Mastery As Motivator: The M of RAMPS

Part 14 of 15 in the series RAMPS

Let’s talk a little about mastery today, in the sense of the RAMPS conversation from yesterday. What is mastery-as-motivator, and what can we do about increasing its motivational force?

As I said before, the motivational force called mastery is about how humans value their own growth. All of us carry around an idea, implicit or explicit, of how as individuals we could be "better". Mastery as motivator is the sense we have that we’re stepping towards that "better" as we work.

Now let’s be clear, we’re far outside the range of the readily webster’ed definition here. No two "better"s are the same. No given "better" is actually guaranteed to provide real results. My "better" isn’t even the same "better" from day to day!

Nevertheless, there are trends. I value being an effective programmer. I value being kind. I value being seen as net-positive influence. I value shipping, too. 🙂 and tho the local targets of these vague abstractions vary widely, they still fit in my idea of "better".

So what, as a manager, can you do to harness this motivational force of mastery?

Here’s a hint: it’s going to look like a cost, it’s going to be measured by sensitivity, and it’s going to require u not to reduce humans.

First, looking like a cost. Adam Smith wrote much of the benefits of specialization. His ideas morphed into a pretty bizarre cult. The 20th century version of this cult pretends that every trade is like a faux-1960’s-production-line.

I say faux advisedly. Real production lines only barely resemble dumbassed oversimplified machine-like things. That was always a myth. Further, the most successful production lines on earth were soundly defeated in ’80s and ’90s by interlopers like toyota. How were they defeated? By introducing more purpose, autonomy, and mastery into any production method requiring human motivation as engine.

(Long digression over. Sorry. Sometimes I get overwrought.)

Onto the question of measurement. Just, don’t. No excel. No powerpoint. No reporting. You’re going to have to watch & listen & live with. Not reducing humans. To get to that, i’m actually going to jump forward. I want to morph the q "how do I instill sense of urgency?" the new (sub) question: how do I present my individuals with the right size & shape of challenge to mesh with their "better"?

You’re gonna have to learn their "better" a little, first. You can ask, and that will help. You can also watch, and that will help. Pick a human. Vary the types of tasks you offer them. Watch for the cases where they jump right in, eyes alight. bingo. I say "offer" for a reason. Don’t assign. It violates autonomy and it’s likely to demotivate more than motivate.

Notice, too, very important: I said "individuals" in my question, not "team". There are a few team "better"s one encounters, and I always look for them. But don’t hold out for that.

Size and shape of challenge are really important. By shape we’re talking about tasks that are just within someone’s reach. "rewrite our entire database" isn’t within anyone’s reach. "take this file and make it awesome" is closer. How about, "riff on adopting ELM for a half hour". "run the retrospective tomorrow?" "unify how we fetch orders?" these are all options.

You simply must work with people to find tasks that are not at the center of their current competency. You simply must see tasks rotated among people who aren’t task-specialists. And you have to accept that the cost of this — on-paper inefficiencies — is more than repaid by the benefit — a driven team.

You don’t have to go blind into this. You don’t have to change policy — yet. Try some experiments and see what happens. Do you allocate time for your individuals to do any damned thing they think might help? Think it over. Start small. Make it happen.

Get your DB gal rolling JS. Get your JS guy trying a backend experiment. Get all of them sharing results with each other.

Celebrate lessons. Celebrate learning. There are plenty of non-economic reasons to do this, but the economic ones are sufficient.

We work with geeks. Geeks, by definition, love learning this shit. It is what we are, that love.

That’s it for now. I know it was long, more disorganized than yesterday. That’s to be expected. Everything i’m saying is "simple not easy". Work with individuals to learn their "better" & aim them cheerfully right at it. You’ll get more urgency than you ever dreamt possible.

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