Six FAQs

Six FAQs

Questions I’m frequently asked about software and product development organisations.

Q1: How can we motivate our workers?

A1: You can’t. Oh, you can dream up incentive schemes, bonus packages, and so on, but there’s plenty of research – and experience – to show that such attempts at extrinsic motivation of knowledge workers only make folks’ performance on the job worse. On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is very powerful – but that comes from the workers themselves. The only thing you can do is to work on creating an environment where maybe, just maybe, some folks feel a little better about themselves, their colleagues, and the common purpose. And hope – yes hope – that some intrinsic motivation emerges, here and there. You can’t change someone else’s intrinsic motivation – only they can do that.

Q2: How can we change the organisation’s culture?

A2: You can’t. Culture is read-only. A manifestation and a reflection of the underlying, collective assumptions and beliefs of all the folks working in the organisation. To see any cultural changes, you have to work on – by which I mean work towards a wholesale replacement of – this underlying collective memeplex. And that involves working with peoples’ heads, and in particular, collective headspaces. You can’t change other people’s assumptions and beliefs – only they can do that.

Q3: How can we change the mindset of managers?

A3: You can’t. Managers – anyone, really – will only change their mindset when they see how their present mindset is ineffective at getting their needs – and the needs of others – met. Change (of mindset) is a normative process – it emerges from direct personal experiences of e.g. the way the work works now – and the problems inherent therein. You can’t change someone else’s mindset – only they can do that.

Q4: How can we get teams to take responsibility?

A4: You can’t. You can threaten, cajole, plead, bribe, appeal to folks’ better nature, etc. But again, research and experience both show these only serve to undermine folks’ goodwill and commitment. If you need folks to take more responsibility, maybe the best way is to just be honest about that, explain your need, and make a refusable request? What would you like the reason to be for them doing as you request? You can’t change someone else’s willingness to take responsibility – only they can do that.

Q5: How can we get managers to trust their teams?

A5: You can’t. Managers will only choose to trust their teams – or anyone else – if they find they have a need to do so. And that need only becomes obvious enough to spur action when managers come to understand just how trust helps them get some of their other needs met better. You can’t change someone else’s willingness to trust others – only they can do that.

Q6: How can we develop people’s competencies?

A6: You can’t. You can, however, create conditions where those folks who want to develop their own competencies can do so more easily. So the question then becomes, how can we get folks to want to develop their own competencies? Which is Q1 (see above). You can’t change someone else’s willingness to learn – only they can do that.

In a nutshell, the direct answer to all the above questions is: you can’t. But you can do one thing to make progress on all these questions: consider the Antimatter Principle.

Are you willing to be that radical? For that is what it boils down to.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

~ Albert Einstein

– Bob

Further Reading

The Art And Science of Changing People Who Don’t Want to Change ~ Reut Schwartz-Hebron

5 comments
  1. Thanks for the post! Now I understand why the Obama’s “Yes we can” did not work through…😉 !
    He said “Yes we can” but he acted as “Yes I can”, and this does not work!

  2. Dave said:

    I do respect your experience and opinions Bob but the negative posts just feed the grumpy undercurrent in the Agile movement.

    So what you are saying is that we should just roll over and tickle the under belly of hopelessness.

    Not having it. Have a read of Switch by Chip and Dan Heath. Amazing things are possible. Can we make people happier? Give them more interesting work? Change the system, the variables. Yes. I believe you can.

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