Feedback: The Motivation Superpower

Intrinsic motivation, left to itself, can be unfocused. This is especially true across an entire organization. There are ways to improve focus through establishing shared values and getting everyone to tell the same story, but there are also mechanisms for improving the focus of an individual’s intrinsic motivations. Few of these mechanisms are more fundamental than feedback.

I don’t mean peer review forms or a semi-annual sit-down with the boss. I mean simple feedback loops that work throughout every day.

Simple feedback works like this: A subject takes an action, there is a reaction, and information about the reaction is returned to the subject, who can then use the information about the reaction to modify her activity. I touch a hot kettle, the kettle burns my fingers, my nerves send information about my fingers burning back to me, and I pull my hand away. This is how fundamental feedback is. But because so much business in today’s world is abstract, we have to construct feedback loops deliberately rather than expecting feedback to happen on its own.

Lack of feedback can quickly erode motivation. And the more entrepreneurial or “self-starting” a position is, the more important feedback is to the person in that position. Feedback is your sight, like a bat echoing its own songs to understand the contour of the world around it. If you don’t hear an echo, how do you know what to do?

Yet for how fundamental it is, it’s surprisingly easy to forget. And then it’s surprisingly easy to chalk up motivation problems to lack of incentives, or poor leadership, or other priorities getting in the way, when really the people around you are lost in a world that doesn’t echo back at them.

How can you create effective feedback?

Feedback must be immediate, contextual, and apparent. Feedback is a behavioral stimulus–it has to fit both the time and the context of the action that caused it, and it has to be clear and concise in order to reveal information that’s useful for subsequent action.

This doesn’t mean feedback is always a result of things that are done–sometimes it’s the result of something that’s undone. Networking sites like LinkedIn and dating sites like Match.com tend to provide feedback in the form of a percentage completion bar to let you know how “complete” your profile is. Of course, your profile on these sites is as complete as you want it to be–but by creating this bit of feedback, such sites are able to encourage participants to improve the quality of information about themselves without offering any incentive other than having a “more complete” profile.

Feedback is a leadership superpower because all feedback is either grounded on some fixed point (values), directed toward some fixed point (objectives), or both. Thus continuous feedback is a way of aligning the efforts of a team toward the same values and objectives. And if you focus on those ends–values and objectives–when providing feedback, you can effectively avoid micromanagement while getting results that both satisfy your goals and represent your team.

Sometimes as a leader, I may have to manufacture feedback. This may require a shift in perspective: rather than believing there’s no feedback available because something is tied up in political limbo, I may need to provide feedback on the work itself–its quality, its relevance, etc. My team member will be able to take that feedback and apply it to other efforts. As a consequence, they’ll also be creating value that better fits my own vision, since it’s directed toward my feedback.

I may also have to generate feedback for myself. One way to go about this is to establish clear expectations with every completed action. After completing something for which I expect feedback–which does not necessarily mean something that requires “notes” or changes–I can mention the kind of information I want to receive and the date by which I would like to receive it, and then follow-up after the appointed time has passed. Remember this information should be immediate (and contextual), concise, and oriented toward fulfilling values and accomplishing objectives; it should as a result be quick and easy for the requested party to provide.

Proper application of feedback can, on its own, stimulate a lot of action without the addition of artificial incentives. It’s the first step in turning intrinsic motivation outward, but it doesn’t yet offer an actual incentive–merely a reflection. The information reflected back at us also implies specific objectives–something that someone outside of us is looking to find, and therefore something we can work specifically to improve, which we do if we have the intrinsic desire to create something useful for another person. Giving feedback without tying it to any extrinsic reward is the second level of motivational strategy.

What are some effective ways you’ve found to provide feedback to others? What ways have you learned to solicit useful feedback from others?

Can We Open-Source the Law?

Here’s a wild idea for you.

When the United States was formed as the first modern democracy, its founders had some pretty crazy ideas about how the democratic system would work. People would be elected and leave their jobs to become lawmakers for several years, and then return to their jobs and let someone else take a stab at it. It was an efficient approach to getting the perspectives of the people who made up the nation to collaborate on laws.

But how would they have written the Constitution if they had today’s technologies and insights? Would it have been different?

Enter Jos de Blok, CEO of Buurtzorg, a nursing organization that turned the business of home-care on its head. Unlike traditional leadership that does extensive strategizing and change planning, de Blok has a blog. When he’s planning a change in operations–usually a small, incremental change rather than a massive treatise–he posts it on the blog and allows 24 hours for response from an organization of nearly 8,000. Based on feedback, he proceeds, amends, throws out, or gathers a task force to hammer out the details.

The specifics of Buurtzorg’s approach will not apply for every organization, but the concept is sound: Centralized (non-hierarchical) management of an open-sourced approach.

Open-sourcing has provided not just stable software but some of the most secure software in the world, despite the early concerns over its transparency and malleability. Yet the approach has yet to make much of a leap to other fields, despite being at its core a knowledge method and not a software-specific method. (Wikipedia is among the few notable examples.)

There’s a lot to be learned from the way open-source groups guide development. Many have small development teams that are able to invest and focus on key features that aren’t getting as much attention on the outside. Some companies identify features that have to be developed in a closed environment in order to be valuable, and embed them within a different version of the product. But there are often so many eyes on every line of the source code that it’s difficult to deliberately sabotage the effort, and developers who comb through the code before a final release are typically able to pull out unnecessary operations and tie up loose ends.

These open-source software projects are at work in the wild, accessible to billions of people, and many of the developers working on them have very little personal stake in the outcome except their own excitement about and investment in the project.

Suppose these same techniques were used to guide your organization, every member of which is deeply invested in your policies and decisions. Instead of investing in a complex analysis of the state of your company, you’d get immediate feedback from the people who know it best. Instead of deciding on a change plan and having to get buy-in from every last member of your organization, you’d already have a good chunk of your organization on board. Instead of having to course-correct in the middle of an enormous project, your incremental changes would correct themselves.

If it sounds idealistic, that’s because it is. Don’t misunderstand: It’s a completely practical approach, and may even become a necessary approach to managing large organizations in ten or twenty years. But it’s also idealistic because it requires leaders to relinquish power, and perhaps just as importantly it puts them on uncertain footing. Leaders not only want power for its own sake, they want power because they don’t trust their people, and this approach to an organization’s policy and strategy relies absolutely on trust.

Fortunately there are ways to develop that trust, some of which I’ve already written about. You can treat your employees as partners. You can remove the stigma of failure. You can establish shared values. And as always, you should approach it in the way that works best for your specific organization. But as with any change, at some point you will have to make a leap without knowing exactly where you will land. It can be terrifying, but it’s the only way we accomplish any meaningful change.

Perhaps the Founding Fathers wouldn’t have open-sourced America’s laws even if they’d had the tools. But on the whole they were the kind of people who were always trying to improve upon the work of others. We’d be doing them a disservice if we didn’t try to improve upon theirs, even if it’s only within our own small organizations.

I’m looking forward to discussing your insights and concerns in the comments below.

How to Use Your Diversity

We intuitively know there’s value in diversity: the Mission Impossible team, the A-Team, Ocean’s Eleven, the Guardians of the Galaxy.

But in business the tradition has been to focus on things that can be tabulated: years of experience, education level, predefined skill sets–and usually to fill the abstract concept of a “position.” In this context, “diversity” is a buzz word that means “someone who looks different”–different clothes, different rituals, different language–but someone who is still plugged into the same ways of thinking.

It’s not that such people don’t add diversity. But the value of their diversity is often suppressed in favor of the appearance of diversity. The game, while at the office at least, is conformity.

The value of diversity comes with different modes of thinking. Any given person can see a problem from multiple angles, but never from all angles. Having and utilizing real diversity, then, depends on being able to bring out the difference in perspective and put it to work in combination with other perspectives.

From a recruiting perspective, this means hiring to fill the blind spots. A blind spot is different from a role, and it behooves a manager to understand where blind spots may exist in a team.

From a management perspective, this means practicing constructive conflict. Constructive conflict is a way not only to allow but to encourage dissenting opinions in such a way that final solutions benefit from very different ideas.

Finally, it means management that is able to see the value in other perspectives. Much of the value of these perspectives may not be rational, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t reason behind them. Finding tools to judge these perspectives, and to incorporate them together, is critical to effective management of diverse teams.

One final point: Diversity of perspective must be unified by unity of purpose. Last week, I described founding myth in terms of shared origin, shared values, and shared destiny. These are critical to the development of a diverse community.

Writing Your Founding Myth

Yesterday we examined the existing story of your organization. Today we’re going to explore how we can nudge that story into place to create a founding myth–the story that underlies the identity of any company, nation, team, or collective.

As much as Americans may disagree about the particulars, most of us have a shared respect for our founders and place emphasis on the values of liberty and equality. Today, this story includes the long fight to end slavery and grant equal rights to minorities. This is our founding myth: a particular telling of our history, with emphasis on the values that form our identity and the heroes who championed those values.

A large chunk of the Hebrew Bible contains what could be called Davidic mythology: from foretelling David’s kingship long before his birth, to calling upon his bloodline well after his death. The patron, YHWH, brought the people out of Egypt and into a new land, established the identity and values of the culture, and provided a model and hero in the form of King David. This myth sustained the identity of Israel and the Jewish people through multiple exiles, through Greek and then Roman occupations.

As you can tell from my short telling of these two stories, founding myths have important characteristics that help to shape a community:

  1. Shared origins. Your shared origins might stretch back to the founding of the organization, particularly if it was founded last week or last year. Or it might only stretch back to a particular turn in the organization’s history. I began working at KPMG in 2005, shortly after a tax-shelter scandal that resulted in a deferred prosecution agreement with the government. The narrative at the time hinged on that event: we were going to become the firm with the most integrity and the highest-quality work. Sure, we could have traced our origins to the 1800s and the four partners that make up the letters of the name, but that wasn’t the story we were telling; that wasn’t the firm we were trying to be. Our story was of a new beginning, of a murky past and a better future.
  2. Shared values. It’s no coincidence that the greatest philosophers, scholars, and scientists of ancient Greece lived and worked in Athens, the city of Athena. Out of all possible patron gods, its founders chose the goddess of wisdom–not the god of war to have a powerful military, the goddess of fertility to have abundant farmland, or the god of the forge to have unparalleled industry. The story of Athens defined the city’s key value, and elevated that value above many other perfectly good values. If you lead an organization, I urge you to pick one value above all others that is of special importance to this group of people. Then make sure it is embodied in your founding myth.
  3. Shared destiny. It’s never enough to simply share a past. In order to build a community, people have to believe in a shared future that follows from that past. Your shared destiny is the natural result of the values that call you out of your origins; the message is that all that is needed for you to go from where you were to this bright future is to embody your values. Often this destiny is something you know can be achieved because in your founding myth it has been achieved before: George Washington’s presidency, David’s kingship, Steve Jobs’ release of the iPhone. But if your organization is too new to have past successes, or if you’re overseeing a major shift in culture and values, focus on the promise of the future you are trying to achieve.

Through all of these, the operative word is “shared.” You can’t dictate a new future from on high; it has to be something that each person in your organization can believe, a destiny and a set of values that each individual wants to execute. Be aware that this may also be a way to cull your membership; those who aren’t interested in being a part of your shared story may not belong in your community.

Of course, the one thing this story is missing is a character. The character is a champion. The story isn’t about the champion–not really–but the champion breathes life into the ideas. She emerges from the shared past (like everyone else), embodies the shared values (like everyone can), and creates a shared destiny (by virtue of her embodiment of those values).

George Washington was a simple land owner who embodied the values of liberty and equality, led the military forces of rebellion, and eventually became the first President of the United States. David was a humble shepherd who embodied the values of piety and wisdom, overcame both the Philistines and the forces of Saul, and became the first in a long line of kings. Neither of these men were perfect even in the myths–in fact, being an ordinary, flawed human being is important. But because they embodied the shared values, they brought about a bright destiny for all their people.

You might in fact be the champion of your organization’s founding myth, like Jack Welch was at GE. But the myth isn’t about you, it’s about the collective identity.

Once you’ve laid out what you want your founding myth to be, you will need people to buy into it. But recognize that your founding myth is what the people in your organization believe it is. It’s the story they tell, not the story you tell. The closer your myth is to the story people are already telling, the better you will be able to convince them. But remain open to the possibility that your story will need to go through several revisions before everyone’s on the same page.

Discovering Your Current Story

It’s imprudent to write a completely new story for your organization without first discovering what your current story is.

“Wait,” you say. “My organization already has a story?”

Yes, O dear reader! Everyone in your organization, whether it’s two people or twenty thousand, is telling a story about it.

I’m not going to get into methodology. You could survey the members of your organization, you could bring them in and ask them, you could start a discussion thread. You might ask your clients or customers, or you might keep it within your business. But the questions you will need to answer are generally the same.

  1. What do people believe are the most important values of my organization? (Not just the words in our on-boarding materials, but the values they are expected to play out on a daily basis in every interaction.)
  2. What does my org value that distinguishes it from any similar organization? Why does it hold that value as important?
  3. Do my org’s people know why and how they are expected to embody those values? Can they tell the story of a hero or champion of my org’s values?
  4. Where do my org’s people expect the company to be in five or ten years? How does that image reflect the distinguishing values of my org?
  5. What role do they see themselves playing in the evolution of the org?
  6. Where do my people expect to be in five to ten years? What does that say about their individual values?
  7. What role do they see the org playing in their personal evolution?

At its core, these questions seek to get to the “why” of your organization and identify the story your people are telling themselves about it.

Once you have answered these questions, start to piece together the puzzle:

  • Where do my people believe my organization is coming from? In other words, what is the relevant historical context?
  • What values are calling my organization toward a different future? How are those values shaping the organization as it is today? (Remember values don’t always have positive effects–cost-efficiency may result in fear and territorialism, while innovativeness may result in inefficiency. What are the benefits and the costs, not just to the organization as a whole but to my people?)
  • Who is the champion of these values, the example my people think of when they are trying to decide how to execute the values of the organization?
  • What kind of future is this leading us into? Is the path leading upward, downward, or on the same level? What specifics can I glean about the future my people are working toward?

With these elements in place, you will have the most basic outline of your founding myth. The next step will be to reforge that myth into something better.