Scratching the surface of motivation and complexity

Some interesting questions arose recently around a team that kicked off a ‘mini restructure to help people work differently’.   They’ve found that this isn’t working that well at the moment and there’s a feeling that people are resisting the change.  The questions now arising are, ‘How do you bring people along with you in a change?’ ‘When is it fair to expect people to make the change?’ ‘Do people resist change on principle?’ ‘What will motivate people to change?’  And related to this last question ‘How might you approach getting the team to want to behave differently/make the change?’

Those leaders who ‘did’ the restructure are now wondering what their next steps should be – asking how can they resolve the current situation and what they could/should/might consider doing differently in the future to be more successful in achieving the outcomes they intended.   They also want to know how to better think through what might be the consequences of proposed changes.

Talking to some of the people in the situation suggests that it is a complex one.  Motivating people in complex situations requires recognising that motivation may have three interdependent elements in play intrinsic motivation, extrinsic motivation and achievement motivation.  (These are well discussed in a research paper ‘Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Time for Expansion and Clarification’)

When I’m working with groups on these topics, I usually begin with a four-frame cartoon that provokes discussion.  (See image).  It runs as follows:

Manager:  I want you to design a new performance appraisal form for my group.

HR Rep: But the problem is not in the form; it is in the way it is used

Manager: That may be true but we should start with a new form

HR Rep:  But the form you are now using is being used successfully in other departments in the organisation.

Manager:  Our department is different!  Our people are different! We need a new form! We also need a new staff person who is truly interested in serving her client!!

HR Rep:  When you put it that way, I suddenly see the wisdom in designing a new form.

The discussion of the cartoon, which I’ve used with many different groups in many different environments and cultures, is usually heated.  What people begin to see as they discuss it is that people’s views on what appears to be a simple decision – the design of a new appraisal form (or not) for one organisational department is not straightforward, and neither is the motivation of the two people involved.

I remember Roger Niven’s, AMED talk which he said that rather than using cartoons, he, ‘uses art, artefacts, history, and maps, to stimulate conversations that generate fresh insights into strategic thinking in organisations.’ His view is ‘Such conversations may better enable us to explore often competing theories of strategy and leadership as a complex system.’

Like the artefacts, etc that stimulate discussion and generate fresh insights, the cartoon invariably leads into conversation and ideas on complexity, complex adaptive leadership and motivation.  It also, generally, confirms Niven’s view, ‘that greater awareness of the legacies and culture of other peoples, both within countries and across continents, is important. Each of us is constrained by our own race, gender, and background.  Hence, if we are to create organisational strategies that are appropriate to the 21st century, we must look harder and listen more.  Only then can we advance robust business models and behavioural theories that have relevance for the people we seek to employ and serve.’

Looking harder and listening more is taken up in an HBR article, by Heifetz and Laurie, The Work of Leadership. Niven references it in his slides and although it’s old (2001) the line the authors take ring true in my experience of hierarchical organisations today.  They discuss the adaptive challenge leaders face, the ‘murky, systemic problems with no easy answers.’   They note that, ‘Perhaps even more vexing, the solutions to adaptive challenges don’t reside in the executive suite.’

Heifetz and Laurie say, “Many executives reach their positions of authority by virtue of their competence in taking responsibility and solving problems. … But the locus of responsibility for problem solving when a company faces an adaptive challenge must shift its people.  … Solutions …. reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of the people at all levels, who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions.”  A restructure – mini or maxi – is often a response to a need to adapt.  Yet there is ample voice to the notion that they often don’t achieve the intended outcome (see, for example this article)

The adaptive challenge is keenly felt in complex organisations.  David Snowden,  originator of the Cynfin Framework, talks about ‘the complex domain which has its  basis in complex adaptive systems theory.  In a complex system, there’s so many interacting dependencies that future states cannot be predicted.  There constraints can provide a degree of coherence and direction but they can’t provide predictability.’

Complex situations require staying alert and watching to see how things unfold.  Brian Eno, quoted in Tim Harford’s book, Messy, says ‘Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.’

That may be so for Eno, but for many of leaders and managers recognising that very few situations are within their control and can’t be predicted is a very hard unlearning. As one writer says, they ‘first have to get over the fact that it contradicts everything they’ve been taught about making decisions. B-school encourages students to frame problems, formulate alternatives, collect data, and then evaluate the options,’ as if they can control the outcomes.  This isn’t so in a complex world with multiple adaptive challenges.

However, Heifetz and Laurie offer six principles for leading adaptive work and, through this, fostering motivation.  These principles are:  being alert to the emerging patterns (they call it getting on the balcony), identifying the adaptive challenge, maintaining disciplined attention, regulating distress, giving the work back to people, and protecting voices of leadership from below.

The first three of these (being alert to the emerging patterns, identifying the adaptive challenge, maintaining disciplined attention) are related to leading in complexity, and the second three (regulating distress, giving the work back to people, and protecting voices of leadership from below) to motivating people in complex contexts where the interplay of intrinsic, extrinsic and achievement motivation needs considered exploration.   On first read, these six principles seem like an easy answer to a complex situation but thinking about them I’ve decided they’re worth discussing with the team involved and seeing if they provoke insights and give value.

What principles do you use to increase individuals’ adaptive capacity and motivation in complex organisations?  Let me know.

Image:  From Flawless Consulting: a guide to getting your expertise used, Peter Block

One thought on “Scratching the surface of motivation and complexity”

  1. Thank you for this blog Naomi. You asked for feedback on what others are doing. We are working with organisations on the behavioural changes related to ‘Smart Working’ – also known as agile or flexible working. Rather than a top-down approach led by seniors or even team leaders we are training more junior people to lead change from within the teams. We’re calling them Changemakers. The training aims to give these Changemakers the skills and confidence to engage their colleagues in working out for themselves what needs to change and what they should do differently individually and as a group – and for this to be a collective activity where solutions evolve. There are usually a whole lot of constraints around the space and the IT so the solutions that arise have to be very pragmatic, and relevant to the work people in the team actually do. We hope that this approach will motivate people because they ‘own’ the solution and they have the means to tweak, adapt and try other things if it doesn’t work.

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