HOW TO MOTIVATE INNOVATION
To the memory of Martin Gardner, who left us in 2010.
Conflict within a business is good when it allows weakness and error to become obvious so they can be overcome. But the worst types of conflict arise from personality clashes and clashes over values.
Consider Pi Polymath, a nerd who was picked on in high school. Pi constantly annoys and disturbs other employees because he stubbornly refuses to shut up talking about the importance of math, logic and science despite the fact that everyone knows these are boring and completely useless topics which never add a penny to the bottom line. Still, the company holds off firing Pi because his small circle of supporters circumvents his much larger circle of detractors.
One day, entirely by chance, Pi becomes CEO, and begins arguing with the Board of Directors over the future of the company. A bold and determined Board believes a new, fashionable and very popular idea along the lines of squaring the circle should be pursued at all costs.
Pi draws inspiration from his name and realizes he can deal with conflict by going around it, and by creating new conditions which make opposition untenable because it would conflict with deeper goals.
Pi knows conflict is useless at present and promises the Board he will indeed try to square the circle, a task that will never inconvenience him with the need to produce results, while leaving him free to pursue other far more fruitful projects the Board would never understand or approve. Pi quietly pursues his own plans and plays his own deep game while preparing to delete the Board because they have gone off on a tangent and made themselves irrelevant and perpendicular to the success of the company.
Having found a circuitous way around the Board by making them irrelevant, Pi Polymath continues his adventures as a new CEO by tackling a poorly performing company with disaffected workers, angry shareholders, apprehensive creditors, and skeptical customers.
Pi realizes the time has come for a showdown with employees. The entire company, from top to bottom, suffers from a culture of contempt for knowledge despite the fact that innovation is a critical success factor for this business. Pi develops a plan to dramatize and clearly illustrate to workers the central weakness of the company and proceeds to implement a strategy he slyly names "The Paycheck Scheme."
One risk he shrugs off is the chance that employees will consider him a devious trickster. He knows the effective use of conflict requires the courage to engage in a calculated gamble that will vary based on circumstances and insight. Extreme measures used solely for illustrative purposes may be unthinkable in real life, while real life may require even stranger measures that are unimaginable in advance.
Late on the night before payday, Pi personally takes over the task of preparing the paychecks for the week. He stuffs each envelope with employee paychecks and some thick papers and seals them up. Employee names are printed on the front of the envelopes, and below each name he prints the following forbidding and intimidating label:
THE COMPLEX MATHEMATICAL LOGIC OF SCIENCE
Pi knows the company and its employees well, and he knows that few people will open these envelopes because they will believe they contain nothing of any value whatsoever. Thus, these envelopes will hide in plain sight until they are thrown out. He chuckles briefly, and then distributes the paychecks in the usual manner.
Early the next day, Payday, the inevitable whining begins almost immediately: "Where's my paycheck?" Soon the whining escalates to fear, rage, tantrums and then Civil War. Pi remains calm, serene, and supremely confident in his plan. He is content to let the storm rage around him for a little while before making his move. To those who demand to know where their paychecks are Pi explains that even now all paychecks are in the possession of their rightful owners.
After three days, and before armed conflict begins, Pi calls a mandatory company meeting for all employees. He explains exactly what he did and tells employees that RFID chips were hidden inside each paycheck envelope. These RFID chips facilitated the speedy recovery of paycheck envelopes from the company's garbage dumpster. Pi enjoys the delicious irony of telling employees they threw out their own paychecks.
Then, he explains that each envelope contained a personal message from him regarding an exciting new product and a new vision for the company. Those few who opened the envelopes were required to remain silent. The new product was made possible by a recent breakthrough into understanding the molecular structure of butterfly wings. This research identified a previously unknown compound called gyroids which is the cause of the brilliant, vivid colors of butterfly wings.
Pi explains that the commercial use of gyroids will create profoundly new types of nature-based textiles containing naturally bright and exceptionally vivid colors with no need for industrial chemicals. Further, gyroids will appeal to organic and green markets for textiles. The potential is vast:
A summary of this breakthrough and its significance was enclosed in the envelopes and was written in clear layman's terms that any employee could understand if he made an honest effort. Pi tells employees the complex mathematical logic of science ultimately reduces to an elegant simplicity which is sublime and inspiring.
Pi’s new vision for the company is derived from his knowledge of Expectancy Theory, a theory of employee motivation based on workers assessment of the chance that their performance will be recognized, rewarded, and compensated appropriately. Pi explains that Expectancy Theory is really a conditional probability.
A company that does a pretty good job recognizing employee performance (say 80%), and then does a pretty good job rewarding this performance (again 80%) and finally does a pretty good job using a correct reward (80% once more) will end up doing a lousy job motivating workers. This is because 80% x 80% x 80% = 51.2%. This is little better than a coin flip.
Pi tells his employees the company has failed them until now, and failed to develop an efficient and effective way to motivate its own workers. Pi has found a new way to correct this failing, and explained this in his personal message contained in the envelopes. Pi's new vision is based on the idea that the company will get it right 99.5% of the time, leading to a vastly different motivational outcome under Expectancy Theory. Entirely by chance, the net result of being 99.5% correct three times in a row just happens to approximate the digits obtained from pi squared.
Recalling the especially vivid colors of butterfly wings, and the especially important task of convincing employees that their good work will be recognized and rewarded correctly, Pi tells his people the motto for this new vision will be clear and simple: "Seeing is believing." The same motto will be used to sell the new gyroid based product to customers, and also to sell the new company vision to its workers. If there is no "buy in" there can be no success. Pi honestly admits he needs the help and active cooperation of every worker to achieve this new vision.
Pi concludes the meeting by telling employees the janitor is on his way right now from the basement with paychecks recovered from the garbage dumpster. Although Pi says he is disappointed in employees, he also expressed his hope that everyone will agree that these envelopes, containing paychecks and the vision of a new product and a new company, are not trash. Pi explains it is a waste of time to throw out what is valuable.
You can travel very far indeed, Pi says, but if you go in circles like the paychecks did you'll just return to where you started. Pi expressed his wish that employees will treat all forms of knowledge with respect, and not as trash, because we never know where the next great idea or innovation will come from. It is these ideas and innovations that make paychecks possible.
And they all lived and worked happily ever after.
The primary components of many conflicts consist of arguments over truth, falsity, "false truths" and "true lies" - examples of each are included herein. These conflicts can frequently be avoided by using just the right angle to convey the truth, while not abusing truth to mislead others and while sometimes serving a life-saving truth with a placebo falsehood. But the very best advice for mastering these ambiguities was given by the Empress of American Poetry:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant -
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightening to the children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind -
Certified Public Accountant Master of Business Administration
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Brewer, Maine 04412-2339
©2015 Copyright George Adams CPA MBA. All Rights Reserved.
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