Sunday, 11 May 2014

We care about what we do - a Lego Lesson

Sometimes in work you can feel like a cog in a wheel, working away on your specific task, over and over again without ever seeing the finished product. This could be an admin assistant processing orders or marketing material or it could be a computer programmer writing server side functions for some application.

Dan Ariely, working with Harvard University has thought about this and asked the question, “Does Seeing the fruits of our labour may make us more productive?”

The researchers had participants build characters from Lego’s Bionicles series. All the participants were paid decreasing amounts for each subsequent Bionicle: $3 for the first one, $2.70 for the next one, and so on. However, one group’s creations were stored under the table and disassembled after the experiment. The other group’s Bionicles were disassembled as soon as they’d been built. They were built, taken apart and built again and again and again. “This was an endless cycle of them building and we destroying in front of their eyes,” Ariely says. This is not unlike Paul Newman digging and filling in the hole in the classic movie ‘Coolhand Luke’.

The results between the two groups were very interesting. The first group (who saw the end product which remained intact) made 11 Bionicles, on average, while the second group made only 7 before they quit (in case you are wondering Paul Newman quit digging the hole too).

The point here is that while reward did not differ i.e. one group were not paid more or had better working conditions or other motivational perks, seeing the fruits of their labour seemed to lead to greater productivity and a willingness to keep on going. Just being given the same task over and over with no tangible end product to look at, seemed to dull enthusiasm and results. You could speculate that this group may have felt that they were just assembling but not really creating anything.

The lesson here for the work place is that we may need to think of work as less of an assembly line where each person does their bit and instead give staff a chance to see what their contribution creates. That could be allowing admin staff to see marketing feedback or meet with clients and see the difference they make in getting a sale. It could be having the computer programmer seeing how safe, fast or easy their functions make the system for end users.

This could explain why some start ups find it easier to get staff to work long hours, take on multiple tasks, often with minimal additional financial reward. I’ve worked in a few start ups where this was the case. Perhaps in these scenarios, staff see the difference they make to the big picture, growing the company and building a product that end users enjoy. To paraphrase Ariely, “They see the fruits of their labour”.

Make some time for staff to see the point and end product of their work. Efficiency is more than figuring out ways to doing more stuff. How we think about our jobs and what works means to us plays a big part in motivation which in turn drives job satisfaction and productivity.

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