Manage the Process

Wendy Mack’s fall newsletter asks: which of the following tools is the most powerful for motivating employees?

  • Support for making progress
  • Recognition for good work
  • Incentives
  • Interpersonal supportwendy_mack
  • Clear goals

If you’re like ninety-five percent of managers, you believe recognition for good work has the most impact on employee motivation. But Harvard University has proven that support for making progress is the greatest motivator, particularly for scientists, engineers, programmers, marketers, and other knowledge workers. Managing by objectives, which puts the focus on outcome, misses the opportunities of managing by means (Profit Beyond Measure, Thomas Johnson). Focusing on progress motivates – but requires skill and comes with a warning… continued

Managing by means (or coaching ourselves and others through the process, noting progress) actually requires more trust than managing by objectives, where the manager checks results. Why? Because progress in a process doesn’t always look like progress.

Imagine you’re supervising someone cleaning out a really messy closet. You check in with them right after they’ve removed all the contents. What you see is a big mess. If you’re looking for concrete results and measurable progress, you’re likely to see the disarray as a regression, not progress. To manage by means, you need to be able see the current situation in terms of the whole. You even need to be able to see false starts and mistakes as steps in the direction of your target condition. If you don’t understand that, checking in on progress is likely to incent people to focus on having something to show at every step of the way, when letting things be messy and trying things that might not work actually serve the mission best.

When you do things right, the situation oftens look worse before it looks better. A good manager-by-means knows that, and even helps the people they supervise appreciate that fact, too.

They might say things like,

  • What you’re doing is so huge and grand that I expect some chaos in the process.
  • I expect some mistakes when we do things we’ve never done before. What have we learned?

Or you could say something like my assistant does,

  • I see you’re growing so fast it’s hard to keep up with yourself – but the new you is peeking around the corner ready to charge ahead. You just need a vessel big enough – and you’re in the process of getting that.

Progress motivates. Harvard knows this, Thomas Johnson knows this, my assistant knows this in the ways she manages me, Toyota knows this, lean leaders know this, and now you and I know it, too. We just need to understand that progress can look like steps back. Manage the means and the results take care of themselves.

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