Reward, recognition, and competition in agile multi-disciplinary teams

A selection of quotes from The Craftsman by Richard Sennett, chapter “The troubled craftsman, Weaked Motivation” pp 28-37 that I feel are relevant to today’s agile multi-disciplinary teams where roles are dissolved and recognition for good work is diffuse:

The modern world has two recipes for arousing the desire to work hard and well. One is the moral imperative to do work for the sake of the community. The other recipe invokes competition: it supposes that competing against others stimulates the desire to perform well, and in the place of communal cohesion, it promises individual rewards. Both recipes have proved troubled. Neither has – in naked form – served the craftsman’s aspiration for quality.

A large part of the triumphalist story [capitalism over communism] turned on contrasting the virtues of competition to the vices of collectivism – individual competition taken to be more likely to produce good work, competition to spur quality. Not only capitalists have subscribed to this view; in the “reform” of public services like health care, the effort has been to promote internal competition and markets to improve the quality of services.

In any organisation, individuals or teams that compete and are rewarded for doing better than others will hoard information. In technology firms, hoarding information particularly disables good work.

Engineers, like musicians, are intensely competitive creatures; the issue for both is what happens when a compensating cooperating vanishes: the work degrades. The triumphalist story, however, has tended to be blind to this necessary balance.

It’s no longer news that this middle-class world has cracked. The corporate system that once organised careers is now a maze of fragmented jobs. In principle, many new economy firms subscribe to the doctrines of teamwork and cooperation, but unlike the actual practices of Nokia and Motorola, these principles are often a charade. We found that people made a show of friendliness and cooperation under the watchful eyes of their boss-minders rather than, as in good Japanese firms, challenging and disputing their superiors. We found, as have other researchers, that people seldom identified as friends the people with whom they worked in teams. Some of the people we interviewed were energised by this individualised competition, but more were depressed by it – and for a particular reason. The structure of rewards didn’t work well for them.

 In other realms of the new economy, however, [internal] competition has disabled and disheartened workers, and the craftsman’s ethos of doing good work for its own sake is unrewarded or invisible.

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