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What Motivates Us? 

I work with developing new products (on my own and with colleagues) and I started comtemplating about what factors are efficient when you want to motivate people in the innovative process of product development. I started reading about this topic and I stumbled upon writings by John Kotter and Dan Pink.

A good way to understand what motivates us you can have a look at Dan Pink’s presentation at TED 2009: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

Now, to get down the points that they have. The traditional notion of carrot and stick incentive suprisingly only work in a narrow set of situations. The conclusion is that if you perform repetitive work after a set of procedures that have already been defined, economic incentive WORKS! If you are in a process that requires creativity and thinking outside the box, economic incentive DOES NOT WORK! In fact, it can WORSEN the performance.

Now, a lot of the organisational structures built around traditional businesses are founded on carrot and stick way of thinking. The reality is that a lot of the work, we perform today is not repetitive and simple work. We work in markets that demand creative thinking to stay competitive. If we don’t perform accordingly, we lose our competitive edge. This is not to say that compensation does not play a part in motivating people. However, if you, as a manager/CXO/VP or whatever, can create an environment where compensation isn’t even a factor (which translates into – pay enough or even pay more than enough) then you have succeeded in creating an environment, where people can explore ideas without being worried about hurrying along results in order to get their bonuses. It is just in human nature to find the easiest and energy effective way to get the job done. This kind of thinking is not desirable in the creative process.

OK – if that doesn’t work, what can we do instead? Well, our friends Dan and John have a couple of ideas on how to motivate and how to urge people to perform. Dan works with concepts such as: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

Autonomy deals with the desire to be able to control your own life and the direction you take. He mentions some examples in the talk on TED in the link above: FEDEX days, 20% Time at Google and ROWE. All of them describe situations where you are free from the external boundaries that you normally have in your work environment – you decide when you want to work, what you want to work with and how you want to work. This only works if you are told that you need to do something. There needs to be something at stake.

Mastery follows the notion that people have a desire to get better at what they feel is interesting. Whether it is ABAP Programming, Project Management or playing Playstation. It is just in our human nature to constantly want to get better.

Purpose is the desire to participate and contribute to something larger than oneself. If you are a consultant working on a new product, you would like to feel that there is some higher purpose to what you are doing – if this isn’t the case, then what is the point of you working on it? I bet that you can find other more interesting things to do. It is just not a productive way to spend your day.

Now, Kotter has written extensively on how to act against organisational and individual complacency. What he suggests in his new book – A Sense of Urgency – is that you need to create a sense of urgency. This urgency can be enstilled in people, if you can expose people to new areas within their field that they are unaware of, because they have been focused on something else. For example, if you are working with SAP BW consultants, you can expose colleagues to the exciting new areas within f.ex. Xcelsius or Widgets. If you can expose a real gap between their knowledge (area of Mastery to follow Dan’s concept) and the reality outside their little world, then you have their attention.

So, here is the message in a nutshell:

 – Pay enough to knowledge workers. Keep them happy – it will pay off in the long run

 – Give them freedom to structure their workday but demand the same output from them!

 – Find out what they want to master – it can be useful

 – Give workers a sense of purpose!

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