Thursday, 18 October 2012
Australian Financial Review
US best-selling author Daniel Pink, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Telstra chief executive David Thodey all spoke of the need for freedom in high-performance workplaces at the HRIZON congress last week.
Mr Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore and author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, told the world human resources congress in Melbourne that employers’ approach to motivation was based on folklore or management philosophies for 19th century workplaces dominated by menial labour.
“The most important cognitive skill today is the ability to give the world something it didn’t know it was missing, something entirely new,” he said, adding that Mr Wozniak embodied the idea perfectly.
He argued that creative thinkers – from traditional artists to software engineers or entrepreneurs – have these cognitive skills, which is why a Harvard Business School study of 23 artists was so relevant.
The 1993 study asked a group of established artists to each provide one commissioned and one non-commissioned work. The academics then asked a group of art experts to judge the quality of the 46 works.
“The commissioned works and non-commissioned works in technical quality were similar – they were very, very good . . . but over and over again it was the non-commissioned works that were judged as more creative,” Mr Pink said. Asked about these results, “the artists said ‘a few constraints are fine, they help me define a project, but past a certain [point] I can do a good job, but not a great job because it’s no longer fully mine’,” the US author and former lawyer said.
“You look at almost any workplace . . . there is no non-commissioned work, and yet we have this body of evidence that says fewer constraints lead to more creativity.”
Mr Pink warned employers not to use his message to scrimp on pay. “Your aspiration should be to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table . . . get people to think about work, not the money,” he said.
He encouraged managers to set high standards and give plenty of regular, robust feedback, but also give workers a degree of autonomy and flexibility in the way they delivered work.
Companies that had embraced this freedom included Facebook, which allows new recruits to interview the different teams in the organisation and select which team they will work for, he said.
Australian-based software company Atlassian also gives employees an afternoon each quarter to work on anything related to its products, and deliver it to colleagues the next day.
Mr Wozniak, a Silicon Valley icon and now chief scientist at Fusion-io, also urged employers to give their staff time off from normal duties to pursue their own ideas, and to act as venture capitalists for staff who produced great ideas at home.
Organisations seeking to harness creativity should open up communications channels so staff can discuss their ideas with staff more senior than their direct managers, he told The Australian Financial Review.
Meanwhile, Mr Thodey, who has been running a major cultural change strategy at the telecommunications giant for more than two years, spoke of the need to give staff and managers more freedom to resolve customer issues, and to question when it was appropriate to work from scripts. “We need to take a bit more risk in what our people do and say and have confidence they will get it right,” he said.
Not every chief executive is keen on employee freedom, and one member of the audience asked Mr Pink how human resources staff might implement his ideas in their workplaces. The US author said he was a fan of “strategic subversion”. Instead of seeking to change an entire organisation, implement change in your area and talk about it only if it gets results, he said.
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