Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Connecting People with Passion

When I ask someone “what most inspires you?” the answer rarely comes back as simply money. Money is the thing that must be taken off the table in order for people to be able to think clearly about their life and it is definitely the vehicle for meeting most of our basic needs. Where it is being offered by the truck load it is cited as pretty inspiring (as in the case of banking). Most companies however cannot offer this much and even if they can, it does not guarantee that the right decisions will be made. In fact, at best money has a pretty inconsistent effect on human motivation and at worst it interferes with making good decisions. Social studies have shown that where even rudimentary cognitive skills are required, where more money is offered as the incentive, poorer decisions are reached. Many companies know this already and view profit as a necessity rather than their ultimate goal. The classic business doctrine “Maximise shareholder wealth” is understood, however businesses that are run simply to fulfil this tend to have bad things happen, to the environment, to their company, to the products, or to people. Companies that continue to innovate and prosper, do so based on other guiding principles. A more meaningful and inspiring raison-d’etre. Read on to explore the meaning or purpose of some of these organisations.

Stanford University:

To enhance and disseminate knowledge that improves human kind.

Lost Arrow / Patagonia (outdoor clothing and accessories):

To be a role model and tool for social change.

The John Lewis Partnership (UK Retailer):

The Partnership's ultimate purpose is the happiness of all its members, through their worthwhile and satisfying employment in a successful business.


To be disruptive, but in the cause of making the world a better place.

Atlassian (software developer):

Our mission is to build a different kind of software company — one that listens to client needs, values innovation in development and solves customer problems with brilliant simplicity.


Your future is our purpose.

Waldorf Schools (Rudolph Steiner’s Anthroposophical schooling methods):

Teachers in Waldorf schools are dedicated to generating an inner enthusiasm for learning within every child… This eliminates the need for competitive testing, academic placement, and behavioristic rewards to motivate learning. It allows motivation to arise from within and helps engender the capacity for joyful lifelong learning.

The Dandelion Time Project (UK social care trust):

Dandelion Time is a charity dedicated to helping children with emotional, behavioural and social difficulties, and their families, through engaging families in every day activities and reconnecting them through nature.

An interesting point about these is that they are not very prescriptive. Rather they succeed in creating a positive mood, a sense of self-worth, and movement in a positive direction. I have worked for some organisations intent on nailing down values and behaviours into a menu-style list for everyone to follow. There is a place for these "behavioural contracts" (e.g. where behaviour has derailed into a conflict) however the rest of the time it's pretty much a passion-killer! Who wants to be so tightly controlled? People tend not to be too inspired when being told exactly how to behave; nor do they tend to behave in the way intended. It risks creating an unhealthy parent:child dynamic and interferes with our need for autonomy.

Few people come to work every day with the intention of maximising profits for their organisation; or to create a greater number of widgets than yesterday; or to cram in more tasks into their daily work routine. In fact, the real reasons are varied, and will differ from employee to employee. I say few do, because under certain conditions which have been quite manipulated (I'm thinking about the UK schools' league performance tables here), there are people becoming focused on productivity measures. When intelligent and flexible thinking is manipulated however, as I said before, the cost is that undesirable and often bad things happen. The opposite to behavioural manipulation is putting into practice what truly inspires and motives us towards a common goal.

Mostly, people are guided by their pursuit of meaning, mastery and autonomy, whether at home or at work. Removing obstacles to delivering one's best and inspiring sufficient meaning, respect and challenge, is the golden opportunity of our time.


Karin said...

This reminds me of an experiment I once read about. Just googled - and the experiment was Festinger & Carlsmith, 1959. You probably know it, but just to recao...two groups performing a dull task were asked to persuade another group that it was a fun task. In one group, participants were paid $1 to do this. In the other group, $20. The $1 group made a better job of persuading the others that the dull task was actually fun. I think the thinking was along the lines of "it's degrading to lie for the sake of $1" so instead they developed the belief that the task genuinely was fun...and were therefore more convincing.

The moment you decide to yourself that you're doing something for the money is, I think, the moment it stops being fun/interesting.

That's probably where so many companies that use fee targets and bonus schemes go wrong.

Joanne Milne said...

Thanks for posting such an early study. There are even more that point to the same conclusions now. It really makes me wonder, why do we still think it's the best way to do things when the evidence has been around to the contrary for such a long time? One hypothesis is the alternatives are too difficult or not desirable to do. Command & control styles are more familiar than "sharing & caring" perhaps. A LOT of people tell me "we don't go in for that soft fuzzy stuff here"!

Slambang said...

Do you think maybe a lot of people just don't expect to particularly enjoy their jobs? I can remember a pretty horrible organisation I worked for very briefly when I was 21. Also maybe a more dour form of the Protestant work ethic that doesn't hold with actually enjoying your works. When I was 21 I worked briefly for this pretty notorious company. I was given a tricky task to do, and I enjoyed it (the challenge of it). When my boss asked how I'd got along with it I said something like "yeah - it was fun." He grumbled "we're not paying you to have fun." He wasn't joking, either.

Joanne Milne said...

One of the companies I mentioned here have 1 day / month where their staff work on anything they want. The only proviso is that the day after they come together & share what they've done but not a lot of presentations & pressure - it's called a fun day, with beer & cake, etc. I can imagine what your old boss'd say if he was advised to start that!

Nick said...

I have been suggesting something very similar within our organisation. I called it Skunkworx - staff can spend 15% of their time on anything e.g helping a colleague in a completely different section without requiring sanctions from bosses, learn a new skill/language, try out a new approach without having to produce a business case first etc. With the same proviso - reporting back (- no such thing as failure). The rationale of this approach is to build trust, which can lead to a real change in culture.

Joanne Milne said...

Yes, google give 20% of the working week to new, unformed projects with proviso they share the ideas; same goes for Atlassian (1 day / month sharing ideas in a fun & social environment). Feeling trusted is hugely empowering. How is that going Nick?

Nick Ananin said...

At this point in time the concept has been discussed but the issue is that the culture also needs to change to permit this sort of approach. So I am quietly pushing and hoping that one team will start - which will lead to others ...

Joanne Milne said...

Nick - good luck. I know it's not easy to be the one pushing for change. For an innovation culture to foster there is requirement for a more intuitive leadership, methods needed for fostering higher engagement (thus building trust), flexibility in communication styles, knowledge sharing activities & systems for sharing learning. Can you encapsulate all of these in your sphere of influence?