The chasm

dollar-trap…between what science knows & what business does!

In my 3 day ‘Lean/Systems Thinking’ course, I ‘mess with the heads’ of the participants about incentives and motivation. I use material from a fabulous book called ‘Punished by Rewards’ written by Alfie Kohn (1993/1999).

Now, a number of course attendees comment back to me that “isn’t what you are saying the same as that Dan Pink guy?” * and, yes, basically it is. Pink is what I might call the modern day Kohn, the ‘in vogue’ management guru on this stuff…not that Alfie has gone anywhere!

[* Dan Pink wrote a 2009 book on the same subject area as Alfie Kohn’s earlier book. Pink’s book is called ‘Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us’. I’ve noticed a Dan Pink RSAnimate informally making its way round]

This post is about a Dan Pink TED talk passed to me by a participant on one of my courses (thanks for sharing), in which Pink eloquently and passionately puts across his points. It is 18 mins. long and well worth watching.

The key message in the TED talk is that:

There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

‘Carrot and stick’ (as in contingent rewards) is an ideology, not a proven method to get the desired results. In fact, worse than being ineffective, it can do much harm.

Now, once you’ve watched the TED talk, you will know what the key message is about and that Dan Pink puts forward some scientific research as evidence. You might think “yeah, anyone can put forward an experiment or two, but I bet there are other experiments that ‘prove’ the opposite!”

To answer this: If you read Kohn’s book (which is a detailed and brilliantly written review of the body of research around incentives) you will find that:

  • experiments have been done on this stuff since the 1950’s, each and every decade, right up to today;
  • the results of these experiments have been replicated again and again and again; and
  • there isn’t any credible scientific evidence that contradicts the findings.

So what about service organisations?

Cast your mind back to the candle problem that Pink refers to, and whether the tacks are provided inside or outside of the box.

In service, the necessary actions are rarely a simple and obvious ‘cookie cutter’ response. Rather, the tacks might be scattered under the table, the box still a flat pack and the candle missing a wick!

Every customer service person should be thinking about the unique customer they are dealing with, their unique reality and then providing excellent service that satisfies (and hopefully exceeds) their specific needs.

You might come back at me and say “but if we standardise everything then our people don’t need to think. They just need to ‘turn the handle’ and THEN incentives work…don’t they?”

Two comments on this:

  • do you think the customer wants to be standardised?
  • do you think our people simply want to ‘turn a handle’?

I think not!

Be careful of gimmicky management fads:

Pink talks about a number of innovative techniques to get people thinking autonomously. He refers to Atlasian’s FEDEX day, Google’s 20% time and ROWE. Each makes some sense.

However, if a company simply picks up one of these ideas and ‘implements it’ BUT doesn’t change the underlying thinking, it won’t work.

It’s not about the gimmick (and you don’t need to copy theirs), it’s about the underlying thinking!

Kohn sets out a 3-step approach:

  1. abolish extrinsic motivators (incentives, competitive awards….);

(“pay people well and fairly…then put [incentives] out of their minds.”)

  1. then re-evaluate ‘evaluations’: move from formal time-batched judgement events to continual 2-way conversations divorced from the issue of compensation;
  2. then create the conditions for authentic motivation:
    • Collaboration: across the horizontal value stream
    • Work content: make it interesting
    • Choice: allow people to experiment and learn

And a reminder of that great John Seddon quote:

“with every pair of hands you get a free brain – but whether the brain is engaged depends on the design of the work.”

6 thoughts on “The chasm

    • Thanks for this Charles. Interesting historical stuff.

      I was being conservative with the 1950’s so that I could refer any denier to a specific scientific research paper on the subject but,as you say, it’s probably been known for hundreds, if not thousands of years…which is a sad thought 😦


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