There is a lot written out there about motivation and all sorts of complicated theories that are similar in difficult to landing a vehicle on a moving comet. Yeah, we can do it, but it does take a bunch of real rocket scientists to accomplish, along with a lot of computers and mathematics and a good bit of luck.

We often hear of really difficult issues of alignment when faced with implementing strategy or change or accomplishing organizational innovation. So let me take a moment to back up from all the complexity and share a simple conceptual model of how to get things moving in the right direction.

Okay, I admit to having a doctorate in behavioral neurophysiology, so I actually do understand that brain science stuff. But my role in life is to simplify things, not explain the neurobiological chemistry of all this stuff…

Okay. You have a lot of cows in the pasture and you need to get them all to some new place. The normal strategy we see is that we get all the cowboys in an all-hands meeting and we talk about situational issues and engage them in some cattle-driving. This appears in a lot of different ways but overall, I think of it as getting the cowboys on their horses and having them ride at the far edge of the herd, making a lot of noise and generating a lot of activity and fear.

If we do this “right,” we can get the cows moving through the gate at the opposite end of the pasture somewhat quickly, albeit with a loss of a few cows, high levels of frantic movement and a good bit of stress from them hearing all the shouting and gunfire. And it might also be fun for the cowboys, if they do not have to do this every month or so.

Sweet Feed and a more effective approach:

A different theory would say that it is not necessary that you motivate ALL the cows at the same time, since you really cannot do that anyway. But you can also help to involve and engage a few of the leader cows to support your efforts and that this will actually engage the rest of them.

So, you get up in front of the cows nearest the gate (the ones closest to your actually new desired goals or direction and the ones who can actually see where you want them to go) and you entice them by tossing out a little sweet feed tossed between them and the gate. “AH,” say those cows. “This looks like an interesting situation!” and you gradually draw them forward toward the goal, which gets closer and closer. This actually does not take a long time, once they notice the incentive. (Note: This can take longer if they do not trust the people between them and the gate!)

The reality is that the other cows, also nearer the gate than the ones at the back, will also get curious as to what is happening and will follow the lead cows. As the distance increases between these two sets of cows and the others, you might also have a few cowboys at the back stir things up a little bit, but not so much as to cause a stampede. The cows in that larger group will be observed to close the distance to the front cows.

Pretty soon, you have them all moving forward, since we can predict a normal bell-shaped curve for most measures of most things in most organizations. The shape of the curve will remain relatively constant and this will include the distance between the top performers / front cows and those at the back that will move with the group but less quickly than we might like.

Scott Simmerman being confused by a graph showing performance and #s of cows

Scott Simmerman being confused by a graph showing performance and numbers of cows. Seriously!

A shift to the right of the median (line down the middle) will simply move the whole curve to the right.

We tend to make this “performance thing” really complicated and we can add all sorts of behavioral models, intrinsic and extrinsic rewards, measurement and appraisal systems and we can overlay all of those on different change models, personality and information sorting personal inventory measurement systems, and all that other stuff we do to block most change from occurring.

For me, I find we get change when we:

  • Make the vision of the future more attractive
  • Increase the discomfort with the way things are now for individuals and groups
  • Do things to make people feel successful with their change and improvement efforts
  • Create positive peer support for the desired changes and strategies

Nobody ever washes a rental car” and we cannot simply expect people to change because we are pushing them to move by using cowboys, gunshots and other organizational noise. We can do some simple “sweet feed” kinds of things to improve their individual engagement and involvement as well as to do some teamwork kinds of things to get people moving forward together.

We improve our results by getting our individuals to want to improve their results. Sure, we can do things like building smaller pastures to have fewer cows to move and we can also add electric fences and cowboys in Humvees to decrease how many are involved in chasing the cows forward.

Or not. So:

Give people a reason to change. Help them move forward.

Hope you found this fun. My old friend Ken Junkins used this story back in a situation with some managers maybe back in the early 80s and I thought it was a solid and interesting metaphor that has gotten a few of my own spins tossed in to make it clear.

I liken the situation, shifting my metaphors a little, to the people simply standing and not engaging or participating. They are simply standing!

Square Wheels image of Lego Team

What we need to do is get them more involved and engaged in actually doing things and making changes.

LEGO Square Wheels image of teamwork and innovation

People want to change the wheels of the wagon to make things work better. It is relatively easy to engage them in fixing the things that they think need fixing. And their testing of the waters and initial successes in making improvements will help them to make more improvements down the road.


For the FUN of It!

Dr. Scott SimmermanDr. Scott Simmerman is a designer of team building games and organization improvement tools. Managing Partner of Performance Management Company since 1984, he is an experienced presenter and consultant.

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