Motivating Employees With The Right Challenges

One of the take-aways I have been raving about to people I meet at this conference is Kati Vilkki's Challenge vs. Skill diagram:

Chart of challenge versus skillset

It is a cool way to capture the dynamics of work and motivation. Anything far above the dividing line would be classified as something that causes anxiety while the challenge is far beyond the workers' skills. In essence, they don't know what they don't know. On the other hand, anything below the line is boring, the skills outweigh the challenge, the work is tedious, and as Kati said:

Having boring work is not good for anybody.

The interesting part is that there is a range just above the line, which she called "flow" where the challenge is just beyond the skills. Perhaps people know what they don't know, and it is this slightly elevated, good anxiety that motivates people to do good work and remain engaged.

I feel this after a few cups of coffee and a goal to complete a challenging task: I will figure out how to do this, I have the skills and confidence and every step is learning in the right direction.

Getting Out of Your Chair

One exercise she discussed involved mapping tasks to these areas and assessing them, here is my interpretation:

  1. Diverge - Everyone writes as many post-its as they can on "things they do for work".
  2. Draw a big chart, like the above, on a white board.
  3. Map - Everyone puts the post-its in the various sections of the chart.
  4. Assess - See which things cause anxiety, perhaps training or mentorship is needed. See which tasks are boring; and see which ones get people engaged.

Kati recommended the following strategies for dealing with the boring work:

  • Remove - My favorite, just stop doing boring, pointless, shit. No one reads those "status reports" anyway.
  • Minimize - If you can't remove it, at least minimize it, or shift it down the skill axis to someone who will be engaged by it.
  • Automate - Tedium is usually rule based and repetitive; computers seem to like those things! Can you automate your release notes? Your news letters? Your documentation? (The answer is yes!)
  • Make it Fun! - If boring work needs to get done, might as well have fun doing it! Maybe everyone gets in a room, grinds it out, throws back some cold ones, and gets it done to put the company in a better place.

The next time you have some task to do, think about where it falls in this chart and ask yourself: Do I have the skills? Will this engage me? What would make it interesting? Can I flow on this?

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