Agile Culture Part 4 - Enabling People

Last time we looked at what it means to be a learning organisation. There are obvious benefits to having a learning organisation - better decisions, better products, better processes, better, well, just about everything. There are also some non-obvious benefits that are, in some ways, even more powerful than the obvious stuff - it turns out that learning is extremely motivating for people. Learning organisations tend to have very highly motivated, switched on, dedicated people in them and that gives them a huge advantage. It's not just that these organisations attract those sort of people, but the really amazing thing is that the people already in the organisation become more motivated when the organisation embraces learning.

It turns out that learning - getting better at something - is one of the key things that motivate us. When we talk about motivators in a work context we tend not to think about things like learning. We tend to think more about things like pay and bonuses. Psychologists who work in this field divide up motivators into two types - extrinsic (meaning coming from outside) and intrinsic (coming from inside). Things like pay, bonuses, company cars and the like are extrinsic motivators. Things like learning are intrinsic motivators. Guess which turns out to be more powerful? Yep. Intrinsic motivators win. Extrinsic motivators tend to work in reverse - the lack of pay is a de-motivator, but once you are paid fairly, more pay does not equal more motivation. So, what are intrinsic motivators and how do they work?

Psychologists tend to argue over exactly what the intrinsic motivators are. Whether there are three, four, five (or more) and what they should be called. In his book Drive (an older book now but still one of the best sources for looking at what motivates us) Dan Pink calls the motivators Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose (he's in the three motivators camp). I'll leave the fighting to the psychologists. I don't really care about the fine distinctions between various motivators. That may be important for psychological research, but for practical purposes, you can pretty much divide up whatever set of motivators you are given into three basic groups - having a sense of control over what you do, the ability to get better at what you are doing and finally a sense of connection to what it is you are doing. Psychologists may subdivide to their hearts' content; this will do for our purposes.

The learning organisation we looked at last time taps very firmly into the "ability to get better" group of motivators. Dan Pink would call this "Mastery". We get a deep sense of satisfaction and reward when we can see ourselves getting better at things. It doesn't matter what we are doing, if we can see ourselves improving, we get motivated. This is the reason many of us have hobbies. They don't pay us anything, in fact they often cost us quite a bit of money. The real reward is that sense of achievement when we complete something - a new project in the workshop, a new belt in martial arts, mastering a difficult piece in music, learning new recipe, beating your personal best in sports, pushing your limits at the gym. Whatever it is you are into, a feeling of improvement is very motivating.

On the other hand, we also feel a huge sense of frustration and de-motivation when we feel that we aren't getting better. We try as hard as we can but it's just not working. We tend to give up in frustration. Or look for help. That's the key thing here. If we struggle then get help and succeed, the sense of accomplishment is huge. This is where leaders have a massive role to play in organisations - setting challenging goals and being on hand to help and mentor when people struggle. Don't do the easy stuff for them, that's de-motivating. Let them reach a point where they struggle and help them succeed. Don't do it for them, help them succeed for themselves.

The second class of motivators are those related to a sense of control or agency over what we do. Pink would refer to this as Autonomy. If we feel that we have some control over what we are doing, we are motivated to continue. We are also less stressed and healthier to boot. There have been a number of studies that show that people who have jobs that allow them more control tend to be happier, healthier and more motivated. A delivery driver who can set their own schedule compared to a delivery driver where the schedule is set by head office. An office worker who feels empowered to change and improve processes vs the same office worker who is told to rigidly follow the process and not to deviate.

Just as lack of improvement is a de-motivator, lack of control is as well. This is where agile practices like distributed decision making really help. They give people that sense of control. They are making real decisions. Traditional organisations where decisions are deferred upwards are tremendously de-motivating for the people in them (except the ones at the top who are making decisions, have control and are, unsurprisingly, generally quite motivated). Giving people that sense of control by delegating real authority and decision making power is one of the key things leaders can do.

The third class of motivator are those that relate to having some sense of connection to what it is you are doing. Pink would call this Purpose. Others call it Connectedness. It's that feeling that what you are doing is important. That it it's making a difference. This is the reason we volunteer with charities or devote our weekends fighting for causes we believe in. We generally do not get that sense of connection from work, which is unfortunate. Most of the talk about why things are important at work tend not to to give us that sense of connection. "This will increase return to shareholders" is, frankly, not motivating for anyone who isn't a shareholder. "This will be good for profits" is not motivating unless someone shares directly in those profits.

Leaders need to change the way they talk about things. Shareholder return and bottom line profits maybe important but they don't get people out of bed in the morning. Making a difference does. "This feature will make our services much easier to use and improve the experience of our customers" is motivating. "This product will make a positive difference to the lives of these people". Give people a sense of connection. Give them a reason why this thing they are doing is important.

This is easier in some industries. Hearth care, it's simple - this meds management program will cut down on drug errors in hospitals by 90% and save 100000 lives every year (that's a real product I worked on BTW). Imagine how motivating that is. "This new account type will make the bank a lot of money in fees" ... Less so. Every industry, every business, should be providing goods or services that make a difference to someone. Even banks - financial products make it possible to live in a modern world. They allow people to buy houses, save money, get paid. These are all important things

The most important thing a leader can do is tap into the purpose of the organisation and use that to give people a sense of connection to what they are doing. And no, profit is not your purpose. Profit is what comes from achieving your purpose.

So, leaders in an organisation should be giving people a sense of Connectedness through tapping into the organisation's purpose, a sense of control by delegating authority and a sense of improvement by embracing learning. But to do any of those, you need an organisation where people feel safe. If they don't feel safe, they won't feel in control, they won't take risks to and learn new things, and they won't feel connected. We need to build a safe organisation and that's what we will look at next time.