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Greater Incentives, Worse Performance – Really!

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“There’s a mismatch between what science knows and business does,” Dan Pink persuasively asserted as he made his case at TED for re-examining the use of contingent motivators. His TED talk hit my “sweet spot” in terms of professional concerns more than any other. The evidence from experimental tasks using little more than a candle and a box of tacks is compelling. Extrinsic rewards work well with simple tasks and narrow focus. Beyond a certain point, greater incentives actually lead to worse performance.

The most urgent agendas of the 21st century will be repeatedly undermined if we think we can motivate by incrementally increasing promised rewards for those who tackle them. “If, then, rewards don’t work! It makes me crazy!” Pink exclaimed. Yet we persist in trying to motivate our top talent in business today in ways that seem merely to increase stress and kill passion.

The failure of Encarta, Microsoft’s attempt to launch a virtual encyclopedia, contrasted with the massively expanding phenomenon of Wikipedia, is but one example Pink used to document his case beyond the behavioral experiments. “The building blocks for an entirely new operating system for our economy are: (1)autonomy; (2) mastery; and (3) purpose, “ Dan continued.

I resonate deeply with these principles. From the outside looking in on more than one corporate R&D; function, it seems nearly impossible to find ways to free highly talented, once passionate scientists and engineers, from “processes on steroids”. I just completed writing a paper on “Gaining Employee Committment in Tough Times, Performance and Potential in R&D; Today”. Now that I think about it, in the afterglow of TED, we are positioning some practices with clients that are well aligned with what I heard Dan saying from the TED stage.

“Science knows what our heart confirms.” No wonder I thought this was one of the best talks of the week.

Learning with Constrast and Differences – TEDGlobal 2009

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The TEDGlobal 2009 Conference which concluded Friday afternoon in Oxford was unquestionably THE most stimulating and engaging professional conference I have ever been privileged to experience. Most notable to me was the diversity of talent, stories, projects, people, from all over the world. Immediate affirmation was everywhere of the power of contrast and differences to stimulate learning and deepen global understanding. I was working at spanning and bridging ideas in my mind all week long! Exhausting! And wonderful…

Orphaned hip hop artist, Emmanuel Jal’s story of surviving the Sudanese civil wars celebrated in exploding rhythms the difference just one person can make, i.e. Emma McCune, the aid worker who rescued him (and has subsequently died – details were not able to be shared). V.K. Madhavan, the Executive Director, Central Himalayan Rural Action Group, a group specializing in rural agricultural development is also a TED Fellow. In a soft-spoken way, each time I spoke with Madhavan during the week, he conveyed his dedication to empowering women who work in agriculture in rural India. With just a few comments, his passion and commitment were not only evident but inspiring!

The stage was occupied (never more than 18 minutes) by the prominent ( e.g. Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of Britain) and the not so well-known or even obscure ( Jason Soll, a student at Claremont McKenna College who “flourished” cards for 3 minutes while energizing all of us with how learning can flourish). Michael Naylor, Director, Canopy Capital, London and a fellow participant, spoke with me as we walked to Oxford’s Natural History Museum to view the movie, “Home . Each time we subsequently met during the course of the week, I realized a new depth of concern and care for the intricate systems of the planet we inhabit.

Many TED talks are available on-line – more in time from Global2009 Conference, most from previous conferences. IF you want to keep your mind alert and your learning at the edge, I strongly encourage viewing a TED talk from time to time. It only takes 18 minutes OR LESS.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

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I am at Oxford University today for the launch of the TEDGlobal 2009 Conference. There is a palpable energy permeating the quad of Keble College this morning as momentum is building for what I anticipate is going to be an extraordinary week of conversation, learning, new relationships, and more.

The theme of the conference, “The Substance of Things Not Seen,” draws me to a realm of experience I have always been aware of and has been an important part of my life’s work. Just a few weeks ago a Sr. R&D; Leader spoke to her organization in the aftermath of yet another down-sizing and re-organization. She stated in a demeanor that was congruent with her words: “I believe our character, convictions, and the culture of this organization will have much more to do with our success than our structure or processes.” She knows something of the “substance of things not seen” as she went on to discuss with the employees gathered the importance of qualitative as well as quantitative assessment. I talked with some of the technical professionals that work for her afterwards. They were inspired!

ROII (Return on Investment in Interactions) is a new way to think about value. “Productivity in a Networked Era: Not Your Father’s ROI.” an article in the current issue of Chief Learning Officer magazine, makes a compelling argument for “value creation migrating from what we can see (physical assets) to intangibles (ideas). Look at Google and Cisco.” Participating in TED this week represents for me the quintessential challenge of finding value in expanding global networks, both real and virtual.

Speaking of fathers, last week before departing for TED I spent an evening with my 85 year old father at our family’s cabin in Northern Minnesota. In the midst of our reminiscing and talking about the end of life (my mom died a year ago), my Dad commented about “the most well-documented description of heaven” he had ever read – a book he wants to share with my father- and mother-in-law who are also facing the end of life. Here is a curious but deeply felt reference to his connection to the “substance of things not seen”. Scriptural allusions to this topic are many and remain prominent in the lives of those who have influenced me.

I bring my awareness of all this and more to my dialogue and exploration of this week. There is no question in my mind that the difference between value and success lies in a domain that is often intangible and frequently cannot be seen.

Thomas Edison Re-Considered

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Managers motivate. Leaders inspire. One without the other is incomplete when striving for sustainable performance. AND, no matter how powerful or forceful one might be, a leader cannot force you to commit nor compel you to create.

When times are tough, the need for the spirit to be sustained and nurtured does not vanish. Both “perspire” and “inspire” as well as “expire” for that matter are rooted in the Latin “spiritus” which means “to breathe in new life, to animate or energize”. Innovation requires inspiration as well as perspiration!

The earnest manager sometimes cites Thomas Edison when it comes to working harder. “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” Edison’s statement describes what is required to move a creative idea forward to an invention, and then perhaps an innovation, where real socio-economic value has been established. He is not addressing what is required to invite and sustain a creative work environment which is animated and inspired, even when times are tough. People who are managed by others need more than admonitions to do more, faster, with less.

Leaders Inspire by the Way They Inquire

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” ‘Search’ has made us all drive-by scholars,” writes Gregory Rodriguez last week in his column in the Los Angeles Times entitled, “Answers Can Be Found in Questions” . He addresses the fundamental value of inquiry, a skill that is waining in our society, as he points out.

He cites a newly published book by Andrea Batista Schlesinger entitled, The Death of “Why?”, The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy. Batista Schlesinger writes: “The way we interact with information reveals the priority we place on trivia over investigation, consumption over explanation, speed over reflection…”

Coincidentally, just this week I finished writing a paper with my colleagues that addresses the value of skilled inquiry when seeking to engage employees in tough times. We look at some of the “political” issues related to how the questions of performance and potential are framed in R&D; organizations. We review four ways our clients have validated success with skillful inquiry:(1) listening posts; (2) cascading conversations; (3) skip-level meetings; and (4) barrier-busting by managers.

In our experience the “political” nature of any inquiry about performance and potential in the R&D; space, both organizational and individual, will either deepen employee commitment through this economic downturn or perpetuate more cynicism and distrust.

As Rodriguez’ column highlights, the value and power of inquiry is being compromised with consequences we may not realize in the immediacy of our “search”.

Leaders inspire by the way they inquire!

The Prevalence of Blind Spots

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When it comes to vision, most animals care very little for the substance of things. Their eyes are oriented to movement. No so for human beings. Our eyes are continually filling the field of vision with content, even when it’s not there. The anatomical structure of the human eye causes a blind spot which is filled by the surrounding environment in a way that we may never notice. A simple visual exercise confirms it.

“We spend about one-tenth of our waking hours completely blind.” (A Natural History of Seeing, Simon Ings)

Cultural biases and organizational norms cause blind spots as well. “Taboos” exist which we cannot address because we don’t know they are there. We can’t “see” them, above all, in our own daily environment. The consequences, though often not apparent in the short term, have enduring impact over the course of time and history.

One way to increase our awareness and uncover blind spots is by comparison and contrast. Examining the differences between a microbiology lab and a high energy physics lab (ethnographic study) helps scientific and technical leaders uncover their blind spots. The patterns and practices for generating new knowledge are very different in these labs, for those who have eyes to see.

Just as an ophthalmologist tests visual fields of the eyes, it is possible to check periodically for blind spots of leaders. Paradoxical as it may seem, successful leaders know how to look for their own blind spots as well as those of their organization. Leaders can develop and practice skills to make visible what is invisible. As a result new fields of awareness emerge.

Awareness precedes choice. Energy follows attention

Profitability and True Value

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Several important people in my life, including my son, urged me to read David Brooks op ed column in the New York Times several weeks back now. I only recently got to it. Alas, “In Praise of Dullness challenges much of what I hold important in my life and work. Brooks asserts that recent research proves that “warm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.” He even cites Jim Collin’s seminal work, Good to Great in support of his argument.

As one reaches the conclusion of his column, the “political” nature of his argument becomes blatantly apparent. It reinforces the need to test underlying assumptions (which are frequently very political in nature) and examine common practices for sustainable value. For example, Brooks equates political talent (ala Washington D.C. in any case ) with “charisma, charm and personal skills”. If politics is indeed about the inevitable exercise of power and struggle for control, then political skills are much more about persuasive influence and effective management than Brooks leads the reader to believe. And such political skills are important to successful leaders, regardless of position.

The current economic climate does not speak well of the “success” of American businesses, including the leadership of many CEOS. If innovation is indeed required to maintain or regain competitive strength, the human all too human factors in the work environment, including the need for trust and some measure of personal fulfillment, are essential.

Insufficient criteria for success are confused with generating sustainable true value. Paradoxically, “breaking the rules “ of what many have deemed “profitable” may be what is required.

The Bad Rap of “Politics”

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Over twenty years ago, Peter Block published a book entitled The Empowered Manager, Positive Political Skills at Work. It is one of the few references I have found that acknowledges the inevitable reality of politics as well as the possibility of redeeming the meaning of the word itself. Max Weber defined politics as “the struggle for power”. (The word “politics” originally comes from the Greek word polis meaning city or state.) The struggle for power is a reality day after day, wherever people gather.

Block writes: “The process of organizational politics as we know it works against people… We empower ourselves by finding a positive way of being political. The line between positive and negative politics is a tightrope we have to walk. We must be powerful advocates… in a way that does not alienate those around and above us.”

SFB Associates is launching our Politics of Creativity™ Assessment this week. It is very simply five propositions and twenty normative statements which we believe will help R&D; functions in particular find positive ways of being political. Proposition # 1: Innovators break rules. This is not necessarily bad, but it is almost inevitably political. Our purpose is to break down the barriers that give politics a bad rap in organizations – naming it for what it is – “a struggle for power” which is real and needs to be more effectively addressed if we want more innovative break-throughs.

Tapping the Full Potential of Top Talent

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More than one of our clients in the last year has asked the question: “Are we maximizing the contribution or optimizing the potential of our technical employees?” “How do we know if the performance of our R&D; pipeline indeed reflects the full potential of the top talent in our labs?”

While looking for a response to that question may be useful, any answer to it is inherently “political”. Why? First, because the criteria for “performance” are not widely understood and accepted the deeper one goes in most R&D; organizations. There is often substantial disagreement about how “performance” is recognized and rewarded (and not much dialogue about what performance really means to the professional at the bench). Secondly, human potential cannot be captured by any metric. There is always more potential.

The answer will always be political; the inquiry, however, is essential.

When asked about employee potential, THE most frequent indicator that management points to is the “engagement survey” conducted by corporate HR or global shared services. I was recently sitting in a break-out group with a 10-12 scientists from the R&D; function. We were asked to work on the low scores on an “engagement survey” related to “working with the customer”. The entire 90 minutes was spent debating what “customer” means for the R&D; group. The group virtually discounted the value of the entire survey because of lack of shared understanding – not just related to ”customer” but other aspects as well for those completing it.

Trying to decode corporate surveys is no substitute for being engaged oneself.

The Power of Perfection

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“If you become widely successful because you do everything right, you’re doomed.”

So said
Clayton Christensen, academic, author, and authority on “disruptive innovation” whom I heard speak last week on the state of healthcare in our nation. While I indeed share many of his concerns about our healthcare system, the above comment at the beginning of his presentation was what loomed in my mind at the time and ever since.

Our drive to “get it right” is fueled by a confusion between excellence and perfection. I can’t tell you how many times I hear talented and highly trained PhD professionals working at the lab bench comment on the potential value of an 80/20% solution. Yet seldom is that deemed adequate, either by research professionals or management. Despite the rhetoric, the “line” doesn’t play. Why?

As individuals we’re reluctant to attend to a root cause – the need we acquired as individuals, somewhere along the way, to be “perfect” in order to be accepted, recognized, loved. I can “hear” clients thinking, “Don’t go psychological on me!” However, such personality traits, multiplied many times over in a given organization, become embedded in the culture. We are more productive when we don’t undermine ourselves and our projects with the unrecognized power of perfection. At least I am.

To know the difference between excellence and perfection is to understand what it means to be human.