Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
To motivate people, talk about the context of the work to be done (sametab.com)
443 points by anacleto on Nov 15, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 116 comments

“If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.

Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

- Antoine de Saint Exupéry

This is great if you have something worth yearning for.

"Teach them to crave fast data insight from the their analytics software for marketing campaigns" lacks the same sense of romance or moral imperative.

I'll acknowledge that's a bit tongue in cheek and not being charitable to the underlying point as it applies to day to day work, but I also think that this snark often applies to the "missions" that some/many Silicon Valley startups proclaim for enterprisey, salesey products, because I think those missions are a form of self-delusion about how much good you're really doing for society, as opposed to just making money because there's value to be captured.

A good leader can put a twist on that - "Let's improve the accuracy of ad targeting so small businesses can reduce their spend but attract customers and grow" or "Let's connect the world. Let's help unite lost friends."

Oh, absolutely, and being a former tech worker in the advertising industry, I'm intimately familiar with that line of thinking. When you're trying to inspire the workers, it works (I used it), but now I hate it for the dishonesty of the framing. That's also why it'll take very unique circumstances for me to ever go back to that industry.

>"Teach them to crave fast data insight from the their analytics software for marketing campaigns" lacks the same sense of romance or moral imperative."

I'm not sure what your specific role in the industry was. However while it may not have the same sense of romance or moral imperative as something else, it can still help rally great teams around causes. I've found people, particularly teams of data-driven marketers, can get quite excited when seeing a business grow directly because of insights they distilled from data. It's the feeling of making a tangible impact.

I won't discuss my specific role in order to keep what shred of my anonymity might be left.

My response was mostly aimed at statements like one of 8ytecoder's examples: "Let's improve the accuracy of ad targeting so small businesses can reduce their spend but attract customers and grow". This is because the focus on small businesses is often a foil, and reality is much more morally ambiguous.

Actual small businesses are at the far end of the long tail. Very few companies primarily serve small businesses or primarily make their money from small businesses. In practice, in order of how much money is spent, the list goes: (1) large brands, (2) local/state franchises and political campaigns, (3) small businesses.

Most companies (Google/Facebook, for example) might coincidentally serve small businesses, but the real infrastructure and engineering investments are for the other two groups.

Small businesses tend to be the least sophisticated of the campaigns, because they honestly don't need much sophistication. Their numbers are too low to bring in real data science anyway, so it's more about being savvy at community presence. However, when you get to franchises and politics, the sophistication really kicks in.

Also, some of those small/medium businesses were for things like predatory lending companies. That realization made me stop and think for a moment about what "small business" actually meant.

Point being that I've seen and used (earnestly, at the time) small businesses as a sort moral foil while actually aspiring to develop technology for the other groups. And you believe it because you're paid to believe it.

In general I agree with everything you're stating wrt accuracy of the statement. In context of motivation though, people are all different. And in this case I think there's a type of person who is internally motivated by seeing the results of their decisions and hard work.

In that context, trying to make it about the businesses you are serving (external validation) may not be as interesting to that person as making it about them finding the key to the optimization settings that unlocked growth for the team and business that is credited to them. Helping them celebrate via recognition or whatever else drives that individual can let them get more out of the win than they otherwise would have, and become more engaged in their role.

The big brands also have ecosystems of thousands of small businesses that supply and support them.

The framing doesn't have to be dishonest. But if your company really has NO 'goal' or 'vision' beyond 'make as much cash as possible'...then maybe frame that instead of making up a bigger goal. "Lets become titans of our industry, and fly around the world in private jets" or some other relatively soulless goal. Still inspiring to the right folks, but not dishonest!

Framing isn't dishonest if it's true ;) helps if you believe it yourself.

Hm. We might be imaging different scenarios but I'll try to puts words to my agreement with the "dishonesty" thing :)

Feels like it's shining the light of attention at the spot most aligned with human desires, but usually at expense of shrouding the holistic goals (which might not be in interest of participants).

It might be true, but the framing could still be dishonest because the specific focus is often intended to distract from a less savoury whole. <3

"Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful."

"[REDACTED]'s mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together."

"Our mission is to be Earth's most customer-centric company."

"[REDACTED]'s mission is to bring transportation—for everyone, everywhere."

Yeah, I do not know why but I do not feel very inspired by those ...

>organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful

Not inspired by that? Is it too abstract? Asked another way, what kind of mission would inspire you? FYI I do agree with the general sentiment by munchbunny.

I'm very inspired by inspirational things - but can't believe there's anyone left who would feel real inspiration from those. Perhaps the first company that decided their mission would be "to make the world a better place" would have sounded (and maybe even been) good - but now it's just meaningless word-salad disguised as a profound statement. It's the "trite motivational poster" of the business world.

In a way those statements all would have been inspiring when the company set out and the world didn't have those things. Is it possible that those companies have achieved those missions to such an extent that it's no longer inspiring? That would be the mark of an epic success. The question is what comes next?

moralestapia's point, as I understand it, is cynicism towards broad, idealistic mission statements because large tech companies with them still have a history of using their employees in what he/she perceives to be immoral ways.

The mission statements mentioned, in order, correspond to:

* Google * Facebook * Amazon * Uber

Because we've been hearing such phrases so often that we are now immune.

good idea. however, the moment you get people on staff buying in to that, you should probably have some mechanisms to listen to their ideas too.

Every time I buy in to some sort of corporate mission statement and believe it, I want to actually help get there.

If I'm being told to do something which obviously/patently won't get there - because I've done XYZ for 25 years and I know the ramifications/impact of these decisions, and I know they don't get us closer to "mission statement" - I want my input and direction to be heard/heeded. Not always 100% "do what he says", but... when you simply ignore my warnings, and my outcome happens... I lose interest in your "mission statement".

Sure, you could do that. But honestly, as a worker drone it all sounds like corporate bullshit to me. No one says things like, "Lets do this well so we can make more money so we can get paid more" or anything actually truthful like that.

That’s what we call “lying”.

All belief is self-delusion. Here's an idea at the other end of the spectrum: You are an assembly of atoms floating around pointlessly.

But of course truly believing something like that would make your life difficult. So you create stories for yourself, "missions".

> You are an assembly of atoms floating around pointlessly.

I mean... I do believe that. I also believe fervently that all of humanity's existence is an insignificant stray mark in the book that is reality. For some people that's a fundamentally depressing idea, followed by "well then why do we even exist?" For others that's liberating. For me... that line of thinking doesn't lead to any practical conclusions about what you should do, so I tend to keep my thinking at levels of abstraction that are somewhat more Earth-sized (or smaller) in scope.

But more broadly, the point I was getting at is that I don't think people in general spend much time thinking about the multiple possible perspectives/beliefs that can be held about their actions, or about the second order effects of their actions, and my personal plea is for more people to do that.

Even more specifically, this time speaking about conversations I've actually had, if you are one of the thousands of engineers whose job is to crunch data ever more efficiently, perhaps it's worth spending some time mulling over why it's not kosher to just pull that customer data into the training data for a new ML model without getting consent first. I promise it's not because stupid laypeople want to make your job difficult.

> All belief is self-delusion.

Do you believe that?

Yep, but I'm not selling a thought system like Deepak Chopra :D

To the extent that we lie to ourselves when we hold something to be absolutely true, yes. Everything is just a guess based on patterns and expectations.

I agree. It's hard to make grandiose statements about a mundane thing that is just business trying to make money. In the little company I own, I've eschewed, grand mission statements, although I do secretly harbour one.

None of my team would believe me anyway.

My pitch is more mundane: please give me good service, at least as much as you would want from any contractor that you might have hired to work on your own home. In return, you should expect that I am a good customer for your services, one that you would want to do repeat business with, and that serving my company is a profitable for you. I don't know if they actually buy my pitch, (they haven't yet quit! :-). I hope its a reasonable one.

I'm not very interested in working on intrusive marketing, but I'm more motivated than ever on my current project, which involves linking enterprise architectural models to all sorts of other business data in order to provide insights into how the business is doing.

That doesn't sound terribly exciting, and yet it is. I've been involved in this project from the very start, I've been talking with many stakeholders, I've had to make decisions on how to approach this, what tech stack to use, what features to focus on, what new features we could add, how to prioritise different concerns, etc.

I'm involved in the context of the project, and not merely the execution of it, and that's given me a much greater sense of ownership. I really care about this project and want to see it succeed.

So maybe just talk about the context isn't quite enough; involve people in that context, make sure they understand the why and have them decide on the how. Make sure they're not just cogs in the machine.

(It helps that the tech stack involves a Graph DB, which we didn't have any experience with before, and we create a lot of interesting data visualisations.)

Ironically, the post talks about the importance of context, yet you’ve given an example focused exclusively on technical features, and completely ignored any of the problems they might be built to solve.

How about teach them to crave slow data insight then?

A very good strategy if the stuff you do is actually any good. For many ethically questionable fields obscuring or misreptesenting the context or the actual bussinesmodel is the only thing that allows you to keep a workforce. The best way to do this is to give them the tools to lie to themselves (this usually contains a flag to wave against the “other team”).

It’s rather conceited to assume the entire workforce shares your opinions of which fields are ethically questionable.

If you are open about what your money-making-model is, they can decide for themselves — however — if you are brainwashing them into believing you are the good ones while hiding the colateral damage, then you are wrong.

This isn’t about opinion, it is about honesty and transparency and knowing what you’re working for.

Ship building is a specialized trade, with tradesman located in a town near the dockyard. I doubt that shipbuilders are motivated by the love of the sea. The quote does not work in high-specialization industrial society where the product is constructed for a customer, with sales department claiming credit for the sale, and the owner pocketing the surplus value.

Much better motivation is love for a process, in ship building example, ship engineering with management supporting career development.

Call me crazy but I think it's possible you've missed the point.

It's becoming a huge peeve of mine when people seem to have forgotten what thread they're in and take a statement out of all reasonable context or nitpick about things that do not materially degrade the point (quotes are a little fussy that way, who knows how people will interpret them).

On reddit they'd just invoke /r/lostredditor

My latest strategy is to hit back with humor. I don't know if it's working, but early results are positive.

>It's becoming a huge peeve of mine when people seem to have forgotten what thread they're in and take a statement out of all reasonable context or nitpick about things that do not materially degrade the point (quotes are a little fussy that way, who knows how people will interpret them).

Welcome to HN

At no point did I claim it's new behavior. It's just getting old.

More like "Welcome to teh Internet"

It's called pedantry and lots of programmers seem afflicted by it.

I think it's a valid counterpoint. Those who would be great shipbuilders should hopefully love not only the sea, but also the act of building a ship. They should get as much if not more joy out of executing a weld perfectly, or shaping a piece of wood partly to their own will and partly within the constraints of its grain. Those who only yearn for the sea make great ship passengers i.e. customers, or ship captains or crewpersons. There's a divide there, and it's inherent.

But I guess (still using the language of this quote) you could say the the article is presuming the shipbuilders already love shipbuilding, and just need to be reminded that what they're building is for purposes of going to sea. Fine, but should they be impressed? To milk the analogy for all it's worth: A ship goes on the sea but it's not of the sea. It's of metal that comes out of the ground, or trees that grow out of the ground, and it's built on the ground, by people who go home at night to sleep in their houses that are on the ground. That's the divide. Shipbuilders actually have very little to do with the sea; in fact it's sort of their enemy, the thing they're protecting the customers from, the thing always threatening to creep in, seep in, and ruin their work! Maybe the analogy breaks down there... although then again... :)

Anyway I disagree with the notion that doing something for its own sake, or even (perish the thought) TO MAKE MONEY, somehow isn't adequately motivating. Half the time I wish all the temporarily-embarrassed millionaires could just fess up for once and say, yeah, I need the money. I wish it were okay to say that.

I wrote this on the top of my whiteboard in the last place I was CEO at. Still my mantra for management.

short of hypnotism i can't see how i can motive my employees about enterprise CRUD app.

Who are they making the apps for? Are they making the enterprises work better? Are they meeting the actual users and identifying their pain-points while developing solutions?

Or are they just getting a list of requirements from a middle-manager (rather than the user) who doesn't actually know what needs to be done?

The former can help motivate them and also help them develop better systems (that fit the real user needs, not management's perceived needs).

Some of the most technically mundane projects I’ve worked on have been the most exciting simply because the impact it would have on the people who would use it. Oh and I was talking to those users to get a good handle on what they needed and how it would help.

Joel Spolsky talked years ago about how software companies are doing it by letting them use the latest cool toys -- Erlang or whatever is hot these days.

I'd ask why you need an "enterprise CRUD app". Programmers tend to like doing new things, and if your app doesn't offer anything new, why are you even building it?

Share what motivates you to be doing your work. If you are trying to motivate them to make more money, what do you think makes them some sort of different creature with some sort of differing motivation ?

Paychecks & benefits is the usual way. Only gets you so far, of course.

Less dubious than I feared. If you prefer:

"One will weave the canvas; another will fell a tree by the light of his ax. Yet another will forge nails, and there will be others who observe the stars to learn how to navigate. And yet all will be as one. Building a boat isn’t about weaving canvas, forging nails, or reading the sky. It’s about giving a shared taste for the sea, by the light of which you will see nothing contradictory but rather a community of love."

Thanks for the pointer, I love quote provenance research (well, reading it.)

Well we can't blame all clever sayings on Ben Franklin now, can we.

I knew this quote and agree. Yet, how can we argue towards this direction with someone who disagrees. Like "A.S.E. was not a manager but a dreamer. Look, he wrote the Little Prince." Any concrete, recent example ? In a company, big, small, startup ?

Ask them why they disagree, and listen. They may be right.

I should clarify: this is also the way to get them to agree. If you genuinely listen to their concerns, and consider all their points, and are genuinely willing to change direction if they're right, then that is psychologically powerful.

Being listened to, and having a point of view heard and considered, is powerful stuff. If at the end, they feel heard, and their point of view considered, then they're usually willing to go along with the majority opinion at least, and sometimes become your biggest supporter.

It is also the best possible way to find toxic employees. When someone just simply will not listen to logic, will not listen to your viewpoint, or uses your time listening to them as their time to dish about everyone around them, you have a choice to make.

Most times, being heard is all people want. Some times, being heard only validates a false sense of superiority and correctness.

Jobs and Musk are recent examples of successful people who manage by vision. Of course, plenty of people object to their style also.

How about “A computer on every desk, and in every home, running Microsoft software.”

I'm having this etched on the wall at my office and on my kids bedroom walls :D

I love this, thanks for sharing!

It is one of my favorites as well. It seem apropos.

Cynical take: this is all great until it becomes clear to people that the context is actually "one of the executives wants a promotion". Or increasingly common: "profits matter more than any of our purported 'values'".

It gets hard to motivate people when they know they're working on things that are detrimental to the public in some way, or that only exist to make other people look good. Trying to fluff the context in these cases tends to just make people even less motivated because they're not stupid.

I'd take all of those things as positives.

If the work provides no value and the workers discover it, and stop working on it, the world is better off.

If the work provides negative value (to society) and the workers discover it, and stop working on it, the world is better off.

People should work on things which provide value to themselves, their community, and the world at large. They shouldn't be working on things that actively destroy those. And if the only reason they're working on them is because of a lack of awareness of their impact, then let them learn.

"People should work on things which provide value to themselves, their community, and the world at large. They shouldn't be working on things that actively destroy those."

Unfortunately, lots of folks are working on things whose sole value truly is to put food on the table at home. I think there are few janitors that enjoy cleaning toilets, especially if they work for places where the workers or the public smear feces on the walls. Few folks get motivated to clean portable toilets or to work for minimum wage at a fast food place. Few folks are truly motivated to work retail.

And it doesn't matter that some of these give some small benefit to the community nor that things like fast food is a mixed thing (fast food both provides a benefit and destroys the community) or that lots of laborious jobs tend to destroy one's body - and it only takes one injury or heart attack to make one out of work.

It isn't because they lack awareness of their impact or anything, but more that folks need to survive. Not everyone can get a job with your description for a wide variety of reasons. Besides, at the end of the day society still needs folks to shower old folks in homes and to clean portable toilets, no matter how much they don't fit in your description.

Yes, I wanted to work for a company that makes a positive impact, but one senior manager tried to get me to settle for a lower compensation saying that firefighters or teachers make way less money than IT professionals. I wanted to ask why the executives get millions of dollars as bonuses and are not the ones to be thankful that their salaries are way more than teachers and firefighters. I didn't ask because I am not confrontational and I know that it doesn't make any difference. With experience, you see that most of the values, context or culture people talk about is lip service.

Also when it’s clear that the context is “make money for someone who isn’t you.” Every time I see what the work I’m doing is costing the client, or the expected profits it will generate, I get depressed. I’m making a change that brings the company an extra million dollars, great - but I’m still on the same salary...

I'm in the same boat (but not quite as much money). I'm preparing to ask for a raise by demonstrating how my specific knowledge helps the company perform more efficiently, and how it is less costly to give me a raise than it would be to replace me.

I agree. Best way to motivate people is to demonstrate that leadership and everybody else are in the same boat, share the downside and also the upside.

But in general I think mission driven leadership is good as long as the top doesn’t have a habit of constantly overriding lower level decisions.

This. Work is just like any other endeavor: the questions, "What are we doing?" and, "Why are we doing this?" need to be answered. The first informs the second in that people are generally willing to do truly meaningful work for no compensation, with a decline in the "meaning" necessitating an increase in compensation. If you can't articulate meaning satisfactorily, be prepared to increase compensation. If you can do neither, be prepared for high turnover. People don't want to waste their time.

I have a feeling these points are not lost on the author. Having to own up to the self-serving aspects of your plan does add a little friction that might slow your roll a bit.

There are things you say and things you think. And there are ways of saying things so that you steer people away from their worst (from your perspective) behaviors without calling them out (just saying a thing sometimes gives people ideas, or clues them into your agenda).

And there are always more symbiotic ways to be self-serving, if being self-less is outside of your wheelhouse.

That is, unfortunately, how businesses are organized under capitalism.

This isn’t bad advice, or wrong, just recognize that it’s not universal. Motivations vary from person to person, team to team, company to company.

If you want to know how to motivate a person, start by asking them. Maybe they will be self aware enough to identify what it is, maybe not. If they don’t know what motivates them, ask them to take some time over the next week to reflect on a time where they were motivated at their job, and you can discuss it further in your next one on one. Then, take that scenario and start to deconstruct it. What was it about this time that was different than other situations? How long did that motivation last? Who were they working with at that time, and how much did the people play a role in keeping you motivated? How much do factors like stress and salary impact motivation for them?

Motivation is also fluid. What motivates someone at 25 is different than at 35. At 25 I craved recognition for having potential. At 35 I crave autonomy. Some fundamental components haven’t changed, but the overall story has.

So, when in doubt, and even when not in doubt, start by asking.

Personally I find being asked to engage in introspection like "reflect on a time when you were motivated at your job" pretty demotivating. I'm terrible at it, and it's a huge timesink with negative associations to things like interviews and having to write up annual performance review text.

For me, talking with my client over Slack or Skype about the task works. Suddenly some uninteresting thing defined only by a JIRA issue becomes something more. Some feature which provides real business value with context.

That's one of the reasons why I work where I work, because PMs don't stand between us and the clients.

Sounds circular. Maybe you need to be motivated to think about what drives you. Catch 22.

All the more to my point. You’d have a pretty crisp answer if I asked you in a 1:1, what motivates you. No need for the introspection.

But, you can’t expect your manager or anyone to know that about you unless you’re willing to share it. A good manager will understand this is demotivating and work within those boundaries. But, unfortunately managers aren’t clairvoyant, so we do need to hear it from you :)

Yeah, no, I wouldn't. I might at best have a vague idea of what might be motivating. Like I said, I don't do introspection -- I could tell you if I'm happy or not happy at work, but if the answer's not happy that doesn't mean I know why.

I feel like the question in the title leaves out important context. Like, why do you need to motivate people at all?

Presumably it's because they aren't happy to do the work you ask of them, and the reasons for this can vary wildly, from the divorcee suffering a depression to the QA temp that knows you think of them about as fondly as of the stack of papers that stabilises that one wobbly table you don't like anyway...

Why should anyone be happy to do what you ask if they get nothing out of it?

What do people crave at 45, 55, 65?

Relief and retirement.

At 45 I crave building more interesting things than your basic standard website.

Treating people like individuals instead of cogs? That's some dangerously democratic-sounding idealism there pal.

Get back to your oxcart, peasant!

The subtext of every article like this is "How to motivate people (without paying them more or giving them equity)."

In many, perhaps most, situations, people are working to build things they don't own. That is the context. Any other spin on the context is just manipulation.

This stuff might work on some people, but, as a regular employee, I'm most motivated by frankness from my bosses. Nothing turns me off faster than platitudes about the purpose of our work or why I should be motivated by it.

I'm pretty motivated by context / explanantion of purpose. If I'm just given platitudes, that doesn't count. I want to know why we're really doing this (so agree on frankness), and if I don't like the answer, I probably won't be sticking around for long.

To a point, this is more important to me than pay or equity.

So, the boss is only a 100x-millionaire and really wants to own his own island before he's 30. Let's knuckle down and do it!

Realism, surely isn't motivating in a capitalist society, you're working to make someone else richer in most jobs, someone else who is already rich.

Isn't this article promoting exactly what you say, "frankness from your bosses"?

"Meaningful context is built through hot messages: high-resolution information where nothing is left unsaid, the meaning is clear and the guesswork is reduced to a minimum."

When I think about people I've managed or observed, along with the way that clients or managers have treated me, I see a fallacy where differing expectations or needs are substituted for motivation. For example, I recently walked away from a project where the client kept restating the priority and the work context, both of which were well understood. The problem was that the project needed a legit budget and team - it wasn't a question of motivation, but reality on the ground. Likewise when I think about people I've managed who on the surface seemed unmotivated, the real problems were more subtle - one guy was clearly depressed but also didn't have the skills for the job. Another was going through a bad divorce and really needed a lot more money for the legal war chest. Still another was tired of so much work travel and really wanted to be in a different career. I'm sure there are people who legitimately lack intrinsic motivation, but more often than not my experience has been is doesn't have anything to do with not understanding the context of the work (though I'm sure that was itself be demoralizing).

I find ownership to be motivating. Good leaders inspire me to own results, but also empower me to own the “how”. When I do not own the method of obtaining success, I do not feel like I truly am responsible for success. The truth is, with more complex work, good leaders realize they’re at the mercy of those that do the work, because of the complexity only the people actually doing the work have complete understanding of the system. Therefore, the best card to play is to be very clear about the desired outcome, including the whole strategy and context behind it, and hope the team owns it all.

It's funny how carefully you're stepping around financially rewarding people who do the work. It's like you know your status does not allow you to own the money generated, so you're settling for owning the results, the process, the method, the responsibility, the all. You are weak.

Boeing tried this a lot back when I worked there. Our managers would talk about how their airplanes enabled people to trade with people across the globe, and brought people together.

It's hard to see the high-level talk as anything but just talk when the systems you have to deal with on a daily basis are a tire fire. Initech tried to talk a good game, too.

I suppose some people are motivated that way, but I care most about my daily process. If the process makes me miserable, no amount of "context" will motivate me.

I guess the question is "if we make zero profit, and have to reduce management level wages to achieve greater fuel efficiency in [our part of] global trade, then we're going to do that then, right?".

The answer is going to be "well of course the shareholders deserve profits", or something similar?

Best way to motivate people? Trust them.

Trust is extremely rare in the modern work place. From grueling interview loops designed to weed out "fakers" to open offices, to micro managers, to always on Slackers...

A little bit of trust goes a long way. Find good people and don't treat them like they're out to rip you off and their motivation will flow.

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people together to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

--Antoine de Saint Exupery

I have always found that as an employee, I can play an active role in this. Ask questions, do research, find out how your work relates to the bigger picture. This (and yes, sometimes combined with some mild self-deception) can go a long way towards staying motivated. It does sometimes bring up the question whether I shouldn't be asking those questions for myself and work for myself though ;)

Maybe I'm an outlier (being a wannabe intellectual), but I feel like for me I honestly don't care too much about the grander scope of stuff as much as the actual individual problems I want to solve.

I like solving problems with concurrency and networking stuff, and typically don't pay much attention to how it affects the rest of the organization. I have some ethical issues with marketing, and worked on the adtech team of a company for two years for this reason.

I suspect this drives virtually any employer who I work with crazy, since they typically try and motivate me by telling me all of the cool stuff my work is going to do.

I've encountered this being used as a crutch for poor employee performance on a software project focused on replacing a legacy application.

An employee with little programming experience used his supposed lack of context as an excuse for poor work and disinterest despite having been given an overview of (1) what the legacy software does and why, (2) the broader project goals, and (3) the immediate project goal (i.e., replacing the existing software). The employee similarly hid behind their lack of technical understanding, asking questions to "learn" but ignoring the answers.

It's funny. I've never really gotten on with working at large companies. Fundamentally I think this is why.

Most large companies do not have a context for work done.

If they do, risk and reward is detached from it entirely.

The rest of the company forms a huge buffer such that you can do really well, or really badly, and it normally won't matter that much.

If there are levels of management that are "too important" for me to speak to, I'm out.

I interned for a major defense contractor on a top secret contract. I did not have a security clearance, nor did several of my coworkers, and we had no idea what it was we were doing, at all. My job consisted of "Do this task" with absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. I hated that job passionately and definitely agree with the author that contextualizing your work matters.

More fundamental than context, stop telling me your sole purpose is to make money. That's a one-way ticket to turning me off of any attempt to ever increasing my engagement as an employee.

Your business exists to solve a problem, which then makes money. Otherwise, I expect your business to be in finance or the government's treasury--then your #1 is "to make money".

It's oft repeated on HN that companies have a duty to make money for their shareholders as that's why they exist, to make money.

Not true of all companies, but certainly true of many AFAICT.

In my opinion, every great work needs its justifying myth. If you don't have that, you won't have the confidence to pursue it further.

That doesn't mean that the myth is necessarily a good, ethical or healthy one. A lot of myths are of the form of "worthy sacrifice." Others are of the "defending oneself" sort, or the "ascent to greatness". The myth is made to fit the times and the task.

Organizations, and teams in those organizations, often take on their myths without consciously thinking about it. But it's absolutely critical to have them there to set the tone and allow everyone to proceed on the same page.

This doesn't paint the entire picture.

One way to motivate people is to make sure they understand the 'why' behind the work.

A step in making them understand the 'why' is talking about the broader context (which the article is about).

Reminds me of the military concept of "commander's intent". By knowing the broader purpose of a mission, subordinates are able to take initiatives if and when necessary.

Surely you have the same problems in war as in capitalism: that if the commander's intent is to have you all die in order to make an overall gain elsewhere then it may well not help to know their intent.

Sometimes the product/context isn't very meaningful. Sometimes the company's end goal is negative. E.g: Facebook. Their employees are probably more motivated if they suppress the fact that the context/goal is to suck as much information as possible from their users to target ads at them.

In my experience, one reason this doesn't happen is because it's a lot easier for middle managers to carve out tasks and assign them then it is to corral and coordinate a bunch of enthusiastic people trying to help. It's easier for them to take credit for the work done in the end as well.

Looks like they’re mostly talking about Task Identity from Hackman and Oldham’s Job Characteristics Theory


This reminds me of the people who are/were working on building weapons, they are/were not aware of the context of their work, for example they were building small pieces of large weapons but not knowing the full plan.

I really need this article! I tried to start a startup with friends multiple times already, but the end result always was they cancelled. I think I overwhelmed them listing all the things needed to do in order to succeed.

I've had two jobs for more or less public sector entities, and they were conspicuously more interested in new employees understanding the complete organization and its purpose.

This is spot on. Unfortunately in my (long) experience often the aspiring motivators do not understand the context, leaving it to the underlings to attempt to reverse engineer it.

It's funny, and sad, to see this on the front page at the same time as the story about Google cancelling TGIF.

This works great when you are developing the polio vaccine. But in the wrong hands this is just an illegitimate tool of power. Plenty of people joined companies like Facebook because they were made to believe that they were truly changing the world for the better... the ability to fool people like that is just corporate demagoguery.

we can’t conflate nor confuse the interrogatives (who for what for when for where for why for how) ...

things being talked about are merely distinct, and certainly not interchangeable either / ors .

Leaders inspire, managers motivate.

I would argue: leaders lead and managers manage.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact