them frees us to put more energy into moving and acting.  So, when you feel as if your group is stuck, step back and assess if “solution” is necessary, or if just finding ways to release those tensions will do.

Now an important disclaimer:  I am not advocating for group work, nor suggesting that a group is more productive or creative than individuals.  Not at all!  Today’s entry is about what you need to be aware of when you have to work in a group.  Whenever “group” becomes the focus, I worry for introverts.  So, I was delighted to read Susan Cain’s piece, The rise of the new groupthink,” in today New York Times’ Op-Ed.  She is a powerful advocate for introverts and introversion.

Once in a while, I do love just talk about theories.  But next time, I will bring to your attention something more tangible.  Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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VW, Blackberry, Work & Life

Let’s see how I do with the muddle (or, puddle?!) in my mind in this entry; you’ll see later why I say this.

Right before Christmas holiday, there was an interesting piece of news on BBC, about VW’s new policy of turning off emails on their employees’ blackberry.  This was the outcome from a negotiation with German trade unions, and the policy doesn’t apply to management.  The impetus came from employees’ dismay at having emails intruding in their home lives almost 24/7.  So, the new regime will start the email transmission from ½ hour before the starting time, 8AM, on work days, and end ½ hour after the closing time.  People can still use the blackberry for other “normal” functions. VW did stress that such policy should be made local and may not be appropriate (or appreciated?) elsewhere. A French information technology service firm’s CEO proposed to ban internal emails altogether from 2014.  WOW!

our goofy dog of omega status!

Perhaps too paternalistic for most Americans?  If a US company adopts such a policy, or better yet, our government issued a decree to such effect, people would cry “socialism.”  Are all aspects of socialism evil? Is capitalism all encompassing wonderful?  (or, one could say:  are all aspects of capitalism evil and are all dimensions of socialism charitable?)  Folks, we wear the either-or framework at our own peril.

Okay, off the preaching stand and onto the pavement of life and work.  People, especially in the professional ranks, really cannot set their own boundaries, such as not checking emails after 8PM.  A few can, but most cannot; the “fear” that they might miss something important, with consequences for promotion and the health of one’s career, or messing up a chain in the operation sequence, is difficult to let go.  And organizations know it.  So, while we pretend that we observe clear boundaries of not bringing our social “life” into work, there is no symmetry limiting the organization’s imposition upon us.  Whatever work we cannot get done, we bring home to finish, and then some.  Of course, if management is confronted by complaint of overworking, they can always fall back on the falsehood that “you don’t have to do it!”  And a lot of people don’t want to admit publicly that they “can’t” finish their work during office hours; they might be perceived as “incompetent.”  Of course, depending on the circumstances, putting in more hours can be viewed as “dedicated.”  Either way (and pun intended), employees don’t really have genuine autonomy.

Have you also noticed that we tend to get sick when weekends come around?  It’s as if we generate enough adrenaline during the week that we can keep on pushing even when we don’t feel great.  Then when the weekend comes, our defense/immune system lets its guard down, and WHAM! we come down with a cold/flu or other forms of malaise.  And the families and beloved ones pick up the extra chores and soldier on.  Families are very much part of organizations’ scheme of things.

more like devil here, thanks to photoshop!

This issue blossomed for my family during the holiday when all three of us at one point or another came down with some nasty bugs, but manifested in different forms in each of us.  Mine turned from an obnoxious cold to bronchitis, and quickly morphed into pneumonia (I just coughed continuously!).  After two day of antibiotics, my brain is gradually coming out of the fog, but I still get exhausted and light-headed easily.

Enough about me.  I just want to illustrate how we all are interconnected, even to the level of one individual person’s career within an organization.  It’s that the organization doesn’t care – it keeps on taking and still wanting more – which irritates me.  I heard a story about how after a scientist won a nice grant, the spouse sent out emails to the scientist’s colleagues to the effect that the spouse deserved some credit.  That’s chutzpah.  Maybe even bad form?  Perhaps.  But there is some validity as well.

Any more words will become gibberish.  Till next time when I WILL be well, healthy, and

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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