Playing the “why-boy” game with our habits

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Following my last post on Anita Williams Woolley’s work on outcome and process focus I kept thinking about the idea of action identification. This is how action identification is generally defined:

[A]ccording to this theory, individuals can construe, construct, or conceptualize a specific act with reference to specific details and features. Alternatively, they can construe the same act with reference to more abstract labels, such as the purpose, goals, or implications of this action

And as I quoted from Woolley in my last post:

[I]ndividuals can identify actions as low-level, specific activities (e.g. ‘‘I am typing a report’’) or in higher-level terms that encompass multiple specific alternative activities for enactment (e.g. ‘‘I am consolidating and communicating my knowledge’’).

I think this idea has tremendous power both professionally and personally. It reminds of the idea of Equifinality I wrote about the past:

There are a lot of ways to reach success.  If we treat everybody according to their uniqueness we create variety which is beneficial

Many times we get entrenched in our own habits. We do the same thing again and again just because we are used to it or because it is easy. Or we might do it without even thinking about it. Just because. And we resist change because we our sure that our way is the way. But there is no such thing as “the way” to do anything. This idea is wonderfully illustrated by Friedrich Nietzsche in his famous book Thus Spake Zarathustra:

By divers ways and wendings did I arrive at my truth; not by one ladder did I mount to the height where mine eye roveth into my remoteness. And unwillingly only did I ask my way—that was always counter to my taste! Rather did I question and test the ways themselves. A testing and a questioning hath been all my travelling:— and verily, one must also learn to answer such questioning!

That, however,—is my taste: —Neither a good nor a bad taste, but my taste, of which I have no longer either shame or secrecy. “This—is now my way,—where is yours?” Thus did I answer those who asked me “the way.” For the way—it doth not exist!

Thus spake Zarathustra

In The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us, the authors describe an interesting study:

For his first study, Rozenblit approached students in the hallways of the psychology building and asked them if they knew why the sky is blue or how a cylinder lock works. If they answered yes, he then played what he calls the “why boy” game, which he describes as follows: “I ask you a question and you give me an answer, and I say ‘why is that?’ Channeling the spirit of a curious five-year-old, I then just keep following each explanation with another ‘why is that?’ until the other person gets really annoyed.” The unexpected result of this informal experiment was that people gave up really quickly—they answered no more than one or two “why” questions before they reached a gap in their understanding. Even more striking were their reactions when they discovered that they really had no understanding. “It was clearly counterintuitive to them. People were surprised and chagrined and a little embarrassed.” After all, they had just claimed to know the answer.

And my question to you is: how many times do you stop and ask yourself – why I am doing this thing in this specific way? What am I really trying to achieve? What is my high-level goal? I think you will be surprised with some of the answers.



Why are they afraid?

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I read an interesting article about teleworking in the latest edition of the Knowledge@ASB. Here is a short part of that article:

With evidence mounting for teleworking benefits, the obvious question concerns why so many managers are refusing to offer the option. “It’s fear of the unknown,” says Bevis England, director of Telework New Zealand and facilitator of the Telework Australia initiative. “Some managers are simply reluctant to change. They think ‘if it ain’t broken don’t fix it’. But the system is effectively broken. In business, we have spent about 200 years learning how to cram people into concrete and glass mausoleums, justifying the rental expenses by claiming greater productivity. Now we are experiencing a new evolution in which we must unlearn those lessons.

Management style, for those who are not used to looking after teleworkers, must also shift from process-oriented to outcome-oriented management, Ward and England agree. Once the teleworker has the tools – the training, the information and the ability to do their job – the worker must then be trusted to get that job done and judged only by the outcomes of their efforts”.

What is it that managers fear so much? Why is it hard for them to let go?

I think in part, this is rooted in our own conceptions of management and leadership as top-down activities. The thinking goes something like this: “if I am the leader that means I need to tell everybody what to do. If they are not here, I can’t tell them how to do their work. If there are not visible, they might try to do things their own way. Because it is not my way, then it must be wrong”.

Sounds kind of dumb when it is put like that, right? Well, it is.

As the last sentence in the above quote implies, it is about trust, which is slowing becoming the glue that holds organizations (replacing fear and rules).

Lynda Gratton put it wonderfully while giving a eulogy to organizational loyalty:

But whilst loyalty is dead…long live trust. Loyalty is about the future – trust is about the present. Trust is core to the relationship between the employer and employee – without it relationships become simply transactions and work is mired and slowed through continuous checks and monitoring. CEO’s may not believe their executives to be loyal in the sense that they will be with them indefinitely – but they have to believe they are trustworthy. Trust is one of the most precious organisational assets – slow to build and quick to be destroyed. The precursor to trust is fairness, justice and dignity – demonstrated in how processes operate and how people are treated when the going gets tough

Until we come to the understanding that in many areas of business, top down just doesn’t work anymore and embrace the ideas of emergence, Equifinality and trust, we would probably keep fearing the unknown and making excuses. Are these activities you are comfortable with? I know I am not.


Internal motivation, conversations, incentives and Equifinality

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A few unconnected sources connected in my mind in the last few days and made me think about an issue I attempt tackling from time to time – incentives. First off, we have a post by Paul Hebert commenting on the description of a research done by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University Professor Denise Rousseau. On its face, Hebert says, the research suggests that providing rewards increases performance, even if they are unwarranted. However, Hebert doesn’t think so:

Providing “i-deals” – as they are referred to in the research – means the manager actually had to sit down and talk to the employee about what they valued and what they wanted.  In other words, they had a conversation, were interested in the output from the employee and considered their needs and desires in the process of defining work tasks.  The prime mover of performance isn’t the reward – it’s the conversation, the interest, the validation that what the employee does actually has impact on the company. Here’s the real test. Take the same amount of time spent figuring out the “i-deal” and spend it talking about the job, the impact, the way the employee does it, the roadblocks and the successes. In other words – talk about anything one-on-one with poorer performers and don’t offer any “i-deals.” I’m 100% certain you will get increased performance.

Take that idea connects wonderfully with what Ross Smith writes on the Management Exchange:

Does a paycheck, salary bonus, raise, or promotion put more work in to work? Well, it sure seems like lavish raises, exotic vacations, those coveted employee-of-the-month parking spots, and massive bonuses would make work more fun, doesn’t it? The research suggests otherwise: rewards, or worse, the threat of punishment actually make work less enjoyable and perhaps even reduce productivity. These extrinsic elements can make work feel like work.

People who are offered rewards tend to “…choose easier tasks, are less efficient in using the information available to solve novel problems, and tend to be answer oriented and more illogical in their problem solving strategies. They seem to work harder and produce activity, but the activity is of a lower quality, contains more errors, and is more stereotyped and less creative than the work of comparable non-rewarded subjects working on the same problem.”

Finally, look at some of the wonderful insight Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe provide in Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing:

There are two problems with incentives. First, they are often too blunt an instrument to get us what we need. In situations that call for scalpels, incentives are sledgehammers. Second, when incentives are introduced into a situation, they can undermine other, better motives to do the right thing. Different kinds of motives can compete, and financial or other material incentives often win the competition. The result, as we’ll see, is that such financial incentives can lead to demoralization—in two senses. First, they take the moral dimension out of our practices; second, they risk demoralizing the practitioners themselves.

In many situations, for many activities, no incentives are smart enough. Teachers like Deborah Ball and Mrs. Dewey spend their day figuring out how much time to spend with each student and how to tailor what they teach to each student’s particular strengths and weaknesses. They are continually balancing conflicting aims—to treat all students equally, to give the struggling students more time, to energize and inspire the gifted students. Along comes the incentive to bring up the school’s test scores, and all the nuance and subtlety of Mrs. Dewey’s moment-by-moment decisions go out the window. And what “smarter” incentive is going to replace judgment in making sensitive choices in a complex and changing context like a classroom?

And all of this made me think about incentives. In a way, the idea of incentivizing employee behavior means, to a certain degree, that the creator of the incentives knows what is the right behavior. Management, if you will, has the rule book that says how one needs to behave in every situation and thus is able to “reward” for compliance. And for those of you that this reminds something it should. This arrogant “management knows all” approach is the foundation of Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management.

In western culture the search for one truth is as old as philosophy. This thinking has penetrated into our business culture. However, there isn’t one truth that can explain the complexity of this world and the diversity of the people. It is time to recognize that ideas like Equifinality, differences and redundancies are valid business tools that can be used to reach business goals, just as much as the “one truth” idea. And while one answer/one way/standardization/rule book/Scientific Management mentality has its upside in some environments, I think we are starting to find out that it has major flaws and that it might not work in our own world today.

Incentives are will and continue to be an important part in people’s behavior and decision-making. They will also continue to be an important tool for business and management. But their reign as “supreme all knowing leaders” of workplace motivation needs to change. Our goal as managers is not to find the right incentives. Our goal is to create an environment where we do not need incentives at all. As Hebert says, one way to start on that path is by having actual conversations with employees.


The efficient, but less effective, way


“… [B]usiness students are trained to find the single right plan, right. And then they execute on it. And then what happens is, when they put the marshmallow on the top, they run out of time, and what happens? It’s a crisis. Sound familiar? Right. What kindergarteners do differently, is that they start with the marshmallow, and they build prototypes, successive prototypes, always keeping the marshmallow on top, so they have multiple times to fix ill built prototypes along the way. So designers recognize this type of collaboration as the essence of the iterative process. And with each version, kids get instant feedback about what works and what doesn’t work.

This amazing short TED talk and the above quoted part got me thinking about a term I came across in the beginning of my MBA training and recently came across again while reading Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances. Equifinality:

Equifinality is the principle that in open systems a given end state can be reached by many potential means.

We are sometime so consumed with the chase after efficiency that we forget two things:

1. There is rarely one “right” way to succeed at anything.

2. Redundancy, multiplicity and wealth of options sometime lead to better outcomes in terms of effectiveness, even though they might seem be less efficient.

A few months ago I wrote this about a different TED talk:

As managers we need to remember that each employee has a world of his own. We need to remember that his world is different than ours and different than “the world” we are trying to create. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Different does not mean wrong. The challenge is to acknowledge the differences and find similarities and connections between the worlds in order align them.

There is a lot of talk about the power of diversity. But diversity is not only in culture, gender, race, age and other demographic qualities. It is also, maybe even more importantly, about abundance of ideas. If different does not mean wrong, then it must have some kind of right component in it. Synergy, by definition, is better than the sum of its parts. But if you only think in one “right” way, there is no way to reach synergy, as it only comes from combination of different ideas.

In a world where efficiency is a standard and where effectiveness will become more and more the differentiator, it is time to start and think in terms Equifinality.

So, do you have one right way?