April 20, 2009

Finishing School

Posted in Business, Technology tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 12:37 am by lindaslongview

balancebookseyesonlyMy mother always said that I needed to attend “finishing school,” but early on I did not see the value. As such, I started my career with poor interaction skills.  Luckily, my undeveloped social skills were tolerated because of significant technical contribution.   However, as my career progressed, I found that the technical problems were increasingly complex and without adaptation on my social skills side, it was clear that I would perish. So even though I did not balance books on my head, my latent abilities were nurtured and I learned to collaborate, lead, and be more socially refined.

I don’t have any really great stories, just an accumulated “what were they thinking?” collection in my head that has helped me to learn the following key principles:

  • Understand motivation and human behavior.
  • Get to know your colleagues.
  • Work to the strengths of each individual.

I learned from academic (reading the work of others), experiential collaborative technical projects (doing and learning from mistakes), and more recently through service and leadership in community organizations.

I have observed that there are fundamental differences in the motivation between industry (paid for service technical effort) and civic service (volunteer community effort).  The motivation for collaborative effort in typical technology organizational culture is recognition, reputation, and PAY.  Whereas in community volunteer organizational cultures, motivation is recognition, reputation, and RECIPROCITY.   Although they both share similar features (recognition and reputation), there is quite a difference between pay and reciprocity.

Others (real experts, not just amateurs like me) have studied pay and reciprocity differences.  A particularly engaging study can be found in Predictably Irrational (Ariely, ch.4, social norms v. market norms).  Ariely points out that, although social norms are more powerful motivators than market norms, the social contract required to achieve success with social norms is very tenuous! Expediency must be abandoned and long view commitments forged, because social contracts must be maintained under all circumstances to be effective.

As usual, there are blurred lines that create tension.  Industry desires to capitalize on social leverage requiring social skills of business leaders (understand motivation, get to know people, work to strengths), but is not always willing to take the long view. Conversely, sometimes, civic leaders desire expediency, in the process forgetting the social contracts they have engaged to achieve volunteer participation.

Although, more and more, we hear about self-organizing mass collaborations building value (Wikinomics, by Tapscott & Williams), motivated in unusual ways, it is not likely that it will be the case for most technology projects in the near term.  I recently read about 100,000 gamers unraveling the secret life of proteins (Wired, 17.05, There’s Power in a Puzzle), their motivation being competitive fun!  Wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve that everywhere?!

As I continue to grow, I hope to learn more, and I look forward to a future where powerful motivators, like competitive fun, can be harnessed and retained for industrial and civic service more and more routinely.  However, in the meantime, there is still much that requires coordinated collaborative leadership and excellence in social skills.

Do you have suggestions or observations that could add to this thinking?