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Drive: How we Used Daniel Pink’s Work to Create a Happier, More Productive Work Place

Posted by David Mole on Sep 10, 2015 |

Here we were, New Zealand’s largest and most successful e-commerce company, which is like their version of Ebay or as they say it is ‘where Kiwis buy and sell’. It is a real success story to the extent that they account for over two thirds of the domestic internet traffic in the country, an incredible statistic when you think about it. They have grown to more than 500 people over the course of 16 years and they are geographically spread across three cities. In addition to being an online marketplace they have moved into Property, Jobs, Cars and even things like Travel and Dating which means that if you are looking to buy something, find a house, sell your car or even buy your next holiday, the chances are you will end up with them!

With success comes scaling and as everything grew, the ability to ‘fire out’ new features, projects and updates became a thing of the past. That can be frustrating and demotivating when you are used to the way it was as a start-up.

When our journey towards a happier, more productive workplace started it is fair to say that people were feeling stressed and frustrated. You could feel it in the air as you walked around the office and speaking to people would bring tales of disappointment and irritation about the way things were. When we asked people, they indicated that on average they would score a four out of ten on a scale of happiness and motivation. That just wasn't acceptable.

We had chosen to actively follow and fully commit to the Spotify Model for scaling Agile (even though Spotify are adamant it isn't a model) made up of Squads, Chapters and Tribes. As the company continued to grow we had added more and more Squads, rising to about 30 at the last count.

With a need to grow and a desire from everyone to bring back the high levels of motivation, happiness and productivity we had observed as a start-up, we actively delved into researching the subject of motivation. By far the most comprehensive summary of genuine scientific research and practical advice was summarised by Daniel Pink (some of you will no doubt have seen his Ted Talk and read his book Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. )

Daniel Pink has lifted the subject of motivation out of the self-help books and into the forefront of people’s minds and he has been known to say that ‘There is a mismatch between what science knows and business does’. We knew this also applied to us because we were still following methods of motivating people which were based on ‘the way things are normally done’, rather than research or scientific findings. People were well paid, rewarded often and made accountable for their work, yet something was lacking and we wondered if the solution could be found by focusing on the principles of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.

A lot of people will come across Daniel Pink’s work and be inspired, what I think set us apart was that we actively translated his principles into real strategies and experiments which we carried out across the organisation. We were able to create the real and focused initiatives that you will read about in this article.

How can we motivate them? How can we get them to change?

As an Agile Coach it was very common for me to be asked questions like ‘How can we motivate this team?’ or ‘How can we get them to change?’, these questions often come with the right intention yet often they are asked with a backhanded accusation of laziness.

When faced with questions like these, I always think back to very specific line which jumped off the page from the book ‘How to win friends and influence people’ by Dale Carnegie. It said ‘There is only one way… to get anybody to do anything. And that is by making the other person want to do it’. As a result my answer to questions about motivation would focus less on ‘motivating people’ and more on creating an environment where people would want to be creative and excel.

The theory that people are inherently lazy is deeply flawed, given Autonomy people will not simply sit still. You only have to look at what people do in their leisure time, they run marathons, learn languages and play musical instruments. What we learned from Daniel Pink was that people weren't seeking to be lazy, in fact they would pursue a feeling called ‘Flow’ something which comes about when we are ‘stretched to our limits… to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile’ (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow).

Flow

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s extensive research has found that people experiencing this feeling (which he described as Flow) reported that they were guided by purpose, fully immersed in the experience itself. So much so that their sense of time can be altered and they lose self-awareness.

I myself have experienced this when I am skiing. I am far from the world’s best skier, yet the feeling on the slopes as my ski’s swoosh down the mountain is one where nothing else in the World matters at the time. The activity has my full attention, hours can feel like minutes and the only thing that matters is the next turn as I glide down the slope.

It is quite possible to have this feeling at work, being consumed by an activity and feeling Flow in the workplace can be a common occurrence for the lucky few. These activities are described by Daniel Pink as ‘Goldilocks tasks’, in that they aren't too easy and they aren’t too hard. This feeling of Flow therefore tends to occur at the boundary of of anxiety and boredom.

This work made us (as a company) question whether we experienced this often enough in the workplace, the answer was a resounding ‘No’ and we set about trying to create more opportunities for people and teams to have this experience as often as possible

Three key principles of motivation

Daniel Pink explains that motivation can be encapsulated by three key principles of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. In fact he describes each of them as:

  • Autonomy: The desire to direct our own lives
  • Mastery: The urge to get better and better
  • Purpose: The service of something larger than ourselves

Each element can be broken down further for example, giving someone Autonomy can mean giving them freedom over any/all of these four things:

  • When they work
  • How they work
  • What they work on
  • Who they work with

The absence of rewards

One of the things surprisingly omitted from these principles of motivation is the concept of rewarding behaviour. It is quite unusual to think of motivation without including a reward for a job well done.

Both rewards and punishment have been prevalent across businesses for many years, in fact I think that is a key part of what Daniel Pink was referring to when he talked about the mismatch between ‘what science knows and business does’.

To explain the omission of rewards, Daniel Pink explains an experiment by a scientist called Glucksberg which involved something called ‘The Candle Problem’. The key to solving the candle problem was that the participant must overcome something called functional fixedness.

Reference for image

In this example that means looking at the box shown in the experiment and seeing it as a potential platform for the candle, which is of course different to how it was presented. When a reward was offered to the people completing this problem, it took them longer to solve the problem.

In cases like these, rewards narrow our focus and create a tunnel vision. If we were carrying out manual tasks this would not be a bad thing but in our technical, creative world rewards could be crushing and not enhancing our motivation.Today’s knowledge worker needs to be given more autonomy, mastery and purpose and not ‘motivated’ with the promise of monetary rewards.

In an Agile environment, manual tasks are less and less prevalent, in fact most teams will work hard to automate anything which appears to be a manual task - meaning this old-fashioned if/then reward system would have less and less chance of success.

With that in mind, we set about creating experiments which would increase the prevalence of the three principles in across the organisation. What follows is description of the things we tried and why. Not everything is included, instead the focus is on things with the greatest opportunity for shared learning.

Experiments that improved Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Changing the Environment

Our attempts to increase Motivation coincided with moving to a new office. The scale of the growth we were experiencing had forced us to consider new premises. With the opportunity to influence the design of the new offices, we focused on creating the kind of environment where people would want (remembering back to Dale Carnegie’s quote) to be creative and do incredible work. We added things like slides between floors, caravans for meeting rooms and spaces for teams to collaborate.

Whilst these may appear almost gimmicky on face value, changing the environment significantly impacted how people acted and behaved. For example meetings in the caravan would be significantly different to those around a boardroom table (shorter, more fun and quicker to arrive at the outcome) and slides not only gave you a shot of adrenaline, they also brought us closer to different parts of the business. For example our Customer Service team sat on the floor below and whilst in the past it seemed like an effort to visit them, now it was fun.

We also had our Agile Squads creatively using the slides, one of these would take every slide in the building after their morning stand-up meeting, and you can imagine the difference in that team from one who would slowly arrive at their desk in a morning and silently start tapping on their keyboard. The new environment significantly impacted how people worked and behaved.

Use of games and simulations

In order to drive Mastery we ran training, games and simulations. We realised that people were having to learn ‘on the job’. That meant they were afraid to fail and quite often people would skip important parts of learning in the interests of speed, or meeting their sprint goal.

So we set about organising events to play Kanban simulations (such as the one available from GetKanban.com) or training exercises to slice user stories thinly (such as Elephant Carpaccio exercises that Alistair Cockburn created). Whilst taking several hours to take part in a game or exercise can seem a lot, the leap forward and learning during these times was impressive.

Self-Selection

One of the key forms of autonomy mentioned earlier is autonomy over who you work with. Prior to these experiments, people had very little autonomy in this area.

As managers, we had found that we often got things wrong in our selections, people would not bond as a team and we would need to make changes to teams all the time. So one of our experiments we chose was to let people choose their own team, to Self-Select into Squads of their choice. We ran a large scale Self-Selection exercise, letting everyone choose for themselves who they worked with and in turn what they worked on.

We believe this was the largest Self-Selection event of it’s type in the world and the story of what happened along with the facilitation process we used will be the subject of a book published later this year.

Choose your own Agile Ingredients

Another form of Autonomy is ‘How’ you work and when our new Squads were formed they would choose from a list of Agile ingredients as opposed to dictating Scrum or Kanban. People would choose which elements of Agile they wanted to use, for example some Squads didn’t want to have a stand-up meeting and that was their choice to make, however they would need to find other ways to co-ordinate if that was the purpose of that meeting. So our Squads understood ‘Why’ each ingredient was important as opposed to blindly following a process. This meant we saw both Autonomy and Mastery grow.

Book club

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best and having a book club meant more great books being read and an increase in Mastery for those who chose to take part. The club would meet once a month, (usually over a beer or a wine) and great conversations would follow. People would sometimes buy the books themselves, or share from a small company library that was starting to grow.

Give Feedback ‘On the Field’

One of the All Black rugby players explained a principle they used where they would give feedback ‘on the field’ not in the changing rooms after a game when it was too late to do anything about it. He also explained that this could be the youngest player giving feedback to the most experienced player, as everyone was actively encouraged to follow the principle.

We found a direct parallel with our Squads, where sometimes they would wait until the retrospective at the end of a sprint, or they would escalate an issue to a manager instead.

Image Source: stuff.co.nz

Adopting this principle didn’t come without its challenges and our early attempts at feedback were unsuccessful when some people took it as an opportunity to simply get things off their chest, sometimes quite bluntly! But with guidance and training, people eventually started to speak directly and constructively to those around them. This was an exciting development, not least because feedback is particularly important to Mastery.

Learn a new skill from scratch

When a new employee started they were given the opportunity to learn a new skill. This included inviting a skilled coffee maker in to teach people how to make the perfect cafe latte. Learning something new can be troublesome and frustrating at first, as your hands don’t seem to follow the orders given by your brain but that feeling is addictive and it inspired people to learn more new skills. This particular skill also had the side effect of a highly caffeinated workforce, which probably did no harm to our productivity either!

Measurement

Before we started any of these experiments, we knew it would be vital to get regular and consistent measurements in place. After all, whilst inspired by the topic and Daniel Pink, all we really had at the time were hypothesise and it was quite possible we could make things worse and not better.

In order to get started we created our own short, simple survey. Over time we tested and refined this and it became knows as the HIP survey, standing for Happiness, Innovation and Productivity. The questions were targeted to Daniel Pink’s three key principles, so that we could assess whether we were noticeably increasing their prevalence across the organisation.

The questions we created were:

To what degree do you feel you ...

1… are doing meaningful work that comes to fruition on our site/apps?

2… are allowed to do what's best for your work by focusing on one thing at a time?

3... have direct influence on how we work and solve problems?

4... work in a group/squad where people support and challenge each other?

5… have been able to learn new skills at work?

Over time and as we experimented with various strategies and activities we tracked the trends for each of these questions. The results we observed over the course of more than a year looked like this:

Here you can see clear and consistent positive trends and it is important to focus on trends not individual data points because we knew that individual scores could be influenced by current projects or physiological factors (hunger or sleep for example).

The final question we asked ( 6… Is there anything specific that has affected your scores?), is not shown on the graphs because it was an open ended question and this was important because it gave people the opportunity to raise individual issues, or ask for assistance in a certain area.

Of course measuring happiness and motivation is not new, there are existing techniques from things like the ‘Niko Niko technique and the work of Jeff Sutherland and Henrik Kniberg on the concept of a ‘Happiness Metric to name but a few. Even if you choose not to use anything explained in this article, I hope and encourage you to engage in a conversation with the people you work with. It has never ceased to amaze me how open and honest people can be when you simply take the time to ask them.

What Happened to Productivity?

In addition to measuring Happiness and Motivation, we knew it was important to measure productivity over the same time period. Without that, any increase in happiness could be dismissed as unimportant, or worse be seen as happening at the expense of getting things done.

There was no perfect way to measure productivity, so instead we used a proxy which was the ‘number of user stories shipped to production’. The great thing about this was that if people attempted to game or cheat the metric (as they often do with measurements or performance indicators) that would have lead to a behaviour we very much desired - that is our Squads would have sliced their stories smaller and deployed to production more often.

We saw a significant increase in productivity, in fact over the course of a year we saw the number of stories shipped to production increase by more than 50%. With multiple experiments happening at any time, it would not be fair to call this a controlled study but other researchers have reported productivity increases of 12% when participants are happier in a more scientific environment.

It would be untrue to say that everything we tried worked perfectly, here are some of the things which didn’t work and equally have the opportunity for shared learning.

Experiments that Failed

Avoiding Punishment is not a Purpose

When purpose is one of the key principles we were aiming for, some people started with the proposition that avoiding punishment could be purposeful endeavour.

Image Source

With this in mind we lined up a difficult or unpopular piece of work for a team’s next sprint, giving them the opportunity to avoid this punishment if their current work was successful. This led to undesired behaviour like cutting corners, lengthening sprints and hierarchies appearing within a Squad. After these failed attempts, the purpose was refined as we pivoted to specific Squad missions and clear product visions instead.

People don't align around dictated dates

Other failed attempts to introduce purpose included giving Squads an externally defined end date. Whilst in theory, aligning around this purpose was possible, it undermined and confliced with the work we had done to give Autonomy. Once again this drove the wrong behaviours, such as creating technical debt and we saw unwanted consequences of people taking time off sick as they dealt with stress.

This wasn't to say that all dates are bad or created conflict but those decided and predicted internally by the Squad didn’t have the same unintended or negative consequences.

Open Ideas forum with the CEO

Something the CEO was keen to explore was giving people more opportunities to pitch ideas, this went for anyone in the business and the intention was to collect ideas in an open and transparent way. People were keen to suggest their ideas too and there was no shortage of suggestions, every Wednesday morning people would turn up to personally pitch their idea to the CEO.

However, the range of ideas was vast and it was impossible to compare them side-by-side. It was also hard to say ‘No’ to people who had put a lot of thought and research into an idea that just may not work at that time. So the output from these sessions was low and they were stopped in favour of finding different and better ways for good ideas to bubble up.

How and why this relates to Agile

These kinds of experiments are important for many reasons, focusing on people’s wellbeing and giving them the best possible chance of success was a positive experience for everyone involved.

One of the things this demonstrated was the importance of the environment to the actions and interactions of the people involved. Also with greater exposure to Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose we were able to bring about incredibly positive results for for both the people and the company as a whole.

I think this story is directly related to an Agile world, because by introducing and following these principles, we are not suggesting that you should do the same projects that you used to do (following a more traditional methodology) but now you will ‘Do them Agile’. With these principles, a focus on the team and changing the way people interact we are creating a whole new domain. One were people smile more, laugh more, come to work excited and ultimately by focusing on the people and the environment, we also see fantastic rises in productivity and outcomes.

We should all take the starting point that assumes people will give their best, especially when they are given clear purpose, the time and opportunity to learn and Autonomy to solve problems as they see fit. Try it yourself and it could be an enjoyable and productive journey for everyone involved.

About the Author

David Mole coaches, consults and presents about Agile, teams and motivation. He recently led an Agile transformation at New Zealand’s biggest e-Commerce platform where he, building upon the work of Spotify's culture, created dozens of high performing Agile squads. He is an highly regarded public speaker, author and has applied his refreshing approach to a variety of companies from small startups to big banks. David, a former professional poker player and works for Nomad8 helping teams and organisations get better.

 

Note: David no longer works for this NZ e-commerce provider and the views expressed here are his own do not necessarily represent those of the company.

References

  1. Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
  2. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
  3. Oswald, A.J., Proto, E., Sgroi, D. (2014). Happiness and Productivity
  4. Glucksberg - candle experiment

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