Saturday, March 27, 2010

A Management Paradox: Autonomy Leads to Higher Engagement

The idea of management, (as in management of people as opposed to supply chains for example)is built on certain assumptions. Daniel Pink, author of the book Drive says management "presumes that to take action or move forward, we need a prod - that a absent a reward or punishment, we'd remain happily and inertly in place. It also presumes that once people do get moving, they need direction and that without a firm and reliable guide they'd wander."

"When we enter the world are we already hard wired to be passive or inert? Or, are we wired to be active and engaged?" Pink asks.

Pink is convinced that we it is in our nature to be curious and self-directed. Have you ever seen a child who is
not curious or self-directed? If by the age of 13 or 44 we have become passive and inert, it is because life has taught us to be that way, something flipped our default setting.

In my father's generation, companies viewed human beings as human resources, simply cogs in a wheel to keep the machine running. (Some would argue that many businesses are still stuck in 1950's when it comes to this mindset.) But today, economic accomplishment, and of course personal accomplishment, depends on allowing our nature to surface and thrive rather than stuffing it in a rigid box. It means that as managers, we need to resist the temptation to control people. Instead, we need to create an work environment that reawakens people deep-seated sense of autonomy and initiative. That is the key from moving from blind obedience to inspired performance in the workplace.

A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance. Recent behavioral science studies have shown that autonomy leads to more innovation, higher productivity, less burn-out and an enhanced sense of well-being. For example, a group from Cornell University studied 320 small businesses. Half of those companies granted autonomy to their employees and the other half used a top-down approach to management. The businesses that gave their employees more freedom of action grew four times more rapidly and had one third less staff turnover than the business that had a command and control style of management.

So why is it then that the majority of companies are still relying on a style of management that still largely revolves around supervision, "if you do this, we will we give you that" type of rewards and other forms of controls?

Pink tells the story of a software company in Australia called Atlassian who tried a bold experiment in 2002. The owners of the company, Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, wanted to jump start creativity and innovation in their organization. They decided to set aside an entire day once a quarter for their engineers to work on any software problem they wanted as long as it was something that was not part of their regular day-to-day job. The day begins at 2:00 pm on a Thursday and at 4:00 pm on the Friday, engineers come together for a celebration with cold beer and chocolate cake to show off their progress. Many employees worked through the night for the fun of it.

Over the years, these creativity sessions yielded a whole variety of software solutions that might not have emerged otherwise. In the Spring of 2008, Atlassian announced that for the next 6 months, software developers could spend 20 percent of their time, rather than one intense day four times a year, working on any project they wanted. In a blog post to employees they said: "
our hope is that 20% time gives engineers back dedicated stack time - of their own direction - to spend on product innovation, features, plugins, fixes of additions that they think are the most important."

A surprising fact is that one of the companies that pioneered this approach was the American company, 3M back in the 1940's (!) The president and chairman at that time, William McKnight, believed in a simple credo "
Hire good people and leave them alone." 3M technical staff could spend 15% of their time on projects of their own choosing. The creator of Post-it notes, Art Fry, came up with his very profitable idea during his 15% time! As a matter of fact, most of the inventions that have carved 3M such an envious niche in their field came from those experimental periods of playing around with ideas.

The carrot and stick approach used to "motivate" employees in the workplace is seriously disconnected from what behavioral science is demonstrating: autonomy leads to innovation and to a sense of job satisfaction.

What about you? Does having freedom of action a factor in increasing your level of motivation? What has been your experience in the workplace? How could we make a solid business case for increased autonomy in workplaces? Would love to hear your ideas about this...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Souvenir from Cuba

I relish in the warm embrace of the sun,
The caress of the tropical breeze on my face,
And the heady smell of the spicy earth.

At my first glimpse of the ocean, I catch my breath.
I am in awe as I drink in
The turquoise color of the water
The rythm of the waves, like a strong heart beat
The soft white sand beneath my feet...

As I walk along the beach, the sun is rising on the horizon
Projecting new patterns of light on the water.
I feel my heart growing wings.
Joy seeps into my being.
I feel a huge sense of gratitude
For the wondrous gifts of nature.

I am reconnecting with the child within.
She kneels down in the sand
And picks up treasures from the sea:
An orange sea shell;
A broken nautilus that looks like a rose bud;
A minuscule sand dollar, perfectly round;
A pristine white clam shell with a hole
That becomes a pendant on a silver chain.

People I meet say hello.
They smile a real smile
They are happy like me

I find a sheltered spot
And I practice my Qi Gong, face to the sun.
I feel the energy moving through me
And with me.

I am far away from home
And at the same time, I am home.

I am on an adventure.
An adventure of the soul.
My soul expands and grows.
My soul is elated.
I am in communion with the universe.

I am here.
We are here.
We are one.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Leaving a legacy

Today we celebrated my father's 80th birthday. Isn't that something? He was born in 1930 and was a child of the Great Depression; lived through the horrors of the Second World War; was in his early twenties when Elvis Presley was making girls swoon; was a new dad when the Beatles invaded America; saw the advent of the computer that took up a whole room to computers in the palm of your hand. He has so many stories to tell.

He is the patriarch of a big family, four daughters, one son, and twelve grandchildren. So many lives he touches.

The thing that I admire the most about my father is the fact that at fifty, he had the courage to go back to school to do a Masters Degree in Counselling. This was a big departure from his work as a biologist working for the federal government for over 35 years. He had always had the desire to help others. As a young adult, he had seriously considered becoming a missionary working in third world countries but life's unexpected twists and turns led him to studying science instead. Like a thirst that has not been satisfied, he felt drawn to revisit his earlier dream of helping others find peace and happiness. For one of the first time in his life, after raising five kids, he put himself at the top of his list and gave himself the permission to spend some time and money on himself. I remember watching him doing his homework on the kitchen table at night with the same verve someone would devote to writing the next Booker prize worthy book. If he was going back to school, he would do it with pride and get straight "A's".

Seeing my dad fretting over his homework, studying relentlessly, and wanting to succeed so badly was an inspiration to me. My parents both went to university and valued education. They had socked away enough money to allow every one of their five children to go to university or college
. I had always known that I would go to university one day and because my parents were paying for my education, I don't think that I valued it as much as I should... I took it all in stride. Seeing my father work so hard gave me a new perspective about learning. It is a true privilege to pursue post-secondary studies in a domain of your choosing.

Education is such a strong value for my dad that he has invested money in Registered Education Saving Plans for each and every one of his grandchildren.

By going back to school at fifty, not only did my father show me the value of education, but he also gave me a more lasting lesson: it is important to honor and love your dreams and...yourself.

When I was growing up, I did not wholly appreciate my parent's self-sacrifices. They always put their children first. But I did sense that they were not completely happy or content. My paternal grandmother had suffered through raising seven children in very difficult circumstances and my father learned along the way that being a parent was tough work. Being a parent, in my father's experience, was years and years of endless responsibilities, physical and mental exhaustion and self-denial.

At some point along the way though, my father decided to rewrite the family history of the good but unhappy parent. He took the plunge. He went for it. He believed it was not too late to pursue his long time dream. He did something about it. He chose himself for once.

I tease him. He went back to school in his fifties. I waited until my forties to follow my dreams. Maybe if each generation shaves off 10 years before they allow themselves to be happy, my children's kids will be happy all their adult lives...One would hope.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of spending a day at a workshop with Stephen Covey, author of
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. At one point, when he was teaching us the principle of "beginning with the end of mind", he asked us to imagine ourselves at 80 years of age looking back on our lives and speculating what our children, friends, colleagues and neighbours would say was the one thing they gained from knowing us. Covey's challenge to us was to live our lives in alignment with the legacy we wanted to leave our loved ones.

I think that my father can be proud of how he led his life. I hope he knows how much he has given all of us: wisdom, pride and more importantly, love.

If you were 80 years old, looking back at your life, what would you want your legacy to be?