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The Science of Empowerment

Pleasure Response Solving problems with innovative solutions is fun, exciting and rewarding. Yet, being told what to do is generally boring and not very motivating, but why is this? Why exactly do some ways of working seem enjoyable and satisfying while others the total opposite? Well, the explanation involves chemistry and electricity.

I had coffee today with Dr Michael Aucoin, author of Right Brain Project Management, that I have discussed previously. He has been in Banff working on his new book and we chatted about empowered teams and productivity.

He explained that simply presenting work as questions rather than statements can engage mental models that make work more engaging, rewarding and in turn productive. More and more research on the brain is showing that we are hard-wired to reward ourselves for solving problems. Thinking about this, it makes sense, evolution rewards problem solvers and so an appropriate response is to make it feel good so that we continue doing it.

When we solve a problem and get that “ah-ha” moment, pleasure circuits in the brain light-up and endorphins are released that give us the buzz of solving the problem.  We also generate ownership for the solution and motivation to make it work, even if we encounter obstacles during the implementation. Contrast this level of enthusiasm with the prospect of having to do mandatory administration tasks or form filling. It is no surprise people enjoy working on empowered teams more than being directed exactly what to do, and some teams are orders of magnitude more productive than others.

So, as a project manager looking to increase productivity and motivation, is it simply a case of posing all work as questions and problems to be solved?  Obviously not, asking “Can anyone get our time recording entered?”, “Or, how can we write up these meeting minutes?” is likely to elicit the deserved response of “Yes, you need to stop wasting our time with dumb questions and do it!

However, most projects could greatly benefit from engaging people’s problem solving skills and the motivation from solution-finding. Rather than over analyse difficult problems and prematurely decompose complexity into simple tasks, instead invite the team to find solutions. Make use of people’s problem solving skills and increased motivation it brings to create a more rewarding environment.

Is this manipulation, a mind trick to get people to work harder? I don’t  think so, instead a more insightful and respectful way of engaging a team. After all “We manage property and lead people. If we try to manage people they will feel like property”. Research on the brain is helping us understand what we instinctively feel. I am looking forward to Mike’s next book and learning more about working smarter.


Terence Gannon

Interesting post, as usual, Mike, and I have made a note of the book title. If I can offer a personal testimonial. I've been working in the IT industry since 1980 (29 years...yikes!) and the best part of my day is *still* when I get to learn some new skill. So much so, I would say it's hardwired into my personality type. And yet, I have met people who are seemingly uninspired by that kind of challenge. If the technique you describe in your post is to be effective, your recruiting will have to focus on and attempt to select those who have the "learning-is-the-reward" personalities. At least it will be easier to recruit that kind of person, than to try and teach the skill after the fact.

Mike Griffiths

Hi Terence,

Yes, we are looking for people who experience the thrill of solving problems. If that does not “do it” for some people, then perhaps we have less to offer them and get them motivated. Yet, I think everyone prefers this way of working.

I totally agree that recruiting for these personality types is easier than trying to teach the skills. In fact I have been consistently unsuccessful in trying to instil this passion in those that do not already have it, and so I now recognize this limitation (in me) and instead put my effort into recruiting people who do like to solve problems.

I like to ask potential team members to describe the last time they felt excited about a project and why, what books are they reading, and what hobbies they like. These are no guarantees of a passion for problem solving, but can be insights into spotting lifelong-learners and those with inquisitive minds. I’m not necessarily looking for people who invent gadgets in their spare time, a love of travel, puzzles, or learning foreign languages can all be clues too. A recent inspiration is Maurice, a business subject matter expert on my current project. He is getting ready for retirement after a long career, but has an infectious glee for finding solutions to complex problems that it is almost impossible to not get carried along with, just great.

Thanks for your comments

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Whenever i see the post like your's i feel that there are still helpful people who share information for the help of others, it must be helpful for other's. thanx and good job.

Pete Jameson

As always an excellent post on a first class blog.

For those of you leaders, managers and PMs out there who wish to develop the theme of empowerment I commend 'mission command' philosophy to you.

Mission Command is a proven military style of command that essentially empowers the team by giving them the 'why' and the 'what' of a tasks without cinstraining them by the 'how'

Plenty about to find out more: try Google Knol or here www.missioncommand.org.uk

Keep up the good work!

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