I still remember that day very well. It was a Saturday, I was about to watch a Premier League game when I noticed a Slack notification. A message was posted by one of our support engineers asking for help with a customer escalation. The description of the issue looked ominous. I knew the weekend was likely gone and that I had to call a few engineers to start looking at the issue immediately.

Over the next few minutes there was a flurry of activity on Slack between the support and on-call team. Minutes later some engineers outside of the on-call team volunteered to come into the office and work on the problem. Over the next few minutes the volunteers kept coming. By the time I showed up into the office, about 45 minutes later, almost all of the engineering team was present. They had already self-organized into teams, each evaluating a hypothesis and trying to “debug” a piece of the puzzle. This had all happened organically. One that begs an important question: What compelled the majority of an organization (~20 people) to voluntarily give up their weekend, self-organize and deal with an incredibly stressful situation, which to most of them was completely outside their domain?

I believe one of the strongest drivers of this behavior is intrinsic motivation.

“Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behavior arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying to you. This contrasts with extrinsic motivation, which involves engaging in a behavior in order to earn external rewards or avoid punishment.” Source: verywellmind.com

Some baseline figures

It should be obvious from my example that this is how we all aspire to feel about our work, but is that the case?

A recent survey by Gallup on employee engagement revealed that ~35% of US workers are engaged at work, while 13% are actively disengaged.

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Source: Gallup

The 13% who are actively disengaged are those according to Gallup “ have miserable work experiences and spread their unhappiness to their colleagues” The remaining 52% are somewhat in between, neither engaged nor actively disengaged. They are, as Gallup puts it “ psychologically unattached to their work and company and who put time, but not energy or passion, into their work.”

In other words 52% of the workforce are zombies and 13% are outright toxic. Keep in mind that these figures are record highs for the US workforce. Ouch

Clearly this is a problem, one that is not only costing employers billions of dollars in lost productivity, but more importantly endless suffering from workers who are at best detached from their work and lack any sense of joy from it. We spend the vast majority of our adult life at work, can we not have a sense of fulfillment from our work?

I think we can if we are intentional in fostering the elements that drive intrinsic motivation.

The drivers of intrinsic motivation

One of the frameworks I have found incredibly successful to help with motivation is from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink highlights 3 main elements of motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. He refers to these as the elements of Motivation 3.0

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Pink: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Autonomy

The word autonomy is quite often conflated with chaos in the workplace and the illusion of employees running around doing whatever their hearts desire. True autonomy comes with responsibility and accountability. Here’s how Pink puts it

However, encouraging autonomy doesn’t mean discouraging accountability. Whatever operating system is in place, people must be accountable for their work (..) Motivation 3.0 begins with a different assumption. T presumes that people want to be accountable — and that making sure they have control over their task, their time, their technique, and their team is the most effective pathway to the that destination” Source: Daniel Pink

This isn’t a novel idea. You can see traces of autonomy in the workforce as far back as the 1940s and 1930s most notably by William McKnight the then chairman of 3M and a true visionary. “ Those men and woman to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way” This freedom to explore was instrumental in the development of one of 3M’s most popular products: Post-Its. Post-Its were a result of a bootlegging by a few inspired engineers at 3M — see here for more details.

Not only isn’t this a novel idea, it is one that makes absolute sense. Would you rather work in an environment where you are given direct orders that you have to follow, or in one where you have the freedom to express your ideas and have a say on what to work on and how to do it? I know my preference.

Mastery

Mastery is our innate desire to get better at things that matter. It is that part of us that yearns to learn, to improve and master our craft. Pink outlines “three laws of mastery”: a growth mindset, the willingness to endure pain and never knowing that master can never be fully attained.

Many professional athletes tent to exhibit an obsessive desire for mastery. My favorite is Cristiano Ronaldo. Here’s a video below were one his peers discusses Ronaldo’s obsession with getting better at his craft.

Purpose

If autonomy and master are the salt and pepper of Motivation 3.0, then purpose is all the spice. It is the motivational element that transcends the individual level. Purpose allows us to hitch our desires to something much bigger than us. A true sense of purpose can be attained in all types of organizations. Purpose isn’t limited to non-profits or ones with altruistic goals. Moreover, purpose and profitable businesses are well aligned. This is how Pink addresses this point.

In terms of both efficiency and morality, the profit motive is a very good thing. But it’s not the only thing. Indeed, if we were to look at history’s greatest achievements — from the printing press to constitutional democracy to cures for deadly sears — the spark that kept the creators working deep into the night was purpose at least as much as profit. A healthy society — and healthy business organizations — begins with purpose and considers profit way to move toward that end” Source: Daniel Pink

Nurturing these elements

Now that we have addressed the 3 main elements of Motivation 3.0, the next step is to explore ways to nurture these elements in the workplace. I’ll admit that this is hard to do, hence the main reason for a largely disengaged workforce. Below are a few techniques that I have seen that help nourish some of these elements.

One of the most effective ways to nurture autonomy is to give employees a say in what to work on. This point is typically conflated with chaos and the illusion that employees will choose pet projects or ones that are completely misaligned with business reality. What you want is a mechanism that enables the organic dissemination of ideas and projects throughout the organization and decouple that from deciding on what gets done. The decision making can be at the senior leadership or CEO level, depending on the scope. What matters is to build a system that solicits input on what to work on from the entire organization and combine that with a decision making process that relays back context and why decisions were made.

Another technique is to give teams the freedom to explore how they will address work assigned to them. My preference has always been to have self-sufficient teams that have all the required resources to get work assigned to them done. This eliminates cross team dependencies and its coordination challenges. It also enables the team to be responsible for the delivery of the work or project. The team has the freedom to explore how to tackle their work.

As an example, teams in Kheiron are oftentimes composed of software engineers, machine learning engineers, systems engineers, product managers and members of the clinical team. Each team member has a role to play and brings her own expertise. This freedom to explore how to solve a problem fosters autonomy, a true sense of ownership and mastery. It is also not orthogonal to accountability. Teams get this freedom with the responsibility of getting the job done.

Teams also have a say in what they will work on. Each team can pitch their next project and what features they want to work on. Out of the 4 software engineering projects we are working on now at Kheiron, 2 were pitched by the engineering team. We’ve using Basecamp’s ShapeUp software planning methodology to help with the discovery and planning of what to work on at Kheiron. I believe that ShapeUp can help foster all 3 elements of Motivation 3.0, but it’s still early days for us using it. I’ll be writing a post about it once we’ve been through a few cycles using it.

Another powerful tool is your company mission statement. These are typically pithy statements that help explain why a company exists. They are usually inspirational and can instill a sense of purpose, if and only if they are truly applied versus simply being catchy statements on the wall. As an example, below is Kheiron’s mission statement.

Our mission is to help breast cancer patients live longer, better lives through earlier detection. We combine new deep learning methods, data science and radiology insights to help doctors find malignancies in mammograms.” Source: Kheiron

Kheiron’s mission statement is obviously inspirational and helps provide a sense of purpose to all those who work at the company. However, for these words to be truly purposeful, they have to be backed up by actions. In Kheiron’s case these actions are all the work every member of the company does to ensure patient safety, clinical rigor and adhering to scientific reasoning when building our products.

I mentioned earlier that finding the right formula to foster this environment is hard. The best advice I have, at the risk of being cliché, is to develop a different mindset than the prevalent management paradigm. One that defaults to trusting your people, to believing that they responsible and acting in the best interest of the business. To give them the freedom to express their thoughts and unleash their talents to do great work.

Final words

Writing this post has helped highlight my passion for early stage companies. They should offer all three elements of Pink’s Motivation 3.0 model in abundance. I would argue that they have to offer a Motivation 3.0 environment out of necessity both due the lack of resources and as a means to attract talent. I used a term stretch in one of my earlier posts to describe this phenomena in early stage companies.

There’s also an innate sense of purpose when trying to build a company. Company building is incredibly hard and rife with risks; most early stage companies won’t survive. That sense of survival can instill a sense of purpose and camaraderie for these early employees, which in of itself is hugely motivational.

Obviously that doesn’t imply that the only way to find Pink’s elements is in early stage companies. Early stage companies can be as toxic as large ones. Similarly, large companies can offer all the motivation elements mentioned in this post. My believe is that it should be easier to find an environment that fosters Pink’s model in an early stage company versus a larger one.

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Originally published at https://karimfanous.substack.com.

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Tech leadership at various early stage startups: Qumulo, Dremio and now Kheiron Medical

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