The Problem is Analog Management in a Digital World

Ever get frustrated because you and all of your team seem to be working really hard but not really effectively? Ever feel like you’re working against the organization? You know — that feeling that the only time we get noticed is when we mess up? Well maybe the problem isn’t with us but with the outdated approach most businesses take to managing work and people.

Change is often slow, but the pace at which organizations change the way they deal with human resources is often glacial. Talk to anybody about how to get others to work on the things that matter and you’ll likely hear discussion of incentives, penalties, rewards, punishments; in short you’ll hear some version of the old “carrot and stick” approach. Our organizations, and by extension our projects, are still mired in the assumptions about people and work that derived from Fredrick Taylor and his scientific management theory. Scientific management theory essentially said that to be efficient, organizations need to clearly define the work that needs to be done and how to do it right. Then the organization needs to provide an environment in which people can do the work in the way that is required and provide strict, close oversight of performance to ensure consistency and efficiency. By extension then, people can be motivated to do the required work if they are given something of value (the carrot) for successful compliance and know that they will be penalized (the stick) when they fail to comply.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m as willing to accept an incentive or reward as anybody, but those “carrots” have never had a very lasting effect with me. I find myself coming to expect the “carrot” every time I repeat the previously rewarded activity (or anything similar, for that matter). And if I get consistently rewarded for repeated performance, then the reward has become routine, a part of the activity, and no longer seems like much of a reward.

The “carrot and stick” approach isn’t inherently bad, it’s just outdated. Sure, if you need me to do any of the thousands of the routine, well-defined, and prescribed activities that require little right brain thinking, then the “carrot and stick” approach can work really well as a motivational technique. But most of the work that we do as project managers (and that our teams do on our projects) requires a significant level of analytical consideration, creativity, and innovation. People engaged in right brain sorts of activities need a different motivational approach. We need to figure out how to frame activities so that those doing the work create their own motivation rather than attempting to provide them with a motive for doing it.

As project managers much of what we need to make the shift from analog motivation is already available in our project management processes. Don’t you engage your team in the identification and definition of the work that needs to be done? You don’t focus on how work is done, instead don’t you establish clear success criteria for results and “keep your eye on the prize”? Schedules, budgets, and deadlines are givens in projects, but those constraints shouldn’t inhibit our approach to motivating others. The keys to enabling others to motivate themselves come from allowing them to control the work they do and understand the significance of that work. Next time you wonder about how to get the team really focused, resist the easy path of following organizational practice, providing more direction and control, and offering something “if” they do what’s needed. Instead, think about focusing on results, loosening your controls, and giving them more flexibility to figure out their own way of getting it done.  Update your approach and join your team in the digital world.

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