Sunday, July 10, 2011

What is Work?

Understanding the nature of work is necessary for effective leadership. Work has changed dramatically for today's workforce due to two influences: (1) automation and (2) computer networks. Understanding this shift in the essence of work helps a leader to shape a highly creative and motivated workforce.

(1) Automation:
In the 19th century and early 20th century, most factory work consisted of repetitive assembly-line tasks. Over the last 50 years, machines and automation have replaced people in these repetitive, physical, and monotonous jobs. Industry has become highly automated and workers now design, integrate, and maintain the machines, tools, systems, and software in factories.

In Drive, Daniel Pink describes this transition in 20th century industry from "algorithmic" work to "heuristic" work. Algorithmic work requires a worker follow proscribed instructions. Heuristic work is the exact opposite where there is not a known solution. A worker has to experiment with options and devise a novel solution. Within algorithmic work, workers can effectively be motivated by rewards and punishments, often referred to as "carrots and sticks". Carrots and sticks, which increase focus for repetitive tasks, are ineffective and often detrimental to heuristic work that requires open-minded brainstorming and problem solving. Carrots and sticks keep workers singularly focused and unable to devise novel and creative solutions.

(2) Computer networks:
Knowledge is no longer a barrier to most problem solving. Massive amounts of information are readily available via computer search engines. "Design by Google" is a relatively new expression that describes a common but faulty engineering approach. Knowledge alone cannot solve complex or novel problems. The application of  information and knowledge within effective problem solving becomes the differentiator for successful work. Companies continuously need to do things better, faster and cheaper. Copying work will not drive the improvements and innovation needed to compete in today's marketplace.

What is work?
Elliott Jacques, an organizational psychologist who studied employment work for over 50 years and advanced our understanding of the development of individuals engaged in work, defined work as "the exercise of discretion, judgement and decision-making in carrying out tasks." In other words, work is making decisions and solving problems. Work now requires a high degree of heuristic problem-solving. Workers are required to do things that machines cannot do, that require creative and novel solutions. Leaders need to understand that people do not excel at heuristic problem solving when rewarded with carrots and punished with sticks.

Intrinsic motivation
With this explanation of work, a leader has to find new ways to get the best out of others. Again in Drive, Daniel Pink defines intrinsic motivation as the fundamental drive behind human creativity and achievement. Pink describes how Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose are the three elements of intrinsic motivation. Autonomy is our desire for control of our destiny. Mastery is the positive feedback that we get as we excel at a discipline. And, Purpose is our desire to be part of something greater than ourselves. Pink makes a compelling case that these three elements provide the foundation for exceptional motivation and creativity.

The leadership role
Effective leadership style must mirror the modern workforce. Today's most successful companies build cultures rooted in intrinsic motivation. Workers are provided with the tools, practices and freedom to create innovative solutions within the context of the company's overall mission. The mission is the key. A good corporate mission define the details of why the company exists, how it creates value, and what it must accomplish (i.e. the Purpose within intrinsic motivation). Workers are expected and trusted to use the mission to make good decisions.

This clarifies the role of the leader: to provide the context for others to make good decisions, and to give them the autonomy to solve problems and master the skills of their positions. The result is a culture where workers take educated risks in the pursuit of overall goals and plans. Not all risks succeed, but those involved learn from mistakes and use that learning to take more educated risks. The leader keeps this cycle in tact by helping team members learn and succeed. In essence, good leader brings value to the decision making and problem solving of his/her team.

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