Five ways to change the game

Tuesday, 01 April 2014


    Jason Fox provides five ways in which directors can change the game when someone else is in charge of the controls.

    If you’re a director without executive powers, it can be frustrating to watch the glacial pace of progress and development. But there are some simple “motivation design” elements you can encourage and implement. These will not only serve to enhance the level of productivity and progress in your organisation, but can also boost engagement in the boardroom.

    1. Get visibility of progress

    Making progress, growth, change and development happen is hard work, regardless of the level you are working at. Uncertainty is the burden all leaders must accept when on the path to progress. This uncertainty, however, often results in lower levels of effort and ingenuity in organisations. When people aren’t sure if their efforts are contributing to progress – and when directors can’t see how things are being progressed – effort may reduce and resentment can occur.

    This is an incredibly important thing to reverse. In 2010, the No. 1 breakthrough idea from the Harvard Business Review was research by Professor Teresa Amabile and Professor Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle. They found that a clear sense of progress was more inherently motivating to people than incentives and rewards, clear goals and recognition of good work. This makes a lot of sense. Why would we invest effort into something if we’re not sure if it will go anywhere? If we have worked towards goals before, only to see the targets shift arbitrarily, it’s very likely that we’ll reduce the level of effort we continue to invest.

    The key to getting more effort, more productivity and more momentum is to provide a clear sense of progress. Yet, at the board level, this can be buried in overly wordy reports and highly complex figures. What we want is a way to see instantly how things are progressing. Some organisations can convert complex data into beautifully visualised data. They can also generate project streams at various contextual levels (from big picture through to mid-level detail). But it doesn’t have to be this fancy – a simple Gantt Chart on a whiteboard can be enough to communicate a clear sense of progress.

    2. Frequency trumps duration

    Next, we want to short-circuit feedback loops. Put simply, most board meetings are simply too cumbersome, long and irrelevant. It is a vicious cycle. Agendas can be lengthy, so not all items are covered and things get delayed to the next meeting. In the meantime, more tasks are added to the meeting. The next meeting grows, and so on. The solution might be to meet more often, but most directors are busy people with a lot happening in their lives. If you can increase the frequency of your meetings, while shortening the duration – great! But if that’s not feasible, then integrating a shared space online that exists as a thread in between meetings could serve you well. Just reduce the latency between decisions and feedback, in other words, short-circuit feedback loops. A collaborative platform like Basecamp or even the use of secure Google Hangouts could keep people productively engaged with progress. Marry this with a visible structure, like a high-level Gantt Chart (or Basecamp’s in-built timeline) and you’ll have an environment where people will want to invest effort towards progress.

    3. Think in terms of projects

    Enough with the long-term S.M.A.R.T. goals and fixed key performance indicators (KPIs). The view that steering a company through these times requires much more agility and detailed planning beyond a year or two is increasingly an exercise in fallacy. Rather, think in terms of quarterly projects. Choose three projects that matter each quarter – the three things that will contribute the most to progress and growth. And then play hard.

    4. Conduct experiments

    Projects trump goals because they have a clear and fixed outcome. They have a deliverable. And, as such, it is a lot easier to measure and see progress in projects. But part of the paralysing nature of this is that some projects fail. How your board responds to failures is a key indicator of its attitude to progress, change and growth. The path to innovation is often non-linear and fraught with failure. The key is to fail fast, fail safe and fail forward. Some more enlightened organisations celebrate both success and failure, yet punish apathy. You see, if you’re failing it means you’re exploring and trying new things. But if that’s a bit too heavy, think of it like this – in science there’s no such thing as failure, only disproven hypotheses. So, avoid trying to come up with the perfect strategy or plan in isolation. Instead, conduct more experiments. Unpack the results in your board meetings and let strategy become more emergent.

    5. Build the narrative

    There are two main spectrums that surround any idea – abstract to detailed and logical to emotive. When contributing to any business, it’s important to be strong in both big picture and detailed logical thinking. But don’t forget the emotive side of things – the story that you are contributing to; the hero’s journey of the company you represent; and when all else fails, it’s meaning that people will rally to.

     These five simple, high-level ways will help you weave a better motivation strategy and design into the companies you represent. But remember – the house always wins and games always favour their maker. There’s always a game at play, but with a bit of design savvy, we can make anything work better.

    Twitter @drjasonfox

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