Monkeys and Motivation

I am still working for Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), helping introduce a new software system for managing, sharing, saving and storing information. I work with a team of Business Analysts, Information Management specialists and a host of others to help build the best information management solutions for each of NRCan’s business units. Our goal is to ensure effective uptake of the GCDOCS system.

(In other words, I’m working with a group of folks who’s job it is to get people motivated and interested in using this new system. It’s not easy, and motivation is a challenge.)

I’ve been doing a lot of research about change and motivation, and how to help people manoeuvre through the challenges that are thrown their way on the road to something new. Luckily, I found Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”, and I’ve been eating it up. Pink writes not about change, but about motivation, and what motivates us to do anything.

You have to read backwards, of course, but this is the book.

You have to read backwards, of course, but this is the book.

Harry Harlow was a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1940s, doing research in primate behaviour. Pink provides the reader with a detailed description of Harlow’s experiments on learning with rhesus monkeys. Harlow grounded his research in the fact that the monkeys had two main drivers that powered their behaviour: a biological drive – food, water and reproduction; and an external reward/punishment drive.

What happened in Harlow’s experiments was most interesting. The monkeys were given a puzzle that they had to learn, and they very quickly learned to do it. In fact, they completed the puzzle simply because they found it gratifying. There was no reward, no satisfaction with food; Harlow realized that the monkeys found it gratifying to solve puzzles. The performance of the task provided intrinsic reward.

How does this relate to GCDOCS and NRCan? The GCDOCS team is putting a huge amount of effort into motivating staff by focusing on the second driver – reward and punishment. Change management activities are based on the premise that the staff will not be inclined to use GCDOCS, and we need to first reward them when they do, and then perhaps threaten them with taking away their access to other shared drives in the future.

What if we looked at the third driver of behaviour? What if we focused our change management activities on this intrinsic motivation – that staff will be interested in GCDOCS and will be motivated by curiosity, interest and sheer gratification of using a new program? If we could recognize that there is joy in the activity, and that as humans, we have a desire to get better and better at something that matters, perhaps we could encourage staff to use GCDOCS because they want to, rather than because they have to.

Pink continues to explain that this kind of behaviour requires three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. If we can give the staff some autonomy for how they choose to use GCDOCS – using their rules rather than external rules set up by us – we may see more interest in using the program. If we can encourage and support mastery, without worrying about success or failure, we may see more expansive use of GCDOCS. Finally, if we can prove purpose that relates to each person, and really and truly reflects their own own human condition, staff may choose to use GCDOCS because it makes sense to them and their lives.

In reading this blog, I see that I can replace “GCDOCS” with anything. If I want to help foster a change; if I want to awaken the motivation of colleagues, friends, anyone, then I must recognize (and celebrate) that motivation is intrinsic and doesn’t have to be external. I must realize that autonomy, mastery and purpose may speak louder than more time off, an increase in pay, or any other external motivator.

I play the fiddle. I’m not particularly good at it. But I am motivated to play and get better, not by any money or fame I receive (which, of course, I don’t), but because I love it. Like Harlow’s monkeys, I am gratified by the task at hand, and perhaps more by fluke than by practice, I get better.

My motivation is the love of the instrument, and playing with my friends, like Eleanor!

My motivation is the love of the instrument, and playing with my friends, like Eleanor!

My advice to you, dear reader? Get Daniel Pink’s book. Think about what you do – in work, in sport, in pleasure –  why you do it, and how you are motivated. You may become happy with the inherent satisfaction of an activity rather than an external reward. And won’t that be fun???!!!

Decision factory worker or freelancer?

Yesterday’s Globe and Mail’s Report on Business had an interesting article about decision factories, by Harvey Schacter. “We associate factories with blue-collar work. White-collar workers – today’s knowledge workers – operate out of offices and laboratories. But Roger Martin, a professor and former Dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, says they also are factory workers, toiling in “decision factories.”

Martin says that when a company announces layoffs of 5,000 or 10,000 people after years of building up that knowledge corps, what is astounding is how few consequences these big layoffs appear to have on the organization.

He’s right, of course, simply in the sense that the impact of those lay offs doesn’t reverberate throughout the halls of those companies for long. In short order, the gaps are filled and the same quantity of work resumes.

Two inhabitants of a decision factory...and a bear.

Two inhabitants of a decision factory…and a bear.

What is the message here for those of us who work in the consultation and facilitation industry, and don’t work in these large “decision factories”? It might actually be a good message, to be honest. I run my own business. I work closely with clients to run workshops, facilitate meetings, and provide educational and soft skill training opportunities. I deliver services for these decision factories, and those services don’t stop being required just because staff numbers are reduced. Perhaps that’s one of the joys of being independent. One company may not need me full time, but a lot of companies need me part time.

Martin continues with these thoughts about the decision factory workers: “Their raw materials are data, either from their own information systems or from outside providers. They engage in production processes – called meetings – that convert this work to finished goods in the form of decisions. And they participate in post-production services: following up on decisions.”

Decision factories require the services of someone to help them better engage in their production processes, and to ensure they have the right skills to participate in post-production services. Meaning there will be a demand for both the facilitation end of my business, and the training end of my business. This is definately a win/win for me!

I admit, there are times when I look at friends who have “real” jobs, those that come equipped with a dental plan, a pension, paid vacations and regular pay cheques. And there is a certain wistfulness that I feel when I think about their work week…imagine, working the majority of your time Monday through Friday? Being a freelance consultant means a high degree of uncertainty and down time mixed with mad, frantic work weeks. It means waiting to hear from clients, and then racing hard to produce for them. It means not paying your bills until the end of a project, when you get paid.

Then I think about my usual Monday mornings, where I walk the dogs to get the newspaper, and I sit in my kitchen, listening to the CBC and reading the Globe and Mail, finding articles like the one by Mr. Schacter this morning.

The view from my home office...note the guard dog on the chair!

The view from my home office…note the guard dog on the chair!

It means a high degree of job satisfaction and personal control. I take my time to wander to the office, pour a second cup and plan my week. I’ve got a change management presentation that I need to edit, an environmental health workshop on data accessibility to plan for, and a proposal for a new leadership course to prepare. In between, I will make time to get my snow tires on, I’ll get my hair trimmed, and even have lunch with two business “colleagues”, who are really friends first, then business associates.

The view from my "office" at the Toyota dealer, getting on my snow tires!

The view from my “office” at the Toyota dealer, getting on my snow tires!

I don’t worry about downsizing or lay offs, and any decisions that I don’t like will be my own, and not some imposed on me by senior management…because I am the senior management in my company. As Roger Martin, suggests, I am not an order taker, but rather a choice maker. And that works for me.

Facilitation possibilities (or finding the magic)

“The great leaders are like the best conductors – they reach beyond the notes to reach the magic in the players.” (Blaine Lee)

I was asked to facilitate a meeting for Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa at the end of September. It wasn’t my regular project work, but a request to provide facilitation for the corporate services section, under the direction of the Assistant Deputy Minister (ADM). I have done some work previously for her, and was delighted to continue.

A previous NRCan session with positive outcomes

A previous NRCan session with positive outcomes.

The purpose of the meeting is immaterial here…other than to say it involved budget cuts. Honestly, there are few discussions nowadays with senior managers in the federal government that don’t involve budget cuts. This one was going to be a bit “ouchy”, however, because none of the Director Generals (DG’s) or Directors were aware that they needed to make these cuts before the end of the fiscal year.[1]

I prepared an outline for the day’s discussions. That outline was approved, but I was prepared for some last minute tweaking. The night before the session, I received an e-mail from the ADM’s contact. She had indeed changed it, but it was not too substantive, and I could easily adapt my plans. However, the next morning, there were more changes…in fact, the ADM arrived with a completely revamped outline. Call me flexible (or stupid) but I nodded and said “No problem” when asked if I could manage the changes.

The session started with a presentation by the ADM, and the silence was deafening. You could actually feel the energy snapping through the room, as people realized what lay ahead. Despite how the media portrays public servants, these directors and DGs care very much for their work and the staff who report to them, and the personal lives of these individuals were their priorities.

My years of facilitation experience has helped me to think about my participants as individuals with lives and loves, connections and experiences. Each person in the room has his or her own story, and that story transcends the office or the boardroom. I knew that in this group of senior managers, there is an individual who aspires to be a personal trainer. Another one would like to run a sailing business. Still another would like to spend her time as an elementary school teacher. My challenge for this session was to find out more about them as individuals, and to use that information to help them explore creative ways to address their budget issues.

He may look like a wine connoisseur, but in his spare time, he works for the UN!

He may look like a wine connoisseur, but in his spare time, he works for the UN!

How this activity came to me, I will never know. But there I stood, in front of a room full of senior managers, and I asked them to think about what they, as individuals, were good at. Not fishing or skiing or balancing a budget, but rather, if they did a personality test, what would the results indicate? I explained that as a facilitator, I was a conscientious observer. I paid attention; to every detail of discussion, activity, appearance, because all that minutiae had value. I needed to actively listen, watch, analyze and synthesize constantly, so I could help move the discussions forward. I asked them to look inside themselves and share what they knew to be true. Here were some of their answers: 

  • I am an innovative thinker who can come up with creative “out of the box” ideas that can stand critical scrutiny.
  • I am a fixer. Show me a problem, and I’ll come up with ways to fix it.
  • I am a cheerleader. I can bring people together, rally a team to move forward.
  • I am a bargainer, I can find and make deals.
  • I’m a visionary. I can see past the problem and see the opportunities.

They came up with almost 20 different roles, and I wrote them up on the flip chart. I then asked them to look at the list, and (without considering who was associated with which role), to shape together three small groups that would have a complementary set of skills to address the budget discussion that the ADM had introduced. When they were organized in those groups, they knew they had the right mix of thinkers, visionaries, fixers and others to make decisions.

Ro, employed by the Ontario Science Centre but obviously possessing the skills of a fine barista.

Ro, employed by the Ontario Science Centre but obviously possessing the skills of a fine barista, using all her energy to make me coffee!

All of a sudden, the session that was initially daunting was doable, and outcomes were achievable. The tables vibrated with intellectual and emotional energy. They looked at one another differently – not as directors, but as fixers or visionaries or creators of options. It was empowering for all of them, and made for a new way of tackling challenges.

Thanks to the powers that be that allowed me to stand helplessly in front of a group of strategic and powerful thinkers, and gift me with this idea. Learning to look past job titles and roles is often not a simple task, but it is worth remembering that we can all contribute something other than what we have listed on our business cards. That is where you will reach beyond the notes to the magic in your players.

Look beyond the notes. Find the music in everyone!

Look beyond the notes. Find the music in everyone!

[1] For any federal public servants reading this, allow me to put you at ease right now. Throughout the hours of this discussion, no individuals or positions were eliminated.

Give “it” enough energy!

The internet was out again. No worries, I just have to head upstairs, unplug and replug the router. I get upstairs, but realize I’m a bit peckish so I turn into the kitchen. A handful of nuts and a cup of tea later, I’m halfway back down the stairs before I realize I can’t remember why I came upstairs in the first place.

Sound familiar? I used to think it was old age, and my brain was slowing down. Perhaps it is because my brain is too full and there isn’t enough room for trivial things. But the truth is simply this: when I realized I needed to go upstairs, I just pushed my chair back and went upstairs, and my energy of thought switched from the internet to simply going up the stairs.

Which makes me laugh because just 2 weeks ago, I did a workshop with about 10 people and I had their names memorized within the first 10 minutes. Why can I remember all those names but not why I went upstairs?

Simple. When I listened to each person introduce themselves, I focused on each of them. I made a conscious choice to listen and I expended energy doing it. I focused energy by listening, wrote each name down in my book and eventually said their name out loud. So all in all, I listened, transcribed and spoke. I had to commit all that energy to learn their names.

When I went upstairs, I stopped thinking about why and my mind wandered to other things. There are a dozen e mails to answer, gotta vacuum the stairs, I should brush those dogs, I wonder how Eleanor’s Mom is doing….my brain was juggling all sorts of ideas and images, and the priority item of fixing the internet didn’t receive enough energy or focus, so I forgot about it.

Continual Partial Attention (CPA), a phrase coined by Linda Stone ( describes how many of us think today. We want to connect with everything and not miss anything. We are constantly shifting thoughts and ideas around in our heads like shells in a shell game. On top of that, we are using our computers and cell phones, constantly checking e mails and text messages, and we are on hyper-alert to possibilities. We are living in an age of interruption. As a result, nothing gets our complete attention – we pay partial attention to a million things.

Sheila and CPA - listening, writing and reading. (But I bet she remembered everything!)

Sheila and CPA – listening, writing and reading. (But I bet she remembered everything!)

Yet I know, when I pay complete attention and give something the energy it requires, I learn more, experience more, and ultimately appreciate it more. When I turn my attention to those individuals in my workshop, I learned not just their names, but their values and priorities, something that will help me to work better with them. When I focus my energy on the task at hand, be it a briefing note, learning names in a workshop, planning a training session, or even learning a new fiddle tune, I am startlingly more successful when I commit sufficient energy and give my complete attention.

It’s not just our work that will benefit from giving something complete attention by committing enough energy to it. Next time you’re talking or listening to a colleague or a loved one, focus your energy on them, and not on the thousand other details zinging around in your head. Really concentrate and commit your energy to the conversation. You will both appreciate the effort and be happier for it.

My lesson from this? I can memorize anything, if put my energy into doing it. I can write a great briefing note/strategy/workshop outline, etc. if I put my energy into doing just that. I can develop and keep wonderful relationships, too, if I use energy to focus on them.

Logan and Susan, our complete attention on the Pooh stick we threw in the Cowichan river.

Susan and Logan, our complete attention on the Pooh stick we threw in the Cowichan river.

Now, if I could just remember why I came upstairs again!!!

Keep it PLAIN!

There are two official languages you can use while working for the public service in Canada. And there’s one unofficial language. I’m doing some really interesting work with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) right now and I was describing it to my Dad the other day. But I was using that third language and he had no idea what I was saying!

My Dad is amazing. He has a host of letters behind his name – two Bachelor degrees, a Master’s (actually, two, if you count the thesis that my grandmother threw out!), and a doctorate. He has been the Head Master/Principal of day schools and boarding schools in both Canada and the US, while serving as a minister in the Anglican Church. He’s no slouch.  We discuss the research I’m doing, the role of the media, about the way the Canadian government functions (or doesn’t), and I am certain many people would be hard pressed to keep up to his intellect.

I like it when he knows what I am doing, because he can always provide me with unbiased and critical advice without being immersed in the middle of a project. So the other night, I launched into a description of this NRCan program. And despite my father’s knowledge, wisdom and experience, it was really hard for him to understand what I was trying to explain. He’s really smart, but he doesn’t have a background that provides him a context for understanding this kind of stuff.


My incredible Dad and my brother. Looks like Dad’s giving autographs!

I found I was speaking another language, a language that was based in jargon, acronyms and techie-speak that was difficult to translate. ARGH! I was becoming a jargon-head!!!

My father laughed and laughed as I struggled to communicate. It was his laughter that made me realize that if I was going to continue to work as a communicator in my consulting business, I’d better find a way to explain everything in such a way that my Dad, or my daughter or anyone not in the “industry in question” can understand.

A few weeks ago, Gail and I helped deliver the Ontario Parks Leadership Foundations Course. During that time, I met Bradley Fauteax, the relatively new Managing Director of Ontario Parks. I liked him for a few reasons. First, he loves single malt, so we’re bonded for life. He’s also got a music degree and loves to sing. Those two are enough to build a friendship on, but it is the third reason that got my respect. Bradley uses plain language. He speaks clearly, doesn’t mask anything in techno-babble, and as a result, his listeners pay attention…because he is easy to understand.

My friend Julie Towers is the same way. She is a biologist, field trials judge, single malt lover, fly fisher, and currently Executive Director of the Renewable Resources Branch of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. She has a multitude of talents, but her business colleagues tell me one of her finest talents is that she speaks and writes so that everyone can understand her.

Julie, using plain (sign) language!

Julie, using plain (sign) language!

I challenge you to look at a document, or at something you are reading or working on, and test it for clarity. Surely you and those in your line of business can understand it. But would my father? How could you explain it to him so that he does? How can you provide the context as well as the information?

Tonight, I’m going to tell my Dad about the plain language project that my friend and colleague Christina and I are going to work on for NRCan, and get his advice. I’m also going to pour myself a single malt, call Julie and see what she has to say.

I do love my work!

Leadership 101

Have you ever done something that you knew, within every fibre of your body, was great? For many of us, that doesn’t happen often. We try to do our best, but things sometimes get in the way and our outcomes are limited by things beyond our control.


Me, pontificating to the team…yet again.

Last week, I was one of the lucky ones. All the stars aligned and I was part of a team  who delivered the first Ontario Parks Leadership Foundations Course. 5 days of everything from asking and answering questions, listening critically, participating in “The Challenge of the Day”, guest speakers, story tellers…you name it, we included it in the course curriculum. And the outcome was great!

Gail and I were part of the team who designed the course, and we were asked to facilitate this initial event. 25 new leaders from the Ontario Parks organization were selected, and we put them through their paces. The timing was hard for me. I’m also doing some truly exciting change management work for Natural Resources Canada. I am committed to doing my best for my Ottawa team, so though my days were filled with leadership activities, my nights were filled with change management writing and research. By Friday, I felt like I’d been “rode hard and put away wet”.

But it was soooooo worth it. Every moment, from sitting around a table at a restaurant on Sunday night with people I barely knew celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, to standing in front of a room of new leaders and asking them…no, demanding, that they think critically, outside the box, and telling them I won’t settle for less than their best.

And they gave it to me.


New leaders, thinking really, really hard!

Each day, I challenged them to write down and share their  3 most valuable “Take Aways” with me. Some were handed to me, others were shoved under my door at night, with each participants’ thoughtful input. I wanted to know what makes a great leader; what is unexpected about leadership; what does it take to really lead. Here are some of the responses:

  • Change is inevitable. Be prepared to adapt. You must, if you are going to lead.
  • Managing different personalities requires different approaches.
  • Ordinary people do extraordinary things when they are challenged, inspired and passionate; when they believe and are believed in; when they hit a barrier or when barriers are removed.
  • Exemplary leaders possess vision, courage and empathy.
  • Leadership is saying “no” sometimes.
  • Personal sharing from the heart will connect you with others.
  • Trust people and the knowledge and experience they have.
  • Leadership is about inspiring others to believe in themselves and be the best version of themselves.
  • Leaders are not above followers.
  • Anyone can manage, but not everyone can lead.
  • Don’t be scared to get out of your comfort zone.
A bit of shenanigans is always good for any course!

A bit of shenanigans is always good for any course!

I knew, when this course was over, that it was a great success. As I stood in front of the group, I shared my story. I told them that when I left the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, I walked away without looking back because the family that was the MNR was gone. Over that week, I found it again. It is in the eyes, ears, hearts and spirits of these new leaders in Ontario Parks. Ontario is lucky to have them. And I was so, so very lucky to know them.

Take a break

I sit down with a most wonderful cup of coffee…and the e mails pile up. The phone starts to ring – really, this early? I have a conference call, then a follow up call right after that. There’s a brutal amount of reading for one project, along with research for a separate strategic action plan.  Somewhere in there, I’ve got to to head upstairs and eat. Perhaps one more Clif bar for lunch will be fine, if I promise myself I will eat dinner…as long as the afternoon conference call doesn’t go too late and I’m too tired to cook.

Sound familiar? I sat at my desk last night, and my son came downstairs to see if I was going to yoga. “I’m too stressed and too busy to go, I’ll go next week”. He just laughed at me and said “Mom, you take yoga to relax. If you don’t go, you won’t relax. So just do it!”

I just wanted to stay and work. I’m working on 4 major contracts that demand both time and travel. The inside of my house is being painted, and I’m moving furniture from one room to another on a daily basis. I am packing up and cleaning up, and wondering where to steal extra time. I’m running on empty most days. You all know exactly what I mean, because we’ve all been there.

But that night, thankfully, I listened to my son. I usually do, to be honest, because he knows me often better than I know myself. I left my desk, changed and headed off to my yoga class. We did our Sun Salutations, our balancing poses, and all sorts of positions that require so much concentration that there is no room for strategic planning thoughts or agenda items. I became focused…on wondering why my knee was sore, and why is Warrior 3 pose so hard for me!

And I realized that I was experiencing another “passion” that I wrote about the other day. In doing my yoga, my mind no longer registered all the hard stuff. The internal dialogue of work was quieted, and I was able to focus on the immediate – my knee and my balance. My restless mind, racing from one thing to another, left the ruckus behind and slowed down.

Most times, the reality of being a consultant consists of blurred lines between work and the rest of your life. Working from home means your clients and colleagues may expect to find you at your desk at all hours. If you find yourself doing that, listen to my son when he suggests that perhaps a break would be a good thing. Do that which relaxes, both your mind and body. Be tender to your spirit. You will be rewarded with a sense of peace that you can return to whenever you want.

Take a break.

The girls and I taking a break. That's coffee in my mug, by the way!

Taking a break with the girls. That’s coffee in my mug, by the way!