Sunday, June 6, 2010

Engagement depends on doing useful work.

Daniel Ariely recently spoke with Robert Siegel on NPR about his new book The Upside of Irrationality. In this interview he talks about an experiment in which he asked people to put together Lego robots.

With one group, the experimentors had the subjects build as many robots as they wanted from fresh parts. And they discovered that people who said they enjoyed Legos tended to build more robots.

With the other group instead of providing an endless supply of parts they only had parts to assemble two robots. To supply parts for subsequent robots, the experimenters took apart each finished robot. They did this in front of the subjects as soon as the robot was finished. This second group built fewer robots. And, perhaps most interesting, is that under these conditions the people who reported that they enjoyed Legos, did not build more robots than the people who didn’t share enthusiasm for Legos.

In the book Advantage: Business Competition in the New Normal, I point out that one pillar of engagement is the link you create as a leader between the work an employee does and their sense of self worth. “If the work allows people to prove their worth to themselves, you have a winning formula.” By taking apart the finished robots, the experimenters took away this sense of worth, obviously the finished product had no worth, since it was immediately disassembled.

The same thing happens in companies that employ tools like a stage-gate process that “puts discipline around vetting ideas”. A stated purpose of a stage gate process is to kill most ideas, letting only the ‘best’ ideas forward. (Of course, we know that the certainty we have around the ‘best’ ideas or the ‘stupid’ ideas is every company’s Achilles heel.)

But killing an idea has the same effect as disassembling robots. It completely undermines the flow of more ideas. That is why in Advantage I suggest companies employ tools like the Risk-Gate™ process so that you never need to kill an idea. With the Risk-Gate™ process, each idea sorts itself out under the management of its creator. But nobody ever needs to kill an idea. The process allows people, who come up with an idea, to set it aside and go after a new one.
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