Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 7) Isolate initiative

Jan 16, 2011 by

This is the seventh in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 6) Manufacture motivation.

Who are the leaders in the various teams and organizations in which you work and play? Most people can respond to this question with a short list of people and in most cases the responses from members of a team will be consistent. The answer is usually obvious because we label people as leaders with titles. Conductor, manager, captain, CEO, pastor, teacher, prime minister, chief executive rabbit and so forth. In some cases people bestow these labels and responsibilities of leadership without knowing what leadership is. Some claim leadership is about vision while others claim it is about influence or simply having followers. Leadership is arguably all of these things and more. I believe, however, that over the years, the concept of leadership has become way too complicated. Quite simply, one specific point defines leadership more than anything else: taking initiative.

When you think about leadership in this way, everyone should be a leader because everyone in a team can and should take initiative. People should speak up when they believe their team should take a different path or when they see problems that the team should react to. The more people that can do this the more effective the team can be. Of course there is a potential downside: if everyone is always trying to take the team in different directions, the result might be chaos. Yet jazz musicians manage to make this work in small groups all the time. They are constantly switching between roles of leading and following, working variously as leaders or as “sidepeople” on different gigs. However this dynamic reassignment of leadership also occurs during performances. The leader of a gig might choose the tune and count it off, but at various times during the performance, different musicians take on leadership roles, and others follow as necessary. This happens most obviously when jazz musicians take turns performing as soloists and then provide accompaniment for another musician’s solos. However, the reassignment of leadership occurs even more frequently and less obviously than that. Sometimes even for just an instant, a musician who is currently playing as an accompanist may take on a leadership role to direct a specific change in the music. Jazz musicians simply cannot let leadership roles remain statically assigned if they want to create interesting, innovative music.

The key to avoiding chaos while encouraging everyone to take initiative is in staffing teams with people who are always mindful of the health and performance of the team and its various projects and instinctively know when to lead and when to follow. Decentralized, dynamic leadership is become increasingly more common as organizations must move faster and respond to the unexpected. Not surprisingly, the larger an organization, the harder it can be to successfully decentralize leadership. Jazz musicians can decentralize leadership in a small group but a symphony orchestra needs a conductor to act as a single command and control point. Yet there is a big difference between a conductor who actively encourages the musicians to speak up and thoughtfully considers their suggestions and one who acts like an overbearing maestro and insists that he or she knows everything. In education, Jacques Rancière’s classic 1991 book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, suggests that teachers must consider themselves as equals of their students. Teachers should not simply direct students but should facilitate discussions in which anyone can lead and help others to learn. In aviation, the field of cockpit resource management studies the teamwork that takes place in large aircraft with multiple people in the cockpit. Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center studied the underlying causes of pilot-error accidents in the mid-1970s. Their research involved interviewing airline crew members and observing flight crews exposed to potential accident situations in simulator experiments. The NASA researchers learned that pilots are far more likely to make mistakes when they rush to action instead of waiting to obtain more information, which they often can get from other team members.

Decentralizing leadership doesn’t mean that you must completely do away with all semblance of organizational hierarchy but it does mean that leaders must avoid isolating initiative to a small group of people. When leaders straitjacket people with restrictive command and reporting structures, they inhibit creativity and agility and limit their organization’s ability to respond to change. The path to success lies in giving up control and encouraging people in all parts of an organization to take the initiative.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 6) Manufacture motivation

Jan 9, 2011 by

This is the sixth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 5) Dream impossible dreams.

Motivation is the force that moves us to achieve goals.

  • Intrinsic motivation is that which comes from within a person. For example,you might do something purely because you enjoy it. It is something you want to do.
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from outside a person. Money, accolades, grades and prizes are all extrinsic motivators that will lead you to do something even if you really don’t want to do it.  These motivators are used when someone else wants you to do something.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be positive or negative. For example:

  • Positive intrinsic motivation: I really want to do this
  • Positive extrinsic motivation: Do this and we’ll pay you a lot of money
  • Negative intrinsic motivation: I really don’t want to do this
  • Negative extrinsic motivation: Do this or we’ll fire your ass

Coercion or punishment is an example of negative extrinsic motivation. There are obvious issues with this kind of motivation. Yet even positive extrinsic motivation has problems. Alfie Kohn, author, lecturer and education critic, wrote in the Boston Globe:

“studies shows that intrinsic interest in a task — the sense that something is worth doing for its own sake — typically declines when someone is rewarded for doing it”

The more extrinsic motivation is used, the less effective it becomes because intrinsic motivation declines. Yet organizations typically rely on extrinsic motivation. Additionally, as business becomes more complex and competitive, organizations are becoming increasingly dependent on creative people to help solve tough problems and create unique offerings. Yet, as Teresa Amabile, now a Harvard Business professor, points out in Kohn’s Boston Globe article:

“The more complex the activity, the more it’s hurt by extrinsic reward”

Of course most tasks don’t necessarily fall exclusively into one category or another. People typically perform tasks for their employers because they are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. They would enjoy the work anyway but they are also getting paid. However the most creative people and the best problem solvers are motivated primarily through intrinsic means. They set their own high bars and subject themselves to great pressure simply for their own satisfaction. When money or some other extrinsic means of motivation becomes their primary reason for working, they become increasingly ineffective and dissatisfied.

If organizations truly want to innovate they should seek out individuals who are driven by their own volition and give them completely free time to create. Google engineers are encouraged to allocate 20 percent of their time (one day per week) to any company-related project that interests them. Similarly, IBM has Think Fridays, to encourage employees to spend Fridays brainstorming new projects unrelated to their current work. When organizations hire people who are not self-motivated and then proceed to motivate them solely through extrinsic means, they create a way of working that’s not sustainable especially for interesting and challenging work. In other words they are simply manufacturing motivation.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 5) Dream impossible dreams

Jan 6, 2011 by

This is the fifth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 4) Demonstrate distrust.

To dream the impossible dream (cue music) is to set lofty goals with absolutely no chance of attaining them. It’s great to set such goals but they must be balanced with reality. Unfortunately teams do sometimes fail because they are living in a fantasy world. One interesting aspect of this is the concept of positive-thinking and books such as Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich that point out the problems of living in a sunny world where it never rains. Maintaining a positive disposition has clear benefits but this alone won’t ensure your success. If you really, really, really believe you can fly and you jump out of a window on the tenth floor and flap your arms…well good luck to you! As I wrote in the recently published article, Diversity Breeds Success, one way to have a balanced view is to ensure a distribution of perspectives across a team. Some folks may dream big while others may be devilish advocates. Their collective viewpoints may be balanced enough to allow the team to both aim high and hit that mark.

Even as an individual you can try to temper a wild fantasy with a dose of reality by self-critiquing but there is always the issue of cognitive biases. For example, confirmation bias which is the tendency to look towards information that confirms our preconceptions. The opposite of this is disconfirmation bias in which we avoid or discount information that contradicts our perspective. That’s why it is usually best to have someone else provide the opposing view.

There is one school of thought that says we should repeatedly reach for the sky and if we fail then try and try again. I touched on this in a previous post about the importance of screwing up. The problem is that there usually a cost for such misses and it needs to be taken into account. One of the benefits of failing should be that we don’t just fail but learn. In other words we might start out dreaming impossible dreams but in time as we learn to apply pragmatism while improving various skills and gaining experience, our aim should get better and we should miss less and hit our targets more often.

A good practice in dog training is to always end a training session on a positive note with something the dog can do and get praised for as opposed to something that they will likely fail at. When leaders repeatedly dream impossible dreams, leading teams repeatedly down the road to failure, people can become disillusioned, frustrated and tired. They may even begin to believe that they are not capable of achieving anything, saying “What’s the point of trying? We clearly suck!” Even if they believe in their own capabilities, they might say “We’re jinxed.” When goals are actually attainable people build confidence. Sometimes leaders need to exit their fantasy world especially when people in the trenches are telling them that a plan simply can’t be achieved. This is why the best strategies are those that are created collaboratively with input from everyone and not just senior management.

Think big but attainable by dreaming nearly-impossible dreams.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 4) Demonstrate distrust

Jan 1, 2011 by

This is the fourth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 3) Exploit efforts to the extreme.

Organizations have lots of rules. These rules are encoded in various processes and procedures, methodologies and ways of working. They are necessary to avoid chaos that can result when people don’t know what they are doing, perhaps because they lack experience or proficiency. Most teams are under constant fire, overworked and stretched to the limit. This is even more true in our current recession where cutbacks have reduced human resources and the people that are left must do even more. In these situations, rules can ensure that the right things get done.

You can relax rules if you have good people. By this I mean that you may be able to drop the enforcement of a rule, make it optional or just forget about it completely. Good people know what to do and if they don’t know what to do they will figure it out. The possibility of relaxing rules is based on trust. When you can trust Joe to post the press releases without checking with his manager or when Ann can take the project plan updates to the XYZ committee instead of the much larger and slower ABC committee, you can reduce friction, increase speed and reduce costs. Of course you don’t want to end up with a Barings on your hands. There are many good reasons for having rules in place. However here’s the thing:

As individuals get better, more experienced and more proficient, and teams get better, leveraging the combined efforts of the individuals, processes needs to change too. When organizations fail to do this they limit the performance of teams. Even worse, they frustrate high-performing individuals who will interpret the continued enforcement of unnecessary rules as micromanagement and a lack of trust in their abilities. In a jazz ensemble, capable musicians need to have the freedom to let loose and express themselves. This begins with music that allows for opportunities to improvise. Even when someone is not actively soloing, they want the same opportunities because there is constant improvisation by all musicians in small jazz group. The pianist may want to reharmonize some of the chord changes or the bassist might feel inclined to change the groove. This freedom is not only an issue in jazz. A great cellist playing entirely from a written part may want to write her own cadenza, change the bowings or introduce new dynamic contrasts that are not written in the music. Such things might be the catalyst for a truly unique performance. An incessant maestro who insists he knows everything may do more harm than good. Sure there are stylistic or other considerations but the point is that when you have good people you don’t box them in. You don’t impose the same set of rules on someone with a lot of experience as you would on a novice. At the very least leaders should be open to the possibilities because they can’t know everything. Unfortunately way too many think that they are the only font of knowledge.

Demonstrate enough distrust towards high performers and you will lose them.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


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