Give Away Your Power To Improve Team Performance

As a business owner or leader of any kind, devolving your power and giving your team autonomy has a key role in optimising performance. Autonomy is a major motivator. It will allow your team to become leaders themselves, take responsibility for their actions, form creative solutions to problems, be more productive and as a result perform better.

But what is autonomy and why is it important?

Self-Determination Theory

Psychologists previously mentioned in my blog posts – Edward Deci and Richard Ryan – formed their theory of Self-Determination in the late 1970s. This holds that humans have three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy and relatedness. They say that when these needs are satisfied, we are motivated, productive and happy. When these needs are suppressed our motivation, productivity and happiness decrease substantially.

Research conducted by Deci and Ryan, as well as many others in the field, have found that it is autonomy which is the strongest of the three needs. That is, granting or taking away autonomy has the biggest impact on motivation and performance. For example, a study of 320 businesses, half of which granted workers autonomy and half relying on top-down autocratic control. The businesses with autonomous workers grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented businesses and had a third less staff turnover. Also a study which found that autonomous motivation leads to greater understanding, better grades and more persistence in schools.

Autonomous Motivation ‘involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice, whereas Controlled Motivation involves behaving with the experience that comes from pressures and demands towards specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self’.

Giving people autonomy over what they do, then, can be seen as the best way to positively impact motivation and productivity. However, there are other reasons why you need to devolve power to your team.

Today’s World is Complex

In 1980, half of the world’s 4.4 billion people where either so poor that they were cut off from the rest of humanity, or lived in a country so oppressed by its regime, that they had no connection with those outside it. However, during the 80s, 90s and 00s a shift in social and technological factors meant that things which were once separate have the ability to bump against each other, sometimes with unexpected results.

The decreasing cost of computing power, digitisation of huge amounts of information, the ease with which content can now be communicated across vast distances and the increasing wealth of the human population as a whole have meant that there are far more possible interactions between the constituent parts of the systems on which the world operates. I’m not just talking about technological systems but economic, social and all other systems as well.

The fact that there are now so many more possibilities for interactions, has meant that it is far less easy to predict the outcome of situations. In other words, what used to be complicated has now become complex.

As a result of this unpredictability, it is increasingly important for organisations to be aware of and responsive to changes in their own environment and the world around them. Today’s world can be described well by a military term – VUCA. This acronym stands for Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous.

In a VUCA world, reactivity is key. How do we adapt as quickly as we can to this VUCA world? One of the answers lies in devolving power to our team, creating autonomy and allowing people to make decisions in the field. As Harvard Business School Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter has concluded in her research on devolving power to employees in the workplace, ‘the degree to which the opportunity to use power effectively is granted to or withheld from individuals is one operative difference between those companies which stagnate and those which innovate’.

As a leader, you cannot hope to be able to predict the future of your business yourself, there are now too many variables in play. You must give power to your ‘troops on the ground’ who can feed back information as it arises, allowing the ability to be more reactive to situations.

Decision Making

However, it is not enough to quickly receive information about today’s ever-changing situations. Improvements in technology allowing instant communication around the world, have meant that decision making has become slower.

In his book Team of Teams, General Stanley McCrystal says that during the Joint Special Operations Task Force effort in Iraq starting in 2003, the real-time information being fed to central command meant that Leaders felt compelled to withhold authority on decisions of significant importance. As a result, during the course of their efforts, the hierarchical decision making process sometimes caused them to miss fleeting opportunities and that the ‘aggregate effects [of delayed decisions] were crippling’.

He concluded that the wait for a rubber stamp to approve matters was not resulting in making better decisions. He wanted to shift the premise to one where the ‘best possible decision could be made in a time frame that allowed it to be relevant’ and therefore devolved the decision-making power to those on the ground who could make it in a timely fashion. They found that, having struggled against an Al-Qaida force with little formal structure that could seemingly change and adapt on a whim, by allowing those in the heat of the battle to make the decisions for themselves, they changed the course of action and began succeeding when previously they were literally fighting a losing battle.

The New Zealand All Blacks rugby team has created a way of devolving power to their players, which has made them the most successful team in World Rugby. Here, not only do they allow the players to take control of training in the lead up to a game, but they have created a team of leaders, each responsible for decisions on and off the field. When this was implemented, coach Graham Henry gave several senior players each a distinct portfolio of responsibilities. These ranged from on-field leadership of particular aspects of the game, to social organisations, new-player mentoring and community relations.

In a typical week before a game, the management will give a few pointers during a Sunday evening review meeting, which is predominantly led by on-field leaders. Then over the course of the week, more of the responsibility goes to the players to decide what to work on in training and its intensity. Come match day, the coaches don’t need to give a rousing speech. As Henry says ‘the time before they run out on the field, is their time. They’ve got to get their own minds right and settled on the job’. He also says that ‘duel leadership was very important to our success, perhaps the reason for that success’.

By getting your team to make decisions for themselves and not withholding power, your team can become more reactive to situations as they arise. Deciding by themselves to take the best course of action possible. Our now complex world brings unpredictability, being able to react to situations in real time is essential for success. Entrusting your team with the autonomy to make their own decisions in all situations will not only motivate them, but will future-proof your efforts.

Creating

Giving team members the power to opt-in to projects allows autonomy of a different kind. This is the operating system on which many of the tools you use everyday have been created and improved.

A survey in 2015 found that 78% of companies were running at least part of their systems on Open Source Software (OSS). OSS is one of today’s most important technological advances.

In 2007, a website called SourceForge.net, which caters to open source software developers, listed 150,000 open source projects and nearly 1.6 million contributors. OSS has crowd sourced the creative spirit of its community by allowing individuals around the world to collaborate with each other to bug-fix, improve and expand feature sets.

Companies are now not only running their systems on OSS but opening the code to their own systems to the OSS community. Two of the world’s biggest companies – Walmart and ExxonMobil – now release the code of their systems to the OSS community as it is seen as the best way for them to improve and develop these.

What can the success of OSS be attributed to? It can only be that there is an open invitation to contribute. All you need to be able to have an impact is a knowledge of code. There is no prejudice about who is and who isn’t qualified to contribute and the approval process for whether your efforts are adopted are transparent. It is the ultimate creative outlet for people with a passion for code and forming elegant solutions to problems. As a Microsoft engineer wrote in a 1998 internal memo, leaked to the press, ’The ability of the OSS process to collect and harness the collective IQ of thousands of individuals across the Internet is simply amazing..’.

Opting-in has also famously devised some of Google’s best products, such as Gmail and Google Maps, which grew from pet projects conceived during 20 percent time. 20 percent time was the ability for Googlers to spend this amount of their week on whatever project they wanted. The very premise of 20 percent time is that each person opts-in to their own project or someone else’s to which they can add their skill set. Google has since rescinded 20 percent time for employees. However, this does not mean that innovation has stopped at the company. Google is now at a size where it must focus operations on the many products it has created. Employees are still encouraged to work on a side project, they must simply check first with managers before spending company time on it.

It isn’t just recent software innovations which have come about by allowing employees to opt-in to a project. Post-It notes, an invention formed by a failed experiment to produce super-adhesive glue, was originally a side project for scientist Art Fry at 3M in the 1970s. At the time, 3M had a policy in which employees could spend 15 percent of their time on projects of their choosing. This product has been one of 3M’s most successful, being available in six hundred different forms, in one hundred countries around the world.

Whilst you might be having convulsions at the potential inefficiencies of giving your team the power to opt-in to whatever project they want, taking valuable focus away from their day to day tasks and functions. It is important to note that Atlassian, a company that has had 20 percent time for employees in place since the early 00s, reports that employees use substantially less than the time allocated to them as ‘they didn’t want to let down their current teammates by abandoning ongoing projects’. The company credits the ability to opt-in as a key reason for their growth to a turnover of more than $450 million since starting in 2002.

I would argue that any inefficiency an opt-in policy might bring will be heavily outweighed by opportunities that come about from self-directed time, which otherwise would have been overlooked. In addition, your team will be fully engaged and have maximum productivity. All from you having the courage to devolve enough power for them to experience the ultimate in Autonomous Motivation, the ability to spend at least some of their time working in a way which we were all born to be – curious and self-directed.

Do You Have The Courage?

My challenge to you, as a leader of any kind, is to have the courage to devolve your power to your team. Allow your team members to be autonomous in what they do, how they do it, in the decisions that they make and in how they direct their time.

Leaders in the examples above, from the worlds of business, sports and the military, have all had the courage to devolve their power and have seen their team’s performance improve as a result. All of these individuals display what is known as Level 5 Leadership, those who have the humility to ask their team to collaborate with them for optimal performance.

Do you have what it takes to be a Level 5 leader and give your power away?

I would welcome your thoughts and comments. Please post if you have something to add.

 

5 Step Process for Improving Team Performance

In order to improve the performance of teams that I have consulted with and coached, I go through this five step process to obtain the best possible results. You can apply this to your team as well, so that they become a Top-Flight Team.

These five steps are simple to perform and execute. They allow you to find roadblocks in the team’s performance and obtain their commitment to change these for better results. The five steps are outlined as follows – 1. Understand context, 2. Define issues affecting performance, 3. Focus on awareness of the team, 4. Gain and embed a commitment to change and 5. Measure progress and obtain feedback.

These steps must be performed in sequence and you must not move on to the next step until you have exhausted your options in the step you are currently engaged in. This will ensure that you have extracted the maximum potential for improvement possible at that time. If you feel that, whilst going through the steps, that there could be more that the team can give, then simply repeat until you have gained the maximum you can.

Here are the steps with further explanation. The example I will use to demonstrate each step is of a recent rowing crew that I coached –

  1. Understand context

An objective, holistic view of the team and other elements that it interacts with, such as environment or market must be taken and reviewed. This is so that the team’s performance can be seen in relation to its constituent parts and those around it which may affect performance. This could take the form of research into the team, its efforts, what tasks it performs and the market it is in. You must have a wider view of the situation and a good understanding of how the team could move forward before moving on. It is key to understand the motivations behind how the team wants to perform and also the language that they use to communicate, otherwise you will miss the underlying reasons for underperformance and will not be heard when discussing them.

The crew I recently coached had consistently placed in the middle of the pack in races over the summer season. Relative to their opposition they were no worse off with physiological attributes and proficiency in the sport. However, they seemed to be unable to break through their glass ceiling. I sat down and reviewed each of their performances relative to the competition in each of the races they had completed recently and also looked at performances in different racing categories for comparison.

  1. Define Issues Affecting Performance

By having an open mind in analysis of the holistic view in which the team performs it soon becomes evident where potential issues might arise. In this Step you must hone in on the one, two, or three at maximum, critical issues leading to underperformance. It is important to engage the team in this process so that they start to become more aware of their situation and analytical in their thinking about the way in which they perform. It is great if you can collect some data at this stage to back up your analysis and objectively look at this relative to the contextual picture you have created in Step 1, to back up your case for change leading to improved performance.

With the crew, it was obvious that, although they were finishing races in the middle of the pack, they started races off the pace by some distance. After the first quarter of the race had taken place, the crew would be behind relative to the competition at all times, giving themselves work to do to come back on the field at the end. Getting 9 individuals to move a boat from standstill to race pace is a complicated process. Much like the combustion engine in a car, the constitute parts must work in unison with the correct timing otherwise a misfire would take place. All this is taking place whilst going up through the gears from stationary. Today’s cars have sophisticated electronic systems to govern timing. The added complication in a rowing boat is that it has nine brains which are not interconnected, each being affected by nerves, stress and the monkey mind in different ways. We knew that, biomechanically speaking, our start procedure would be effective, somehow the application of it wasn’t.

  1. Focus on awareness of the team

In this step you should coach the team to be more aware of their situation and get them to take ownership of the issues at hand as well as solutions to relieve them. I use the GROW method to gain self-awareness in the team. GROW stands for Goals, Reality, Options and When/Where/Which/What. This gives a framework on which to take the team through the roadblocks in place, work towards taking ownership of these and creating ways of overcoming them. It is important to set Goals first in this framework, before tackling reality, as this will allow the team to be more creative with the Options stage in devising solutions.

By simply looking at the data available from the races which they had entered, the crew quickly realised that their start protocol was not as effective relative to the competition. By going through the GROW framework with the crew as a whole, we were able to set a Goal of being ahead of our opposition after a quarter race distance. As the crew talked about their goal and looked at the reality of the situation they started to discuss their individual application of the protocol at the start of the races that had taken place. By becoming more aware of how each of them was applying themselves to the process they realised that there were individual inconsistencies.

During a rowing race start the strokes begin shorter than usual and build up to full length over time. In this instance, the length of their strokes were out of alignment with each other. When some of the crew were at half-length stroke, others were fractionally longer leading to their oars being out of time. This is like they crew taking one, two or three people out of the boat and racing against a boat with the full compliment of rowers. By not applying themselves in exactly the same time in exactly the same way, they open up a deficiency of propulsion of the boat. For the crew, this was only very subtle. In fact we were not able to detect this visually, but in a sport fought in inches, subtlety matters.

They became more self-aware of what they were doing relative to their crew mates. They were also able, with me, to come to a consensus of how to apply themselves as a unit to get the most speed out of the boat possible. They led the process of creating the consensus which was very prescriptive, whilst still having a solution which could be adapted if required. Hopefully this would eliminate the roadblock to the performance they sought.

  1. Gain and embed a commitment to change

As part of the GROW method, by enabling your team to take ownership of the roadblocks to performance and by becoming self-aware of the situation, the process will naturally lead to the team committing to change the reality they face and the solutions to seek the performance that is required. However, you must ensure that you gain commitment, not just verbally or in writing, but in the actions they take. If possible, it is important to use data to track performance of the solutions to roadblocks put in place by the team. That way there is immediate feedback, which can be communicated to the team, making sure that the team, with their new self-awareness, can see the fruits of their labours. This will embed the change as the team realise that they have taken ownership of the situation, applied themselves to create solutions to roadblocks and are performing better as a result.

With the rowing crew we were able to test their solutions to the problems we found in the start protocol in training. Once they were comfortable with the new process that came about through their consensus, we were able to give them feedback using GPS tracking data to show them the change in speed they would have during the first quarter of a race. Although the new process would mean that they faced further duress during the race start, it would put them under a little more physiological stress, they came to understand that this was worth the cost, knowing their pace relative to others as the race progressed was good. Again, they were able to reflect on this through the self-awareness they had gained from Step 3.

  1. Measure progress and obtain feedback

Here it is helpful to use the metrics established in Steps 1 and 2 to review the team’s performance before and after the solutions to roadblocks have been discovered. These can be shown to the team to further embed the change they took ownership of establishing. Also at this stage it is important for you to obtain feedback from the team in order to make sure that individuals believe in the change and to ascertain whether any improvements can be made to the process the next time change needs to take place.

By this time the crew were ready for their final big race of the season, which they had been working towards for nine months. Having developed the awareness themselves and created the improvements to their start protocol in the preceding few weeks, they felt ready to take their opposition. A few days before the race, we decided to test the crew against opposition who, on paper, would be stronger than them. We arranged a short race against a boat from the United States that were talented and we knew would be very strong, containing athletes that had been recruited to their team due to their athletic ability. Of the two races, we lost the first narrowly. However, as they had created a way of adapting the start protocol to the situation, the crew were able to change their effort. In the second race, they beat the boat from the US by a much greater margin that they had lost the previous time. This was an overachieving result for the crew, even though it was just in practice. A crew from our club had not raced and beaten a boat of that caliber for a very long time. In fact, no one at the club could remember when they had. This proved a fantastic measure for the crew, gave them and me the feedback we required and demonstrated that the protocol which they had put in place worked very effectively.

A few days later on race day, the crew beat their local rivals, a club that they had lost to previously in the season and a club that we had not beaten for over 20 years. It is difficult to say with certainty, due to changing environmental conditions at races, but we estimate that the crew increased their speed by around 8 seconds over a 2000m course. That is a significant amount in a sport won or lost by very small margins. All that for no additional physiological improvement required by the athletes, simply by working more effectively together.

It might sound simplistic that the 5 Step process applied to a rowing boat could improve their performance. However, without going through the steps, making sure that we covered each fully, we would not have uncovered the roadblocks to improvement. The individuals in the crew would not have realised that they were all thinking slightly differently on each stroke during the start protocol and hence performing each differently from one another. In a race of around 230 rowing strokes, each must be maximised to achieve the fastest time. Being aware of what they were doing relative to each other allowed them to realise this and come to a consensus to work together as a team better to improve their performance.

By enabling self-awareness and taking ownership of small wins, any team, be it in business, academia or sport, can improve their performance.

The Bonus You Use As An Incentive Makes Your Team Perform Worse

In 1949 Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology, carried out a series of experiments observing rhesus monkeys solving a puzzle which looked similar to the latch on a door with a pin securing it. At the start of the period of experiments he placed the puzzle in the cage with the monkey and waited for them to get used to their new set of surroundings. What happened next caught him completely by surprise.

Without any inducement at all the monkeys set to work trying to solve the puzzles. They worked with what seemed like diligence and looked to be enjoying the task. As the days went by the monkeys became more adept and quick at solving the puzzles until they were opening the latch-like mechanism in no time at all.

This went against the grain of what was known about what powered behaviour. Harlow knew that there were two main motivators in life – the biological and the external. The first is present in all animals, the need for survival – to eat, drink and copulate to produce offspring. The second drive, he knew was an external one, that of reward or punishment from the environment based on our actions. In the case of the puzzle solving monkeys, neither of these could have been motivators for them as ‘the solution did not lead to food, water or sex gratification’, nor was there a reward for solving or punishment for not solving the puzzle.

Harlow realised that there must be a third drive taking hold of these monkeys, compelling them to solve the puzzles provided them. ‘The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward’, he wrote. The monkeys seemed to be solving the puzzles because they found it gratifying, they enjoyed the challenge of doing so. He called this Intrinsic Motivation.

In one of his final experiments in this series, he decided to test the strength of this new third drive as surely it must have been subordinate to the biological and extrinsic motivators. So, he experimented with rewarding the monkeys with raisins whenever they solved the puzzles, what could be more gratifying for a monkey than to receive food for doing good work. However, what occurred shocked Harlow even more. The monkeys actually got WORSE at solving the puzzles, making more errors and completing them less frequently. It seemed that providing an external inducement decreased performance. (1)

Who decided that paying a performance bonus was a good idea anyway?

In 1900, Henry Winslow Taylor demonstrated his ‘Scientific Management’ method of producing more, faster with less material at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. Having turned down a place at Harvard to go to work in a steel factory he had become fascinated by how such a revolutionary technology such as the day’s finest industrial machinery could be utilised in such a haphazard, unscientific way by the people working there. Methods of carrying out processes in the factory were a hangover from the days of artisans, knowledge was passed down through the team and instructions were given using approximations at best. He felt that there must be something to be done to improve the way work was performed.

By applying reductionist thinking and using a stop watch to measure his results, he broke down the actions of the factory workers into their constituent parts and set about devising methods of reducing the amount of time it took to complete them. The small reductions in the time it took to perform each task in his new method of working, meant that the finished product was formed in a vastly reduced time overall.

The usual rate of manufacture employed in factories like Taylor’s cut nine feet of steel per minute. His new method cut fifty feet, it was nearly 6 times faster. The Marginal Gains much trumpeted by Team Sky and David Brailsford are not a new concept.

At the exposition in Paris, his demonstration caused a storm. People queued for hours to catch a glimpse of his operation. Once news spread, they travelled across Europe to see for themselves this miraculous way of churning out product. Prominent Industrialists of the time wrote ‘Nobody quite believed at first in the prodigious result..but we had to accept the evidence of our eyes’, the process was ‘a landmark in the history of mankind’ and likened the breakthrough to the invention of the electric lightbulb.

Taylor’s Scientific Management was so popular that people devoted their lives to his vision. It moved from factory to factory, industry to industry, always improving what had gone before. It meant that workers became cogs in a machine built for efficiency. It also meant that what was once skilled work became simple steps that could be executed by anyone once trained. What once were seen as complex tasks only to be performed by an educated worker could now be carried out at a more efficient rate by someone unskilled, uneducated and cheaper. To ensure these unskilled and uneducated workers worked in the right way, at the right time, producing as much as the system could achieve; methods of reward and punishment were brought in to have more of the behaviour that was required and less of the behaviour that was not. Eventually, this settled on a monetary incentive to work. If a worked produced what the system said they could they were paid accordingly, if they over achieved this target they would be paid more. Thus was born the Bonus Scheme.

This premise of industry, to reward the good work and punish the bad, has remained in our everyday lives since that demonstration in the 1900 Parisian display. It has worked well. Very well. It has helped us transform our work from blue collar to white collar – there has been a best way to insert paper into a typewriter, the quickest way of clipping paper together and scripts for handling sales calls. Scientific Management and the financial incentive has built our economy to where we are today. However, what has worked before has now to all intents and purposes become a hindrance.

Heuristic work

As economic progress has shifted from blue collar to white, Taylor’s reductionist methods could be applied to reduce tasks to scripts, formulas and step-by-step processes. Scientific Management is in effect today with, what was once high skilled, highly educated white collar work carried out in the Developed World of North America, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia moving off-shore to where it can be completed cheaper.

Whilst outsourcing the routine work has become more and more prevalent and efficient to do, the type of work the Western World produces is becoming more complex. The work that North America, Europe, Japan etc have begun to produce is that of problem solving, learning and discovery, what Daniel Kahneman, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, has termed Heuristic Work. McKinsey & Co have estimated that 70% of job growth in the United States is that of heuristic work (2).

Kahneman says that work can now be divided into two categories – algorithmic and heuristic – the former meaning process oriented, the latter artistic and non-routine.

Algorithmic work can be outsourced and automated – technology can now perform tasks that only a few years ago relied on a human to carry out, for example tax preparation software and automatic retail checkouts. In fact a recent study by PwC warned that 10 million jobs in the UK are set to be replaced by technology in the next 15 years (3). Heuristic work cannot be outsourced or automated.

Whereas the old methods of reward and punishment work to a certain extent in the world of algorithmic work, findings say that they hinder the production of heuristic work upon which Western economies now rely.

Studies show that rewards hinder performance

Harvard Business School’s Teresa Amabile has found that creative heuristic work relies heavily on Harlow’s third drive, intrinsic motivation (4). Subsequent experiments into rewarding heuristic tasks conducted by Edward Deci and colleagues found that there was a ‘hidden cost of rewards’. They observed a group of pre-school children who enjoyed spending their free play time drawing and devised and experiment to test what effect providing a reward had on this activity, which the children clearly enjoyed. The children were divided into three groups – those given no reward for drawing, those given an unexpected reward for drawing and those told that if they spent time drawing they would receive a reward. A few weeks later, when the researchers visited the pre-school again they could clearly see that children who were in the no rewards and un-expected reward group drew with the same enjoyment and relish as before. However, the children that had expected a reward for drawing showed much less interest and drew less than previously. They were experiencing a fact which we all know, that once enjoyable work can become a drudge. However, only those that were expecting a reward for drawing were impacted by this. Those that did not expect a reward yet received one for drawing still had the same verve for the task as before.

Their conclusion was that ‘if-then’ rewards, if a task was performed then a reward would be give, affected the performance of heuristic tasks. The reason they gave was that these ‘if-then’ rewards asked people to forfeit some their autonomy. They varied this experiment over and over with different groups of people and still found the same. Extrinsic rewards, especially ‘if-then’ rewards in over 100 experiments were shown to have a negative impact on intrinsic motivation of heuristic tasks (5).

‘I don’t need my team to be intrinsically motivated’, I hear you say. ‘I pay people for performance of their tasks at work. When they perform well, they get paid more’. But this has been proven to have the reverse effect.

In a 2005 study performed by economists from MIT, Carnegie Mellon and the University of Chicago for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, high pay was shown to be detrimental to high performance. In their study of 87 participants in India, they set a series of tasks from unscrambling anagrams to recalling a string of numbers, all requiring creativity, concentration and some requiring motor skill. Again, divided into three groups the participants were to earn a reward. Group 1 would earn 4 rupees (at the time worth around a day’s pay) for hitting their performance target, Group 2 would earn 40 rupees (about two week’s pay) and group 3 would earn 400 rupees (nearly 5 months pay).

It turned out that the medium level of reward had no affect over the level of performance produced by participants than the low level of reward. However, the high level of reward made participants perform worse than the other two groups on nearly every task. ‘In eight of the nine tasks we examined across the three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance’, they concluded (6).

Another study carried out by the London School of Economics in 2009 analysed 51 studies of corporate pay for performance plans. The conclusion was that financial incentives have ‘a negative impact on overall performance’ (7).

As economists in the previous study in India wrote in their report ‘one cannot assume that introducing or raising incentives always improve performance’. They also stated that using bonus structures in the corporate world may be ‘a losing proposition’.

Controversy

As these experiments clearly show, extrinsic rewards given in the usual if-then way, such as a pay-for-performance bonus, can have a negative effect on your team. These findings were so controversial that the researchers were forced to re-analyse almost 3 decades of data from their experiments. Still they came to the same conclusion ‘when institutions – families, schools, businesses and athletic programmes, for example – focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behaviour’ they do so to the detriment of long-term performance (8).

Notes

  1. Harlow et al., “Learning Motivated by Manipulation Drive” , Journal of Experimental Psychology 40, 1950
  2. Bradford et al., “The Next Revolution in Interaction”, McKinsey Quarterly 4, 2005
  3. Hawksworth et al., “UK Economic Outlook July 2017”, PwC
  4. Teresa Amabile, “Creativity in Context”, 1996
  5. Mark Lepper, David Greene and Robert Nisbett, “Undermining Children’s Intrinsic Interest with Extrinsic Rewards”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 28, 1973
  6. Ariely et al., “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes”, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Working Paper No 05-11, July 2005
  7. “LSE: When Performance-Related Pay Backfires”, Financial June, 2009
  8. Deci at al., “A Meta-Analytic Review of Experiements Examining the Effects of Extrinsic Rewards on Intrinsic Motivatioin”, Psychological Bulletin 125, 1999

Culture is Key

In order to be a Top Flight Team, the team’s players must be motivated. Science tells us that to be motivated an individual must first have purpose, a reason why, a cultural imperative.

Before we delve into the science, let us look at the worlds of sports and business to where purpose and culture has provided the backbone for high performance.

Bill Walsh was a legend. When he took over coaching the San Francisco 49ers they were an under-performing bunch of also-rans in the American NFL. From 1979 to 1989, he turned them into one of the greatest sporting dynasties in the history of the sport. His belief was that to build a successful team that team had to have character. He has been quoted as saying ‘You get nowhere without character. Character is essential to individuals, and their cumulative character is the backbone of your winning team’. His ethos was that in order to build character, you had to have the right culture in place. His philosophy was that he was a teacher first and a leader second. He taught his players to be characterful. As the title of this book proclaims, The Score Takes Care of Itself. Rather than focusing on results, it was more important to work on the team and make sure it had the right culture to build character and succeed.

Vince Lombardi, another legendary American Football coach, said that ‘The challenge of every team is to build a feeling of oneness, of dependence on one another. Because the question is usually not how well each person performs, but how well they work together.’ Again, the ‘feeling of oneness’ is a shared cultural imperative.

More recently, culture has formed the central theme of another team with roughly the same shaped ball as the world of Walsh and Lombardi, but a completely different set of rules. Rugby Union’s All Blacks are the National Team of New Zealand and they have been the most successful team in history, winning more games back to back than any other nation and being the first to win successive World Cups in 2011 and 2015.

Unusually for a sports team, it isn’t just supreme skill, star players and genius coaches, that make the All Blacks so successful, it is the overall culture of the team that is the bedrock of its success. What it meant to be an All Black and to be a New Zealander is baked into the heart of the team.

Following a period of abject underperformance during the 2004 Tri-Nations tournament, when the All Blacks finished last behind Australia and South Africa, the new coach Graham Henry and his team reviewed the situation and realised that they needed to ‘create an environment that would stimulate the players and make them want to take part in it’. They came up with six words – Better People Make Better All Blacks.

Once they had struck upon this purpose, they had the reason to create a cultural imperative around it. In addition to this, they allowed the players to take ownership of creating that culture. As Wayne Smith, a member of the All Black coaching team, says ‘We had to put forward stuff that inspired us and that inspired the players’. Adding, ‘If you are going to set goals the players have got to set goals. If you are going to be vision-driven and values-based, they have got to be a huge part of that’.

Management Consultant Owen Eastwood states that ‘The emotional glue of any culture – religion, nation or team – is its sense of identity and purpose’. What drives the formation of culture with the All Blacks is the connection of personal meaning to public purpose. This is the way in which we connect ourselves to a wider purpose. If our sense of personal meaning aligns with the values of an organisation, that sense will impel us to work hard and achieve success.

In order to embed this as their cultural bedrock, the All Blacks have an ongoing interrogative process as a central theme, they question eveything. This, known at the Socratic Method, is employed as a method of hypothesis elimination and helps them find self-knowledge. The coaches employed this method, rather than instruction so that their charges could make their own judgement of situations, set internal benchmarks and form their own culture.

As I have found in my own coaching, this form of leadership creates adaptive problem-solving with individuals taking ownership of their situation and continuous improvement as a result. Having the humility to tell athletes or mentees that you don’t have all the answers, questioning the status quo through ongoing interrogation helps individuals connect to a value-driven and purpose driven culture and leads to vast improvement.

In 1962, when President John F Kennedy gave his enthusiastic speech about sending a spaceship to land on the moon, leaders at NASA had profound misgivings about the feat being possible. Only two years beforehand their first attempt to send an unmanned test craft to orbit the Earth had been a damp squid, lifting only four inches before settling back down and jettisoning its escape rocket which instantly deployed its landing parachutes which then fell into the sea. This was all whilst the US was losing the Space Race against the Soviet Union, who had already achieved the first Earth orbit, first animal in orbit, the first images of the far side of the moon and would very soon put the first man into space.

NASA was originally conceived as a research institution, with independent teams of specialists working on their own projects. The problem in its lagging achievement was that whilst these independent specialists were very comfortable with working on their own projects, they were not good at integrating efforts into a single project. This was essential for a project such as landing on the moon, which would require a team of 300,000 individuals working for 20,000 contractors and 200 universities in 80 countries.

In 1963 all this would change with the appointment of George Mueller to build the managerial foundation of the Apollo program, that of taking a man to the moon. Mueller’s vision was to create ‘joint cognition’ between all the teams within NASA and around the world working on the project. For this to be possible he needed cultural change. This change came in requiring all those involved to align behind one purpose, landing a man on the moon, and the communication structures needed in order to realise this.

Whereas before Mueller’s involvement NASA HQ would collect data from various field centres each month and have a few managers check for inconsistencies, he insisted on daily analysis and quick exchange of data. All data was continually on display in a Central Control Room and this received updates from teams and contractors on a constant basis. This has been likened to the Internet over 20 years before the Internet was created. The organisation also built a ‘teleservices network’ to connect teams and project control rooms together, providing the ability to hear in real time the problems and issues each was facing and how they would be solved.

By today’s standards of interconnected life, this seems trivial, but in the mid 1960s this was revolutionary and a huge cultural shift for an organisation that had previously been very silo orientated in its operation. To begin with this caused huge ructions with staff as they learned the new cultural imperative of the project. However, once they saw the utility of the information sharing, more and more of the initial opposition came around.

Another cultural change that NASA had to make at the time was that of dealing with outside contractors. Previously NASA had done everything in-house, however, this was a project so huge that NASA simply did’t have the capacity or expertise to do everything in-house. But the complex interaction of parts involved in this project meant that those provided by sub-contractors not privy to the full context were likely to create problems. The solution was to bring the contractors in-house and they needed to have a handle on the whole picture. That way they could continue to be specialists in their field but knew the wider implications of their output.

Of course, we know the story has a happy ending. The cultural oneness that was fostered in Mueller’s vision of ‘joint cognition’ proved to be the main reason for NASA’s success. So successful in fact that this is still used today and has been essential in projects such as the International Space Station and Boeing’s 777.

What science says

A study by behavioural scientists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in 2000 gave us their Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which argues that humans have three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy and relatedness. When these needs are satisfied, we are motivated. When these needs are denied us, our motivation and happiness plummet. Of the three pillars of SDT, autonomy is the strongest. Autonomous motivation involves behaving with a full sense of volition and choice (purpose), whereas controlled motivation involves behaving with the experience of pressure and demand toward specific outcomes that comes from forces perceived to be external to the self.

Recent studies have shown that autonomous motivation promotes greater conceptual understanding, better grades, enhanced persistence at school and in sporting activities, higher productivity, less burn-out and greater levels of psychological wellbeing. Researchers at Cornell University studied over 300 hundred businesses, half of which had a strong culture of autonomy for their employees and half of which had a culture of top-down direction. The businesses with an autonomous culture grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented businesses and had one third of the staff turnover.

Baby Boomers are now the largest demographic cohort in the majority of the Western World. During 2006 the earliest Boomers hit their 60th birthday, at this time in the United States alone one hundred Baby Boomers reached this landmark every thirteen minutes. As is human nature, with every landmark comes reflection. With this reflection, they soon realise that they still have upwards of 25 years left on this planet and start wondering when they will do something that really matters and make a difference in the world. During their twenties, thirties and forties the world was in an unprecedented economic boom. Yet their reflection tells them that they still have unmet dreams. They are still seeking purpose.

Sylvia Hewlett, an economist at Cambridge University, has researched purpose in different generations of human society. Her findings show that the Baby Boomer and Millenial generations now have the same view of purpose in their lives. She says that both these generations ‘are redefining success [and] are willing to accept a radically “remixed” set of rewards’. Far from rating monetary compensation from being the most important, they choose a range on non-monetary factors such as ‘a great team’ or ‘the ability to give back to society through work’. In other words they crave purpose and cultural imperative more than financial rewards in their life.

What does this mean for me, you and our teams?

From various successful business projects, sporting exploits and scientific research, we can see that purpose and culture are necessary to get our teams to perform. In order to create this, we need to have a Socratic Method of asking ‘why’? Why are we doing things? Why do we want others to follow? Why do we need their help?

As Simon Sinek says, ‘People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it’. He argues that what we feel matters more than what we think, because the area of the brain which handles feelings, the limbic, is buried deep within its pre-linguistic core. This means that, given a choice, we follow our gut. He says that asking ‘why’ creates a biological imperative, it drives us and inspires us.

Not only do we need to simply ask questions, but we need to form better questions to ask to draw better answers from those around us.

We also need to create an environment where our team can be autonomous in what they do and how they do it. By asking the questions and seeking why we build stronger bonds and attain higher achievements.

That way we can all align behind a purpose and build a culture of success.

 

Credits go to Drive by Daniel Pink, Legacy by James Kerr and Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal.

Introduction

I’ve always been fascinated by the way teams work. Early in my life I always wanted to be part of a team, working with others to achieve a goal. This was especially true with sports.

When I was quite young I was captured by the magic of sailing. I learnt to sail a single handed boat, which I loved, but I enjoyed crew boats even more. I adored racing and would prefer to crew for someone, trying with them, to extract the most out of the boat in order to beat our opponents. Working in harmony with my crew mate to use the equipment and wind to its fullest. Learning my crew mate’s strengths and weaknesses. How they read the situation and having input into that to make us as fast as we could on the water.

As a got a little older, my attention turned to rowing. This is the ultimate team sport. A rowing crew is only as strong as its weakest link. If one member of a crew is inefficient with their rowing stroke or not as fit or strong as the others, the boat will only go as fast as this member will allow. He or she will be the limiting factor in ability. In other team sports such as rugby or football with many players on the pitch, a team can still achieve a win on the strength of one or two star players. Individual skill can win a hockey, Aussie Rules or basketball team the game. In a crew rowing boat, this is simply not possible. All crew members must work in unison to propel the boat as fast as they are able. If one of the crew is slightly out of time, underpowered or not as physically fit, it limits the possibilities. It is this that I find fascinating about the sport of rowing. So much so that I have now coached Elite rowing for over 10 years.

I was a very average rower myself. However, I have had success as a coach. My crews have competed and won at International regattas. I have had athletes go through my programme who have competed for their country, such as Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Tonga and Estonia, at World Cup and World Championship regattas. Some of my club women’s crews were only beaten by the Great British National Team during their season for two years on the trot. One of my crews beat a crew full of Olympians.

I have found during my years coaching rowing that the crews which performed the best were those that worked together as a team, extracting the most out of one another as well as themselves. I have had crews that have competed and beaten opposition that were, on paper, superior to them, simply because they worked together as a crew better.

In my other life, I have worked in the business world for nearly 20 years. This began in a startup before the term had been coined, it was simply a small technology business distributing bleeding edge IT products from Silicon Valley and Israel to the UK. I subsequently moved in to my Family’s Business in the Property Sector, where I spent 9 years and grew the business twice over. The second time after we lost the majority of our customer base following the financial crisis when my team and I doubled turnover from £3 million to over £6 million in the space of 18 months by creating and launching an innovative product.

As someone who always wants to improve on a situation, call me competitive, I have a deep interest in new ways of doing things. My fascination has only increased after, having left my Family’s Business to pursue other opportunities in 2011, I became a helpless bystander as the company was forced to close due to being unable to change its core business when it badly needed to.

Over the years of reading and research into how to improve performance in sport as well as in business, I have come to realise that it is the team which is one of, if not the most important aspect. In business, it is the Rock Star Entrepreneur who grabs the headlines, but scratch the surface and you will find that his or her exploits would not have been possible without the team around them.

Steve Jobs needed Steve Wozniak, Jonathan Ives and the rest of the Apple team to realise his vision of the tech industry. Mark Zuckerberg needed Dustin Moskovitz, Eduardo Saverin and others to start what became Facebook whilst at Harvard. Jonny Wilkinson won the 2005 rugby world cup for England with one kick to score. However, he couldn’t have been in the position to score without his team mates who went through several phases of play, inching their way towards the opposition’s line. Ben Ainslie is largely credited for overturning the huge deficit that Team Oracle had against Team Emirates New Zealand in the 2013 America’s Cup. However, whilst he gave the calls on tactics, he still had to rely on those sailing the boat – helm and crew – to enact on his word.

Very rarely do you hear about the team, whether the subject is about Lewis Hamilton, Roger Federer, Tim Ferriss or Elon Musk. All these household names have a team of unsung heroes behind them, working furiously towards success.

From my own experience of coaching high performance teams in rowing and the business world, I believe that although innovation, entrepreneurism, inspiring leaders and collaborative workspaces are some of today’s in vogue topics, they would all be for naught if it were not for the team which make a vision real.

I think that sports, academia and business can all learn from each other and parallels can be drawn from each. I want to learn more about the subject of building top flight teams and using them to perform at their peak to achieve their goal. I want to bring what I learn to you, as I feel that it is essential to take these lessons on board if we are to deal with tomorrow’s challenges.

I hope you enjoy sharing my journey into what makes and sustains a Top Flight Team.

Thank you