The Surprising Science of Motivation

Intended improvement requires focussed change which requires systemic design which requires collaborative action which requires motivation. So where does the motivation come from? Money? or Meaning?  This animated talk by Dan Pink from RSA is so much more effective than a feeble blog!

Design work is the antithesis of the repetitive, mechanical, uninspiring, mundane, day-to-day work that we do for money. Design work is always unique, always challenging, and always fun – and hard – and many people do it in their own time for nothing. The whole Open Source Software movement is testament to that.

But why should the designers have all the fun? The question misses the point – we are all designers and we can can all become better designers. We can mix up the designing and the delivering. And when we do that it gets even better because we get the fun of the design bit and the reward of the delivery bit too.

So how can we justify staying as we are when we can see how much fun is feasible?


The phrase that sums up the attitude and behaviour of an effective Improvement Scientist is respectful challenge. The challenge part is the easier to appreciate because to improve we have to change something which implies that we have to challenge the current reality in some way. The respect part is a bit tricker.

One dictionary definition is: Respect gives a positive feeling of esteem for a person or entity. The opposite of respect is contempt.

This definition gets us started because it points to what happens inside our heads – feeling respected is a good feeling; feeling disrespected is a bad one. Improvement only happens and is sustained when it is strongly associated with good feelings. That is how our the caveman wetware between our ears works. So respect is a fundamental component of improvement.

The animation illustrates several aspects of respect. One is the handshake. It is one of those rituals that on the surface seems illogical and superfluous but it has deep social and psychological importance. I once read that it comes from the time when men carried swords and the hand shake signifies “I am not holding my sword“. The handshake is an expression of extending mutual trust using a clear visual signal – it is a mark of mutual respect.  The other aspect is signified by the neckties. Again an illogical and superfluous garment except that it too broadcasts a signal – the message “I have prepared for this meeting by taking care to be clean and tidy because it is important“. This too has great social significance – in the past the biggest killer was not swords but something much smaller and more dangerous. Germs. People knew that disease and dirt were associated and that meant a dirty person was a dangerous one. Cleaning up was much more difficult in the days before piped water, baths, showers, washing machines and soap – so to put effort into getting clean and tidy was a mark of great respect. It still is.

So if we want to challenge and influence improvement then we must establish respect first. And that means we have to behave in a respectful manner. And that means we have to think in a respectful way. And that means we have to consciously not behave in an unintended disrespectful manner. Our learned rituals, such as a smile, a handshake and a hello, help us to do that automatically. Unfortunately it is more often what we do not do that is the most disrespectful behaviour.  And we all fall into these traps.

Unintended outcomes that result from what we do not do are called Errors of Omission (EOO) – and they are tricky to spot because there is no tangible evidence of them. The evidence of the error is intangible – a bad feeling.

For example, not acknowledging someone is an EOO. This is very obvious in social situations and it presses one of our Three Fears buttons – the Fear of Rejection.  It is very easy to broadcast to whole roomful of people that you do not respect someone just by obviously ignoring them.  And the higher up the social pecking order you are the greater the impact: for two reasons. First because followers unconsciously copy the behaviour of the leader; and second because it broadcasts the message that disrespectful behaviour is OK.

Contempt is toxic to a collaborative culture and blocks significant, sustained improvement.

In the modern world we have so many more ways that we can communicate and therefore many more opportunities for communication EOOs. The most fertile ground for EOOs is probably email.  It is so much easier to be disrespectful to a lot of people in a short period of time by email than just about any other medium. Just failing to acknowledge an email question or request is enough.  Failing to put in the email-equivalent of a handshake of Dear <yourname> …. message …. Regards <myname>  is similar.

Omitting to communicate last minute changes in a plan is an effective way to upset people too!

And perhaps the most effective is firing a grapeshot email in the hope that one will hit the intended target. These two examples highlight a different form of disrespect: discounting someone else’s time – or more specifically their lifetime.

When we waste our time we waste a bit of our life – and we deny ourselves the opportunity to invest that finite and precious lifetime doing something more enjoyable. Time is not money. Money can be saved for later – time cannot. When we waste an hour of our lives we waste it forever.  If we do that to ourselves we are showing lack of self-respect and that is our choice – when we do it to others we create a pervasive and toxic cultural swamp.

One of the first steps in the process of improvement is to engage and listen and one tool for this is The 4N Chart® – which is an emotional mapping technique. Niggles are the Negative Emotions in the Present together with their Be-Causes. The three commonest niggles that people consistently report are car parking, emails and meetings.  All three involve lifetime wasting activities. The cumulative effect is frustration and erosion of trust which drives further disrespectful behaviour. The end result is a viscous self-sustaining toxic cycle of habitual disrespect.

An effective tactic here is first to hold up the mirror and reflect back what is happening … that is respectful challenge.

The next step is to improving the processes that are linked to car parking, emails and meetings so that they are more effective and more efficient. And that means actively designing them to be more productive – by actively designing out the lifetime wasting parts.

The Pragmatist and the Three Fears

The term Pragmatist is a modern one – it was coined by Charles Sanders Pierce (1839-1914) – a 19th century American polymath and iconoclast. In plain speak he was a tree-shaker and a dogma-breaker; someone who regarded rules created by people as an opportunity for innovation rather than a source of frustration.

A tree-shaker reframes the Three Fears that block change and improvement; the Fear of Ambiguity; the Fear of Ridicule and the Fear of Failure. A tree-shaker re-channels their emotional energy from fear into innovation and exploration. They feel the fear but they do it anyway. But how do they do it?

To understand this we first need to explore how we learn to collectively suppress change by submitting to peer-fear.

In the 1960’s there was an experiment done with Rhesus monkeys that sheds light on a possible mechanism: the monkeys appeared to learn from each other by observing the emotional responses of other monkeys to threats. The story of the Five Monkeys and the Banana Experiment first appeared in a management textbook in 1996  but there is no evidence that this particular experiment was ever performed. With this in mind here is a version of the story:

Five naive monkeys were offered a banana but it required climbing a ladder to get it.  Monkeys like bananas and are good at climbing. The ladder was novel. And every time any of the monkeys started to climb the ladder all the monkeys were sprayed with cold water. Monkeys do not like cold water. It was a classic conditioning experiment and after just a few iterations the monkeys stopped trying to climb the ladder to get the banana. They had learned to fear the ladder and their natural desire for the banana was suppressed by their new fear: a learned association between climbing the ladder and the unpleasant icy shower. Next the psychologists replaced one of the monkeys with a new naive monkey – who immediately started to climb the ladder to get the banana. What happened next is interesting. The other four monkeys pulled the new monkey back. They did not want to get another cold shower. After a while the new monkey learned because his fear of social rejection was greater than his desire for the banana. He stopped trying to get the banana. This cycle was repeated four more times until all the original monkeys had been replaced. None of the five remaining monkeys had any personal experience of the cold shower – but the ladder-avoiding behaviour remained and was enforced by the group, even though the original reason for shunning the ladder was unknown.

Here is the quoted reference to the experiment on which the story is based.

Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

So it would appear that a very special type of monkey would be needed to break a culturally enforced behavioural norm. One that is curious, creative and courageous, and one that does not fear ridicule or failure. One that is immune to peer-fear.

We could extrapolate from this story and reflect on how peer pressure might impede change and improvement in the workplace.  When well-intended, innocent, creativity and innovation are met with the emotional ice-bath of dire warnings, criticism, ridicule and cynicism then the unconfident innovator may eventually give up trying and start to believe that improvement is impossible.  The Hans Christian Anderson’s short tale of the Emporer’s New Clothes is a well known example – the one innocent child says what all the experienced adults have learned to deny. A culture of peer-fear can become self-sustaining and this change-avoiding-culture appears to be a common state of affairs in many organisations; in particular ones of an academic and bureaucratic leaning.

At the other end of the change spectrum from Bureaucracy sits Chaos. It is also resisted but the behaviour is fuelled by a different fear – the Fear of Ambiguity. We prefer the known and the predictable. We follow ingrained habits. We prevaricate even when our rationality says we should change.  We dislike the feeling of ambiguity and uncertainty because it leaves us with a sense of foreboding and dread. Change is strongly associated with confusion and we appear hard-wired to avoid it. Except that we are not. This is learned behaviour and we learned it when we were very young. As adults we reinforce it; as adults we replicate it; and as adults impose it on others – including our next generation. The generation that will inherit our world and who will look after us when we are old and frail. We will reap what we sow. But if we learned it and teach it then are we able to unlearn it and unteach it?

Enter the Pragmatists. They have learned to harness the Three Fears. Or rather they have unlearned their association of Fear with Change. Sometimes this unlearning came from a crisis – they were forced to change by external factors. Doing nothing was not an option. Sometimes their unlearning came from inspiration – they saw someone else demonstrate that other options were possible and beneficial. Sometimes their insight came by surprise – an unexpected change of perspective exposed the hidden opportunity. An eureka moment.

Whatever the route the Pragmatist discovers a new tool: a tool labelled “Heuristics”.  A heuristic is a “rule of thumb” – an empirically derived good-enough-for-now guideline. Heuristics include some uncertainty, some ambiguity and some risk. Just enough uncertainty and ambiguity to build a flexible conceptual framework that is strong enough, resilient enough and modifiable enough to facilitate learning and improvement. And with it a pinch of risk to spice the sauce – because we all like a bit of risk.

The Improvement Scientist is a Pragmatist and a Practitioner of Heuristics – both of which can be learned.

Iconoclasts and Iconoblasts

The human body is an amazing self-repairing system. It does this by being able to detect damage and to repair just the damaged part while still continuing to function. One visible example of this is how it repairs a broken bone. The skeleton is the hard, jointed framework that protects and supports the soft bits. Some of the soft bits, the muscles, both stablise and move this framework of bones. Together they form the musculoskeletal system that gives us the power to move ourselves.  So when, by accident, we break a bone how do we repair the damage?  The secret is in the microscopic structure of the bone. Bone is not like concrete, solid and inert, it is a living tissue. Two of the microsopic cells that live in the bone are the osteoclasts and the osteoblasts (osteo- is Greek for “bone”; -clast is Greek for “break” and -blast is Greek for “germ” in the sense of something that grows).  Osteoclasts dissolve the old bone and osteoblasts deposit new bone – so when they work together they can create bone, remodel bone, and repair bone. It is humbling when we consider that millions of microscopic cells are able to coordinate this continuous, dynamic, adaptive, reparative behaviour with no central command-and-control system, no decision makers, no designers, no blue-prints, no project managers. How is this biological miracle achieved? We are not sure – but we know that there must be a process.

Organisations are systems that face a similar challenge. They have relatively rigid operational and cultural structures of roles, responsibilities, lines of accountability, rules, regulations, values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.  These formal and informal structures are the conceptual “bones” of the organisation – the structure that enables the organisation to function.  Organisations also need to grow and to develop – which means that their virtual bones need to be remodelled continuously. Occasionally organisations have accidents – and their bones break – and sometimes the breaks are deliberate: it is called “re-structuring”.

There are people within organisations that have the same role as the osteoblast in the body. These people are called iconoclasts and what they do is dissolve dogma. They break up the rigid rules and regulations that create the corporate equivalent of concrete – but they are selective. Iconoclasts are sensitive to stress and to strain and they only dissolve the cultural concrete where it is getting in the way of improvement. That is where dogma is blocking innovation.  Iconoclasts question the status quo, and at the same time explain how it is causing a problem, offer alternatives, and predict the benefits of the innovation. Iconoclasts are not skeptics or cynics – they prepare the ground for change – they are facilitators.

There is a second group people who we could call the iconoblasts. They are the ones who create the new rules, the new designs, the new recipes, the new processes, the new operating standards – and they work alongside the iconoclasts to ensure the structure remains strong and stable as it evolves. The iconoblasts are called Improvement Scientists.

Improvement Scientists are like builders – they use the raw materials of ideas, experience, knowledge, understanding, creativity and enthusiasm and assemble them into new organisational structures.  In doing so they fully accept that one day these structures will in turn be dismantled and rebuilt. That is the way of improvement.  The dogma is relative and temporary rather than absolute and permanent. And the faster the structures can be disassembled and reassembled the more agile the organisation becomes and the more able it is to survive change.

So how are the iconoclasts and iconoblasts coordinated? Can they also work effectively and efficiently without a command-and-control system? If millions if microscopic cells in our bones can achieve it then maybe the individuals within organisations can do it too. We just need to understand what makes an iconoclast and an iconoblast and effective partnership and an essential part of an organisation.