Brain Science and Management

Our apologies for the long gap in posts.

A persistent theme for us at mercanix is trying to close the gap between what science knows about things like motivation, effectiveness, productivity, communication and teamwork and what enterprises actually do on a day-to-day basis.

To that end, we are constantly reviewing a wide spectrum of research to see how it applies (if at all) to increased performance at work. If there is sufficient, long-term, fact-based, peer-reviewed evidence that the research is credible and could be applied to create better work environments, we look for opportunities to incorporate the science into our solution.

Of course, an important caveat in all this is, "first do no harm." We won't introduce anything into our solution if it poses a threat to disrupting the environment and performance you are already experiencing.

We find the need to be as evidence-based as possible; looking for the facts and proof behind the latest research first. Then we like to reflect and ruminate to see if we, or other reputable sources, can poke holes even in the cases where the evidence is solid. In doing so, we avoid incorporating the latest fad or buzzworthy movement that isn't based on any credible research.

Interestingly, findings from from social, cognitive and affective neuroscience are being used to explain how we are motivated to minimize threats and maximize rewards which manifests itself in a number of ways.




David Rock has compiled some interesting research and created what he calls the SCARF model for collaborating with and influencing others.

S - Status
C - Certainty
A - Autonomy
R - Relatedness
F - Fairness

"While the five domains of SCARF reflect core brain networks of greatest significance when it comes to collaborating with and influencing others, understanding these drivers can help individuals and organizations to function more effectively, reducing conflicts that occur so easily amongst people, and increasing the amount of time people spend in the approach state, a concept synonymous with good performance."

As Rock says, the SCARF model points to more creative ways of motivating that may not just be cheaper, but also stronger and more sustainable. Have a look at his work at the NeuroLeadership Institute.

This is exactly the kind of thing we like to keep our eye on to see if the facts line up with what the research suggests. We'll keep you posted on this one.



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The Way We're Working Isn't Working

I have to admit I'm a sucker for a good bibliography and notes sections in a book. The first thing I do when I grab a business text is to scan the notes and bibliography to see what research the author draws from. This provides me a snapshot of the direction of their work, as well as potentially new and interesting research I haven't read.

When I picked up The Way We're Working Isn't Working a few weeks back, I really liked the bibliography because it showed primary research I have seen referenced before in a few other (good) books. But this book seemed to be using it in a different way/context; and sure enough it does.


I love this book. The first chapter title totally resonated with me, (More and More, Less and Less) and typifies how enterprises have somehow forgotten that actual people drive their success and not multi-tasking, data-hoovering, automatons who don't have lives to live outside of work.

The authors, Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes and Catherine McCarthy do a bang-up job explaining the theory and science behind improving enterprise performance using a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates physical, emotional, mental and spiritual components.

Our Core Needs:

Significance - Spirit
What I stand for and believe in - what gives me a sense of meaning

Self-Expression - Mind
Freedom to develop and express my unique skills and talent

Security - Emotions
Feeling appreciated, cared for, valued for who I am and what I do

Sustainability - Body
Being able to regularly renew and take care of myself, so I'm healthy, fit and resilient

Material needs and desires

To many, these ideas are going to seem "fluffy" or "touchy feely" or that Schwartz and his coauthors are stretching the applicability of this science a bit too far. I would wholeheartedly disagree. Look around and observe. Out-dated management practices are everywhere and people's precious time is being squandered because of it.


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The Abundant Organization

As we are preparing to bring our solution to market, we've been searching for a characterization of just what kind of an organization is the "perfect" customer for what we offer. We've batted around the term Authentic Organizations up to this point as we like the dual meaning of "genuine" and "entitled to acceptance or belief because of agreement with known facts or experience," as we are focusing on using the best management science and research to help inform our approach. Authentic therefore combines some of the soft part of the mission with the hard science component.

We are engaged in this enterprise because we hope -- even in the smallest of ways -- to enable "Good Work" to occur more often than it does today. Those who are involved in doing "Good Work" will have better lives both at work and outside of work because of it. We spend an awful lot of time at work as a society, so we believe improving work lives can make a meaningful impact.

But using the term Authentic Organization left a little something to be desired. It was part of the characterization, but not the whole thing. Now I know why.

I've had the good fortune to pick up a copy of a book called The Why of Work, by Dave and Wendy Ulrich and they introduce an idea that is much more fulfilling. They call it the Abundant Organization.

Here's their synopsis:

"An abundant organization is a work setting in which individuals coordinate their aspirations and actions to create meaning for themselves, value for stakeholders, and hope for humanity at large. An abundant organization is one that has enough and to spare of the things that matter most: creativity, hope, resilience, determination, resourcefulness, and leadership.

Abundant organizations are profitable organizations, but rather than focusing only on assumptions of competition and scarcity, abundant organizations also focus on opportunity and synergy. Rather than accepting the fear-based breakdown of meaning in hard times, abundant organizations concentrate on bringing order, integrity, and purpose out of chaos and disintegration. Rather than restricting themselves to narrow, self-serving agendas, abundant organizations integrate a diversity of human needs, experiences and timetables.

In good times and in hard times, abundant organizations create meaning for both the employees who comprise them and the customers who keep them in business. Employees, customers, investors, and society benefit when employees find meaning at work and when companies give meaning to society. This logic applies to small and large organizations, to public agencies and private enterprises, to local storefronts and global conglomerates."

Abundant Organization it is, then. Thank you, Dave and Wendy Ulrich.



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Wait!? So, Goals Aren't Good Either?

There are a lot of things business people take for granted. Those things that are so deeply engrained in our operating philosophy that we just accept them without any critical judgement whatsoever. Let's add another suspect to the list; goals.

Sacrilege you cry? Preposterous? WTF!? Perhaps, but the evidence is mounting.

Firstly, Pfeffer and Sutton introduced an interesting idea in the Knowing Doing Gap:
"The foundation of any successfully run business is a strategy that everyone understands coupled with a few key measures that are routinely tracked."

They go on to say, "the dictum that what is measured is what gets done has lead to the apparent belief that if a company measures more things, more will get done. But that is not at all the case. Southwest Airlines focuses on the critical measure of lost baggage, customer complaints and on-time performance - the keys to customer satisfaction and therefore to success in the airline industry."

Even one of my all-time favourites, Peter Drucker, is famous for saying something like, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it."

Notice the word "measures" was used rather than goals. Is this a frivolous distinction, or is it meaningful? I don't honestly know. But like the movement toward approaches like Beyond Budgeting, it appears that measuring something isn't bad, but perhaps setting a hard goal or target just may be.


From the book Drive, by Daniel Pink, there is a suggestion that goals should be preceded by a warning label: "Goals may cause systematic problems for organizations due to narrowed focus, unethical behaviour, increased risk taking, decreased cooperation, and decreased intrinsic motivation." Ouch.

In the chapter summary, Pink summarizes the most compelling research with the following bullets:

Carrots and Sticks: Seven Deadly Flaws

1. They can extinguish intrinsic motiviation.
2. They can diminish performance.
3. They can crush creativity.
4. They can crowd out good behaviour.
5. They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behaviour.
6. They can be addictive.
7. They can foster short-term thinking.

This has interesting implications for enterprises of all shapes and sizes. Especially, for those companies trying to build products to help enterprises reach their potential; like us.;)


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What Motivates You?

After seeing this book referenced in a few online articles, I've decided to give it a read. Since one of my nasty habits is only buying hard cover business books, I was a little nervous that Pink would lay another egg with this book and I'd be out my $33.50. I read a Whole New Mind (okay, I didn't finish it completely), but I found it a little unsatisfying.

DriveCover.jpgI'm happy to report that Drive is much better than a Whole New Mind. Certainly the main thesis resonates with me; that what science has known for years about motivation is not applied in business. This is a theme that has been trumpeted by Pfeffer and Sutton for some time, and I'm glad to see it picked up by Pink and backed-up with seemingly credible research.

In addition, this work seems to be a nice complement to Teresa Amabile's research I've noted in a previous post.

What's the short story? That the traditional Carrot-and-Stick approach to motivating employees is just plain out-of-date and doesn't reflect what science knows about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I'm sure you intuitively knew this already.

We are intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers, and not just extrinsically motivated profit maximizers. People need to be free to be creative and self-directed in order to let them flourish at work. Yes, easier said than done. But knowing and acknowledging it is the first step...



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Are Your Circuits Overloaded?

In 1989, Richard Saul Wurman coined the phrase, information anxiety, to describe the experience that many of us are feeling today; when we are overloaded with data that adds little or no meaning to our lives.

As Michael Carrol points out in The Mindful Leader, reading any weekday edition of the New York Times provides you with more information than the average person would have come across in an entire lifetime in seventeenth-century England. Add to that our barrage of data from email, the web, television, etc. and there's no wonder our brains are freaking out.

Studies have shown that thousands of people are being diagnosed with ADT - attention deficit trait - each and every year. Our modern office life is turning executives into frenzied underachievers.

"Unlike ADD, a neurological disorder that has a genetic component and can be aggravated by environmental and physical factors, ADT springs entirely from the environment," writes Ned Hallowell in his HBR article from January 2005. It's well worth reading.

Hallowell's tips for Controlling ADT:

In General
>> Get adequate sleep
>> Watch what you eat. Avoid simple, sugary carbohydrates, moderate your intake of alcohol, add protein, stick to complex carbohydrates (vegetables, whole grains, fruit)
>> Exercise at least 30 minutes every other day
>> Take a daily multivitamin and an omega-3 fatty acid supplement

At Work

>> Do all you can to create a trusting, connected work environment
>> Have a friendly, face-to-face talk with a person you like every four to six hours
>> Break large tasks into smaller ones
>> Keep a section of your work space or desk clear at all times
>> Each day, reserve some "think time" that's free from appointments, email, and phone calls
>> Before you leave work each day, create a short list of three to five items you will attend to the next day
>> Try to act on, file or toss every document you touch
>> Don't let papers accumulate
>> Pay attention to the times of the day when you feel that you are at your best; do you most important work then, and save the rote work for other times
>> Do whatever you need to do to work in a more focused way: add background music, walk around, and so on
>> Ask a colleague or an assistant to help you stop talking on the phone, emailing, or working too late

When You Feel Overwhelmed
>> Slow down
>> Do an easy rote task: Reset your watch, write a note about a neutral topic, read a few dictionary definitions...
>> Move around: Go up and down a flight of stairs or walk briskly
>> Ask for help, delegate a task, or brainstorm with a colleague. In short, do not worry alone.




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One Eye Left to Find the Way

Srikumar S. Rao is the author of another of my favourite books entitled, "Are Your Ready to Succeed?" There are tons of reasons to like this work, but I especially like that Rao is bringing together so many ancient sources of wisdom to apply to today's life experience. He's very quick to point out that none of the thinking is new - he's appropriated it from a wide variety of sources.

Especially in the technology-driven world where we operate, people tend to forget about history a little too quickly. Everything is focused on the "new", the "next...", but Rao does a very nice job of bringing us back to some fundamentals.

Here's one of my favourite passages:

A desperate young seeker banged on the door of the Master. "I want to be enlightened," he gasped when the Master answered. "If I stay as your disciple, how long will it take?"

The Master surveyed the young man. He had a strong physique, and the inner restlessness that drove him was almost palpable. A good candidate. "Ten years," said the Master.

The youth wilted, as if struck with an ax. For a few minutes he stood with head bowed, then he looked up. "If I work night and day," he asked fiercely, "if I do without sleep and do twice what your other disciples do, then how long will it take for me to become enlightened?"

"Twenty years," said the Master calmly. So perplexed was the youth and so earnest his demeanor that the sage relented and explained, "When you have one eye so firmly fixed on the goal, you have but one eye left to find the way."

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Closing the Knowing-Doing Gap

If you've read any of the previous blog entries, you'll know I'm a big fan of anything that Jeffrey Pfeffer or Bob Sutton write. And when they co-author a book, you know it's going to be well-researched, intelligent and useful (with a couple of good chuckles - Sutton is a wise-cracker). They have a great knack for debunking commonly held business notions.

One of my dog-eared volumes from Pfeffer and Sutton is a book called, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action. Here's a summary of eight guidelines for action:

1. Why before How: Philosophy is important
2. Knowing comes from doing and teaching others how
3. Action counts more than elegant plans and concepts
4. There is no doing without mistakes. What is the company's response?
5. Fear fosters knowing-doing gaps. So drive fear out.
6. Beware of false analogies: fight the competition, not each other
7. Measure what matters and what can help turn knowledge into action
8. What leaders do, how they spend their time and how they allocate resources, matters.

Pick up a copy if you can. You won't regret it.

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Humans Found to Be Generally Unproductive

Catchy headline. Although I must admit the I find the whole notion a bit disappointing. I understand the need to have a provocative headline to generate links, visits, etc. But I've never met anyone I've worked with whom I would classify as "unproductive."

However, I have seen many work environments that stifle productivity.

The author of this headline is referring to The Microsoft Office Personal Productivity Challenge (PPC) undertaken in 2004/2005. Here's the article I'm referring to for your reading pleasure.

The gist of the article, and the result of the research suggests that a lot of
time and effort is wasted at work. Here are some of the highlights:

"The most common productivity pitfalls are unclear objectives, lack of team communication and ineffective meetings -- chosen by 32 percent of respondents overall -- followed by unclear priorities at 31 percent and procrastination at 29 percent (U.S.: procrastination, 42 percent; lack of team communication, 39 percent; ineffective meetings, 34 percent)."

Headlines like this tend to suggest that it is the individual employee's fault, when the research should tell you a different story. As business leaders, we owe it to our people to clear the impediments to them doing their best work. We also owe it to them to allow them to have a life outside of work.

We love all the latest gadgets. But they should get turned-off so people can engage with their family, friends and their surroundings. If people have clear objectives, the right information and can freely communicate with the right people in your organization, it will go a long way to creating a clear line between work time and personal time.

We're all connected by more than just technology. Burning people out because they are always-on hurts us all. When's the last time you almost saw an accident because someone was emailing/texting/phoning? When was the last time you saw someone ignoring their children because they were working late at night or picking them up from school?

Being able to work anywhere or anytime on important work is fantastic. Expecting your people to work all-the-time on things that might not be important, isn't.

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