Inspiration Doesn’t Come From A Box of Cocoa Puffs


I’ll slit my wrists if I have to read one more fawning article about Google’s eleven gourmet cafeterias, on-site car washes, and dry cleaning service. Or Pixar’s cereal bar (more than 20 varieties!), its lap pool, and the jungle-like cabanas and tree houses that serve as offices. Or Nike’s Olympic-size swimming pools and hair salon. Or Zappos’ life coaches. Each of these firms was recently touted in an Amex OPEN Forum article about corporate environments that help employees thrive. And while these workplaces are indeed cool, hip, and in many respects enviable, the constant attention they receive do businesspeople everywhere a disservice. We’re deceived into thinking that we have to ply employees with free food and yoga classes if we want to create inspiring workplaces—and too bad if you work in a steel mill, or a mall-based mass merchandiser, or a donut shop, where it’s a bit more difficult to fit an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The simple truth is that while those perks are certainly pleasant, no amount of Cocoa Puffs will make up for abusive bosses, interdepartmental bickering, chronically unrealistic deadlines, or out of touch management.

In his bestselling book, Drive, Daniel Pink argues that the traditional carrot-and-stick approach to motivation doesn’t work for knowledge workers engaged in complex tasks. Intrinsic motivation, he suggests, is unleashed by environments that address three fundamental human desires:

  • autonomy (control over one’s work)
  • mastery (getting better at what one does)
  • purpose (being a part of something bigger)

Taking a page from Dan’s book, I propose that a truly inspiring workplace is a work environment that enables the fulfillment of these three needs —and it doesn’t require a yoga studio or a nail salon.

Consider these three examples:

Autonomy: Long before Google’s vaunted “20% time,” in which engineers get to spend 20% of their time working on their own projects, 3M gave its technical employees 15% time to do the same thing. The company combined it with “Genesis Grants,” an internal venture capital fund that distributes money to researchers to develop prototypes, and technology sharing awards, given to those who develop and share new technologies across the firm.

Mastery: Matthew May’s book, In Pursuit of Elegance, describes how FAVI, a French designer and manufacturer of copper alloy automotive components, enables employees to strive for mastery at work. FAVI has no central departments—no HR group, no purchasing team, no organizational chart. Instead, the company is organized into teams that essentially work for an individual customer such as Fiat, Volvo, or Volkswagen. In this arrangement, equipment, tooling, workspace, and process design all rest in the hands of the front line workers, who are free (and encouraged) to experiment and innovate. And they do, often working late into the night to solve complex problems.

Purpose: Barry-Wehmiller, a $1 billion producer of capital equipment, has recorded 21 consecutive years of growth at 19 percent a year. The CEO explains that the company’s adaptation of Toyota’s lean manufacturing philosophy—the Living Legacy of Leadership program—isn’t used as a tool for profitability, but rather as a technique to engage people’s heads and hearts. He states that the company exists to inspire people to embrace their gifts and feel a sense of fulfillment in the process. As one worker says, “we are going to change the world one job at a time.”

In fact, if you look around, you’ll find plenty of companies that have created inspiring workplaces without fancy trappings. WL Gore has no titles, self-managed teams, and a deep-seated belief in the individual to do what’s right for the company. Atlassian software has “FedEx Days” every quarter, in which programmers work around the clock on any project they wish, and then compete to have it included in the company’s ongoing products. Ericsson uses a system for collaborative idea management called “IdeaBoxes” to allow employee creativity to flourish in the service of continuous improvement.

So let’s get past the gee-whiz, superficial trappings of inspiring workplaces. Sure, the free donuts and yoga classes are nice. But providing an environment that unleashes employees’ intrinsic motivation is far better. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Reprinted from the AmEx OPEN Forum Idea Hub

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