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Annemie Ress is the former Global Head of People Innovation at EBay and also the founder of Purple Beach. She has very wide experience in designing and implementing significant organisational change and transformation in multinational businesses. Here she talks to us about the importance of intrinsic motivation and how it can support better delivery of projects.
Nordic Project Zone (NPZ): Annemie, why don’t we start by asking why project leaders should care about intrinsic motivation?
Annemie Ress: Well, I think it provides a very interesting and different way as a project leader, if you are aware of the possibilities of leveraging the intrinsic motivation of those that you work with, you can actually use intrinsic motivation to improve execution in the teams that you work with, the results that you need to drive, to unlock innovative thinking, innovative approaches to delivery, but also improve the capacity and the energy with which teams and projects are delivered.
NPZ: Excellent, lots of good reasons there for project leaders to care about it! So if those are the results of intrinsic motivation, what are the drivers?
Annemie Ress: Actually I always say to folks that if you want to really very quickly learn about intrinsic motivation and don’t want to read all the research – which has actually been out there for quite a while – just have a look at the TED Talks series and search for Dan Pink’s talk on ‘The surprising truth about what motivates us’. That really provides you with a very ready-to-go summary and insight. But at its core the three components of intrinsic motivation are:
That is not the autonomy to do absolutely whatever it is you want to do, but the ability to feel that you can act autonomously in the area that you need to deliver in.
This relates to those things that help you become even better at what you do, and already do continuously, to help you improve and develop towards becoming a master in your given field that you’ve chosen.
This relates to this intrinsic need that we all have, coming from within, to be working on things where we feel we have impact. This means feeling like we make a difference, we deliver great things for either the client or the team or, fundamentally, that the business that we work in does great things. Any of those three components: the teams, clients, business goals, if they do great things, meaningful things that makes you feel that your intrinsic motivational need for Purpose is met.
NPZ: Some really clear drivers there, but they’re still quite high level. How could somebody ensure that they’re aligning and motivating their project team towards peak performance in a practical day-to-day sense?
Annemie Ress: I think it’s quite easy. The first thing to do is to understand that, particularly with Gen-Y, the things that motivate people are much less the things that would have motivated folks in the past. It’s much less about the great work environment or the compensation that you pay people. It’s more about having an understanding of what’s important to every individual team member, and in particular what is important for them across those three dimensions of Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. For example, if it is important for a given team member to feel they have control over a certain piece of work, and if that sense of that control is going to change, you could have a conversation with that individual about the changes. Because you know their sense of Autonomy is important, you explain to them how it’s changing and why it’s changed. Not in a justificatory way, but just in a way that helps them feel that they are not intrinsically undermined by losing completely their sense of Autonomy.
Mastery is a very easy one, particularly on project work where you can ensure that understanding of which members in your team feel that Mastery really is important to them. In that context it’s about creating opportunities for people to illustrate the great work that they do. This is a little bit about recognition, but it’s also giving people the opportunity to work on really meaty challenges where they can see their own progress from one level of experience or skill to the next, and seeing that those experiences and skills have become enhanced through a particular piece of work that you’ve made them do.
An example for Purpose would be, for instance, consistently ensuring that you paint a vision of where you are going with a given piece of work for the team that you’re working with. In turn, you need to understand within that, which members of the team feel that their Purpose need is met by doing something great for customers, the team, or because they’re working for a company that’s really making a difference. So depending on your understanding of which of the Purpose needs are important for the people in your team you would then structure the goal and the progress against those goals, in language that would meet those intrinsic needs.
At one level it’s very easy to do, but at another it’s much more complicated, because what it requires you to do is understand the different members of the team much better and it’s not necessarily that you can roll out a one-size solution to all people in the team. Having said that though, the benefits are so much better than when you drive folks by extrinsically motivating them. What we’ve seen also is that if you can meet these intrinsic motivational needs, the rewards and the changes and the motivation levels remain higher for much longer, whereas extrinsic motivational needs tend to be inflationary and need topping up. We all have the example of how quickly we forget a salary increase. It feels wonderful once you get it, but there’s research that states that the positive impact of a salary increase – which is an extrinsic motivational driver – deteriorates within as short a period as six weeks. However, if you work on the intrinsic level, you unlock a much more sustainable and less inflationary type of motivation, which improves your execution, innovation and capacity.
NPZ: This describes practical application at the team level, what about if we take it up one step higher to the strategic or organisational level – how do you ensure a consistent approach?
Annemie Ress: I just want to take a step back. Whilst I said it might be difficult to do, I think once you ‘build this muscle’ it is actually easy to implement. Some of things that I will talk about will be as straightforward as saying “here are the five questions you ask to unlock the sense of Autonomy”, or “here are the three tips to improve the sense of Purpose”, and finally “here are the two things we should do to unlock Mastery”. It is as easy as that, but you have to consistently apply it and you do need a very different conversation with people you lead and teams that you work with.
I think at an organisational level it’s actually much easier to meet intrinsic motivational needs. That really comes from ensuring that you communicate the organisation’s vision in a way that helps people understand how they, across the business, are autonomously contributing to the greater achievement of the business, or how their career in the organisation is an adventure that will unlock their Mastery and skill. So, you shift the focus away from career development in an organisation to a motto such as “we hire great people and we’ve hired you because you’re great, and we want you to become even better while you’re here”. That’s an example of how you unlock Mastery versus, saying “you’re coming to join us, now let’s have a conversation around your career development plan”. Regarding Purpose, people are really inspired by meaning and making a difference and that’s in every communication, whether its talking about strategy or goals being achieved. Even in the tough times, when you talk about goals not being achieved, it’s trying to constantly rally people around any saying “we’re all in this together” and drawing their attention to the good things that you are doping as an organization, perhaps you are changing the way in which things are done in your particular sector, or the way in which things are done for your customers, or the way you work as a team, and this can all impact on people’s sense of Purpose.
NPZ: Annemie, your background is within HR but you’re certainly no stranger to project management either. One thing that we’re noticing is how project management and HR seem to becoming more and more aligned, with job titles such as HR Project Manager becoming increasingly common. How can project management and HR work together effectively, and what’s the synergy between these departments in terms of their ways of thinking?
Annemie Ress: I think it is interesting, I think it’s not only project management but it’s also teams like the marketing team becoming closer to the HR teams. I think the area that was traditionally viewed as the HR discipline is now taking the best from the project management world, from the marketing world and evolving the skill set of the HR profession as such. Frankly, I’m quite excited about it because I think that with the HR models changing as they are – and continuously doing so – what you’ll increasingly see is folks with non-traditional or non-HR backgrounds able to move into the HR world.
So an example there would be of a non-traditional – say, a project management individual – moving into the HR world. What you would see there is an improvement of execution in the HR world. Also, increasingly technology is being introduced in to the HR world, so there’s a big need for project management- the mindset, the collaboration. This is quite separate from needing HR people with great HR skills, because actually what we need in the future as HR evolves, is people who are excellent at understanding technology, complexity, managing a trust boundary, juggling many balls at the same time and being able to move at speed in an environment where the pace is just continuously going to be picking up.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that there’s some mutual learning and a lot of similarities, but what I think we’ll see increasingly is that the strict HR profession will, apart perhaps from some specialists, will start to be fulfilled by folks from non-traditional HR backgrounds and in particular project management and marketing. I think that’s because they have the types of skills needed to deal with complexity, the fast pace of change in business and the people challenges that we’ll face.