How the culture of effort is dying out

Just read an interesting article about letting kids fail. (Aside: In typical American style, its title almost explains the main point of the author. No effort needed there.) Why is this entire idea of the necessity of effort being lost among the young adults I deal with?

The entire focus these days is on results, on outcome. We too talk that language in the corporate world. But we must not talk that language when we bring up youngsters, be they kids or young software engineers straight out of college. As one can well guess, the focus on outcome discourages people because failure some of the time is inevitable, and a focus on outcome does not teach us to cope with these failures.

I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.

  • Edison

Focusing on outcomes as a corporate strategy helps us all be result-oriented. The trick is to dissociate the process from the outcome. The outcome to be rewarded may well be the successes. The process to reach that success must almost inevitably include failures. Needless to say, this sounds pseudo-philosophical because it contains an apparent paradox. You can’t ask me to feel good about failures if you want me to reward or celebrate success.

This is in fact not a paradox. If you think it is, you are misunderstanding the way this works. The basic wiring of the human mind learns only through play. We as adults have forgotten what “play” is at the most intuitive level. Play is not a game of cricket or chess. It is struggle. Watch a puppy chewing another puppy’s paw while they both tumble down their mother’s tummy. The puppies are “playing” but are actually engaged in an intense struggle to learn how to fight, tooth and claw out in full splendour. Watch a toddler trying to build something out of building blocks. He puts the fourth piece on top of the third one. It tumbles, bringing down two more pieces with it. He puts them back up. They tumble again. He does it a third time. Then he accidentally knocks them over. He does it all again a fourth time. We are used to treating photos of kids at play as cute and relaxing — we miss the struggle going on inside that cute head. That’s play, actually

We learn through play. Play is an intense struggle. (In fact, that play which is not an intense struggle bores us rapidly.) Instead of lecturing youngsters about the importance of effort, we need to re-introduce them to the feeling of play. We need to set up an environment where they do and re-do whatever it is that they do, because they are shown how the process is interesting. Easier said than done, I agree. But it can be done.

My eight-year-old son makes mistakes with long division. So I sit with him one evening, and give him two long division sums to solve. He screws up one of them. I completely skirt any temptation to upbraid him. I ask him to find out where he made the mistake, my right eyebrow raised (yes, I can raise one eyebrow), and a half smile on my face. I am in fact posing it as a puzzle. “Find out the secret answer” — it’s a game. He reviews the sum he’s done on a fresh piece of paper, and finds where he had screwed up. He shows me the new answer with a look of accomplishment. I say “Yessss!” loudly. We both do a high-five. He wriggles his bum in an attempt to copy a rock star’s gyrations as a celebratory dance. We move on to the next sum. We work on sums for two hours with hardly a break; he does not flinch. For him, it’s father-son bonding time. For me, it’s bliss.

What I have described above is unvarnished fact. I see parent after parent after parent after parent upbraiding their children for careless mistakes with studies. I can teach children. We can’t mend broken parents.

The price I pay is the lost evening. I spend two hours with my son instead of doing adult things (like watching “Veep” on TV). This is a price I would pay every evening if I could, because this for me is a delight — this is the reason I look forward to coming home from work. It is my time with my eight-year-old.

This approach can definitely be applied to encourage young officers to change their approach too. But it requires the office to organise learning games, exploratory activities, where people are rewarded for achieving results which require effort. The focus must be on the game, the fun of the process, not on the reward. It is hard for normal corporate activities to even shift focus from outcome to process — the “result oriented” culture is so deeply ingrained in us. How do we shift focus in order to build a corporate environment of learning and play?

I suggest that you split activities into two buckets. One bucket is the external facing activities, where we deliver a certain piece to a certain client on a certain date. Keep those activities as they are, and do not tamper with them until you have a very good grip on Bucket Two. Focus on Bucket Two first.

In the second bucket, we specifically design or re-design internal processes to encourage exploration. A typical example: a young programmer comes up and says that Module X in Angular.JS is not responding with the right output. The typical response in the corporate software development world will be for the project manager to do the following:

  • he will make a mental note to observe this young programmer’s performance: is he not good enough for the job?
  • he will ask a tech lead to help the programmer to fix the problem. (Even the tech lead may fail, but that’s a separate story.)

Instead of tackling this situation this way, change the approach. Ask the young programmer to call two of his friends into the room, and then give them a few hours to solve the problem. Tell them that they are allowed to consult any information in books or the Web, but they can’t ask any other colleague. Let them go back into the work area, maybe in a huddle space if you have them in your office (we do) with their laptops, and solve the problem. Tell them that they are not being evaluated in their problem solving ability — they are being given a puzzle, because programming involves solving puzzles, and that’s why programmers are smart people. (This is true. But what you may not know is that all types of work involve solving puzzles.) Leave them completely unsupervised to solve the problem.

When they come back, they will either have solved it, or they will come with crestfallen faces saying the problem still persists. If they have solved it, celebrate it publicly with all the others in your project or office area. If they have not yet solved it, don’t let them back off. Ask them to work on it on the weekend if needed, but they must either solve it or come back with an effective workaround. Chat with them about their experiences, hear them out. Push them to take charge of the outcome of their own efforts. And continue to make it a game, a puzzle.

Yes, this takes time. And no, this time is often not billable to your client. But it works. If you do this consistently within your team for six months, I can guarantee that it will change the way that many (not all, never all) team members approach their work. More importantly, it needs work from the managers and team leaders. Are you up to the task? Are you willing to walk the talk? You will only be able to sustain this approach if you take delight in watching your team play and learn.

There is nothing specific to programmers and software here. If your Accounts team says that a certain transaction is stuck with a client or a government office, send the accountant and two of his colleagues (maybe from the Admin department) to that office to try to persuade the counter-party and get the transaction released. If your sales executive is stuck with a recalcitrant prospect, ask two of his colleagues to brainstorm with him about a new approach to follow. And this may include you asking one or other colleague to accompany the executive to the next meeting with that prospect.

We realise that effort is needed. But trying to learn to put in effort is like so many other stupid adult mistakes, like trying to learn discipline or hard work. You cannot learn effort, you can only practise it. And the only way to practise it is by having something worthwhile to practise it on. Like two hours of long division with your dad with some rock-star moves once in a while.

I come full circle when I say: we only learn the value of effort unconsciously, and only when we set ourselves up in an environment of play.