I recently read about an experiment where researches ran a lottery with a slight twist. (Beyond Performance: How Great Organizations Build Ultimate Competitive Advantage by Colin Price and Scott Keller.) Half of the participants were assigned a randomly numbered lottery ticket. The other half were asked to choose their own number. Just before drawing the winning number, the researches offered to buy back all of the tickets.
The researchers expected that everyone would value the lottery tickets equally, since a lottery is a game of chance. In fact, those who choose their own number had a greater potential of duplicating someone else’s number, so in reality the value of those tickets should have been less.
Unexpected things occur when people are involved, and as frustrating as this always was to Mr. Spock, emotion can trump logic. In this case those individuals who wrote their own number consistently demanded at least five times more for their ticket.
What drove people to ask substantially more for tickets where they chose the number versus those who had a randomly-selected number?
People who chose their own number owned their choice. They had “authored” their number and as a result they were far more committed to it. It wasn’t logical, but it was an emotional commitment that leaders are always looking for.
This is why we’ve observed amazing levels of commitment, energy and passion with our FedEx Days, including our most recent FedEx Day. (And why FedEx is asking Atlassian to stop calling these FedEx Days is beyond me. When your name becomes a synonym for reliably delivering overnight, I wouldn’t object to its use!)
We’ve tried two variations of FedEx Days, one that was wide-open, where people and teams were free to choose to work on anything at all, and the other where they were constrained to consider projects that supported office productivity in some way or enhanced our existing products in some new way. In both cases we were amazed by the creativity, energy and commitment put forth.
The message is simple: greater commitment requires less control. But this doesn’t mean employees are doing whatever they feel like, either. What is important is that the goals of the business are clear. Employees need to understand the direction of the business so that they can contribute effectively.
FedEx Days aren’t the only way to build commitment, either. Best Buy achieved the same effect with its ROWE (Results-Only Work Environment). And as David M. Kasprzak points out, don’t blame ROWE for Best Buy’s troubles.
If you want greater commitment and engagement, experiment with allowing employees to write their own tickets!