Cheap, fast and running on empty

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In high school I worked at a local quick-printer in town and among the many lessons was the relationship between cost, time and quality. My guess is if you have ever worked in a service job this is not a new concept. Wikipedia talks about it as the project management triangle. In short, you can have any two of those things, but not all three. There are tradeoffs to be made and they need to be conscious and with some luck informed.

The relationship between trade-offs, work and motivation
The relationship between trade-offs, work and motivation

Innovation is the source of top-line growth in most organizations. It is a differentiator and it is why some companies ask their CIOs to be Chief Innovation Officers or dedicate a spot on the leadership team to develop the strategy and drive value. Consider where innovation maps to the cost, time and quality triangle. It lives at the top aligned with quality.

Given the current economic climate many companies focus on the bottom two, cost and time, hunkering down and managing the variables they can control. Companies get lean and repeat their operation as efficiently as possible.  If they do this well, they drive efficiencies and increase profitability in challenging times. Some companies know slowdowns are the best time to innovate, however the scale of this recession may be too daunting for some. So, conservative players live at the bottom, focusing on sausage making.

Dan Pink did a TED talk on the surprising science of motivation, which proves that financial incentives only work on straight forward tasks and that when people are asked to think creatively, increasing rewards actually decreases performance. Ultimately the chief motivator – assuming people are getting paid enough to not constantly be thinking about getting paid more – is purpose. Given a higher purpose, autonomy and mastery, people are highly motivated.

One of Newton’s laws of motion is that when two bodies interact there is an equal and opposite reaction. Of course Newton was talking physics, but I think this law is at the center of my belief that in all systems, things drive to balance, that things naturally want to settle. This balance does not presume a peaceful moment at rest, more often than not it is a never-ending vibrating struggle attempting to come to rest. Try holding anything requiring accuracy (e.g. knife, tennis racket or gun) tighter and tighter and watch it tremble.

The motivation of creative thinking, the kind that leads to innovation and quality is created through autonomy, mastery and purpose. The key to managing innovation through challenging climates is to differentiate the reward associated with the tasks people are being asked to perform. Leverage monetary rewards for those businesses focused on price and speed. Create autonomy, develop mastery and define purpose if the goal is to drive top line growth – now or in the future. It is important to make sure you know the places in the pyramid you operate match what you are asking of your people and align with your motivation knobs or they will detect the perturbation which in turn affects the organizational climate – a critical aspect used to judge companies, teams and leaders.