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The 3 Most Important Things I’ve Learned This Year

26. November 2011

In Iterate we are mostly dealing with technology but why do we actually use technology? We use it because we want to help people achieve something – and in the process of doing that we have to cooperate and communicate with many humans. The human factor is far more determining for our success than any kind of technology could ever be. Why do most project fail? Because of a bad technology? No – usually it’s a failure of communication, leadership, process change. And this week I’ve learnt some very important things about this crucial human factor – and thus this post may well be the most valuable piece published here til now – or ever.

First, I’ve learned how we decide (and a project – IT or other – is nothing but a bunch of hundreds, millions of decisions, both small and big). To deal with the incredibly complex world around us, human brain has many decision strategies ranging from a very rational decision making to “gut feeling” decisions based on our emotions and subconsciousness. Every of these strategies is perfectly suitable for some situations (for example relying on emotions and intuition is often the best thing, conversely to what we’ve been thought) – and leads to suboptimal results (read: terrible failures) in others. Thus the single most important factor that determines how successful we are is our ability of metacognition, i.e. being aware of how we think, and thus being able to select the most appropriate strategy for the situation at hand. (Which might not be as easy as it sounds and may require that we “trick” our mind somehow, i.e. by distracting it or forcing it into a certain decision mode.) Jonah Lehrer documents that on the “Marshmallow experiment” – the children who knew that they got to distract themselves somehow not to eat the marshmallow, which they’ve been given, not only managed to wait those 15 minutes for another one but were also much more successful in their later lives – presumably because their ability of metacognition helped them to make better decisions more often.

Second, I’ve learned that the most important thing to succeed is to know (and communicate) why – not just “what” we do or want to achieve, but “why,” what’s our purpose, our goal. Because “what” talks just to our thin, rational neocortex – but that “why” strikes deep into the center that drives our motivation and behavior. Great leaders don’t present plans, they inspire people with their cause – as did Martin Luther King with his “I have a dream” talk, brothers Wrights who were able to inspire themselves and their coworkers to achieve something a much better equipped team didn’t, and Apple with its vision of great and friendly world that makes people stand in a queue for six hours to be the first to purchase their new product. You may not want to aspire to the same world-changing goals as they do but still, whatever you do, you should know that to attract people you have to know and communicate “why.” I’d certainly much rather work – likely even with sweat and blood – for a company that has a cause that resonates with me other than “to make money”. (That may be also the reason why I don’t like certain dominant company for I feel that their goal is to rule the world [of technology], to get it into and keep it in its iron embrace.)

Last, I’ve learned that what motivates us isn’t money, but purpose, mastery, autonomy (not such a big surprise anyway, but it’s nice to have it backed by actual research results). For a simple, physical task a financial reward increases performance – but for even a mildly cognitive task it decreases it. Thus to motivate employees, once the question of money is “out of the table,” i.e. once they’ve enough for what they need, you need something else. And it turns our that we are motivated by three desires -the desire for autonomy, for deciding ourselves our course of action, the desire to be better in what we do, to feel more competent, and – as mentioned already in the previous talk – by a purpose. (Frankly, who would be surprised that people prefer to do something meaningful, to participate on something bigger, on creating a better world of tomorrow?) This is a good guide both for attracting employees and choosing and employer – but it certainly applies in other dimensions of life too.

Conclusion

We are human. We are not just rational machines, as the majority of the western science claimed in the last centuries. And that’s a good thing. To be successful and happy we need to understand little more about ourselves and others to be able both to drive ourselves better and to communicate with others better. We should be more aware about how we think and decide and choose the right decision strategy without blindly preferring one (such as the rational one). When we want to appeal to other people to help us with our goal, we have to formulate and communicate our purpose, so that they can identify themselves with the purpose and help us with all their power. Finally, we should be aware of what motivates us and seek and foster such an environment where it flourishes. (One of the reasons why I prefer Scrum/lean that empowers the autonomy and responsibility of individuals over a tight, top-down controlled process.)

PS: The rules of the Semco group, which a very non-standard company – open, cooperative, encouraging autonomy – is very inspiring.

Cross-posted from The Holy Java.

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