A great way to end my week was to see Western New York native and Harvard scholar Teresa Amabile present on her book The Progress Principle. It happened happened at Dig in Buffalo and was sponsored by University at Buffalo Center for Leadership and Organizational Effectiveness. From the rigorous analysis of 12,000 diary entries provided by hundreds of employees in different organizations she and fellow researcher Steven Kramer flipped manager’s belief of what motivates employees most. While most managers listed recognition as the top motivator, their employees were asking them to support progress in their work - and only 5% of the managers surveyed marked that as #1. Theresa also spent time detailing what they came to call an employee’s Inner Work Life, made up of a person’s perceptions, emotions and motivations. They found that when employees have a strong Inner Work Life workplace progress ramped up exponentially. She is a dynamic speaker who gave us a refreshing jargon-free interactive session. I was fortunate to be able to chat with Teresa afterward. She generously amplified some of the points made.
It’s very much connected. Motivation is one of the three components of Inner Work Life. Flow is really the supremely high pinnacle of Inner Work Life. It’s where people are so involved with what they are doing; it’s beyond interest; they are losing track of time or merging with the experience. I’ve seen it in some of the people we have studied. In addition to the example of the fellow I mentioned in my presentation, who figured something out and had no one to share it with so he reported in his diary that he sat alone in is own supreme smugness, we had another entry from a fellow who was trying to solve an engineering problem for improving a medical instrument. He came up with what he called an “elegant method” - not just a solution, an elegant solution. He wrote about the experience as being on another plane, a different form of existence - that’s Flow.
Q. How has your work uncovered what managers can do to better deal with team setbacks, crises and failure?
Managers who are able to deal effectively with failures and mistakes -things that weren't done quite the way that they were planned - those that were most successful didn't only react appropriately after the fact, they set a climate up beforehand to make it easier to deal with it after the fact. That climate was one where they talked about experimentation. Even if it wasn't formal science or R&D - they talked experiments in developing business processes. For example, “We’re going to try and do something really different here. That means we are going to be experimenting. It will involve failure. It will involve trying things that aren't going to work. That’s what we expect. We want to do as many experiments as we can - that we think will get us on the pathway to solve the problem or do something really great here.” Note the different pieces - the notion of fail fast; talked about in entrepreneurship all the time now and our study was 10 years ago. These managers are saying, “Let’s do it as quickly, as cheaply and as high quality as we can so we can get as close to a real answer as possible. But let’s not waste time. If it doesn't work, let’s figure out why and see what we can repurpose and move on to the next experiment.” If it was an important problem to solve they had multiple experiments going on simultaneously. And the teams weren't competing against each other - it was more, “let’s try as much as we can and share data constantly.”
I think it is almost being talked about too much. I don't think people understand what it means. It means you want to see failure as part of the experimentation and true innovation that we just spoke of. Simply because, if you never fail, you are not doing anything that’s different enough, than what you have done before. You don't want to force failure though. Obviously, if your first attempts succeed, “Yea!!!” It’s just that the vast majority of the time when you are trying something different, it’s not going to work the first time around. There will always be a need for modification and pivots.