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The Stimulation Ratio


I finished reading and closed another issue of Harvard Business Review. I have been a reader of HBR off and on for a long time now. I am seeing a definite shift in the tone in articles covering one particular area- the  initiatives launched and spearheaded by upper management, especially targeting drastic performance or process improvement, like Six sigma, TQM, ERP implementation. More often than not, the authors of the articles are slowly showing disillusionment about a drastic revolution within the organization, whip-in-shape type of activities.

They are tacitly acknowledging that there are some missing pieces of the puzzle that haven’t been completely figured out yet. The initiatives for drastic changes fail more often than they succeed and we don’t quite know yet why they succeed when they do. It’s not the theory behind the initiative, or the mode of implementation, or the environment/context. There is some illusive element that makes these things work or break.

Based on my experience, I have one theory of what this element is. It’s an element that has its roots in a very basic and primal part of human nature. I will call it “The Stimulation Ratio”.

I work as a knowledge worker. Some of my duties consist of talking to colleagues, engaging customers, solving problems, showing my creativity, good and fruitful meetings, writing new software. Sometimes I do something and see tangible, fruitful result of what I did. All these activities are stimulating. After I am done a stimulating activity, I feel energized, I want to do more.

Some of the activities involve filing paperwork, writing reports, doing repeatative tasks, taking orders from someone and following them step by step, meaningless meetings. These are highly boring tasks. After I am done with these tasks, I feel bored and zapped. I would rather not do these tasks if the choice were entirely up to me. But I do them because I am a professional and I understand they are part of my duty.

Over the long course of time, my mind must maintain a sufficient level of stimulation. The stimulation lost doing non-stimulating tasks must be adequately replenished by stimulation gained by doing stimulating tasks. The ratio of stimulating tasks to non-stimulating tasks, must be maintained in the long run.

If the work makes me do more non-stimulating tasks, I am likely to find stimulating tasks on my own. This is why you will find people in offices distracted browsing Internet, talking on phone with friends etc. People are trying to get the stimulation back.

Most of the time this distraction for the sake of replenishing stimulation, need to cope up with boredom, is the main source of productivity drain. People spend days without writing a single line of code or without typing a single line of document. Even when work is done, it results in poor quality of work. Sooner or later, someone in management notices it and they launch some kind of improvement initiative.

Managers like launching initiatives. It is very challenging, energetic activity. Usually the decision is made in a board of directors meeting, where the atmosphere is very charged and discussions are highly intellectual and thus highly stimulating .

But the type of work it results downstream is often very boring.

And this is where the problem is. If such an initiative is launched without participation from the employees, this results in more non-stimulating work. More paperwork, more matrices to track, more boring meetings. This actually makes the problem worse.

A while back, I did an experiment on a short scale. Every time I got bored, instead of getting distracted to read news or browse Internet mindlessly, I took up a programming related activity that was stimulating for me. At first it involved developing a small software tool for my own daily use.

After working on my pet project for a short while, I felt adequately energized. And since all this energization came from programming activity, my brain was already warmed up when I was about to begin my work, unlike the time when I stimulated myself by reading news.

Suddenly I realized why Google allows their employees to work on their pet projects. That is the best way to adjust stimulation ratio and still get a productivity boost from it. Many other companies frown upon the pet projects thinking if they allow their employees to do pet projects, if they allow people to wander in their own way, there will be productivity loss. But what they don’t realize is that the cost they are paying for being able to “control” that 10% of pet project time is resulting in much bigger productivity loss.

Stimulation ratio is a fundamental property of human mind. Lack of stimulation is highly undesirable state of mind and over a long term results in sort of “office depression”. Why do you put people in prison? They are getting food, clothes and shelter for free. The only thing they are not getting is stimulation. Why smart students fail in schools? Why marriages that seem alright on the face fall apart? It’s the result of lacking adequate stimulation level.

There is a lot of research being done in Lean Manufacturing. Lean Manufacturing focuses on getting rid of the wasteful activities. But someone needs to think about Lean Software Development, and needs to rethink “Lean”. It needs to be lean in such a way that the number of non-stimulating activities must be kept to minimum.

At the same time, I fully acknowledge that the stimulation cannot be the sole focus of any initiative. If the company makes a software product and if the engineers feel stimulated and invent the greatest toothpaste, that’s useless. The company is not positioned to make profit from that. The point is there has to be a balance of stimulation and business need. Severe inclination on any one side will set up any change initiative to fail.

The more stimulating work becomes, the better tolerance people have for non-stimulating part of the work resulting in holistic quality improvement.

3 Responses

  1. You have identified a very important but often invisible factor in motivating the self and the workforce.
    Sometimes a heightened sense of team spirit will override the need to be individually motivated, based on creative needs.
    But in the Indian scenario atleast, such team spirit where -one for all and all for one is the motivating factor is absent even in sports let alone in the office .
    I have an observation to make. The stimulus need by each person depends on his basic impulses or a more apt term ie the Vasana of the individual.
    So do you think that identifying the the three ‘guna’s in ones character (Tamasic.Rajasic.and satwic)helps a person to identify and unleash his creative energy and pursue it while being a valuable asset in the establishment that he works for?

  2. would be interested in speaking privately with you haven’t been able to find your phone number or email contact for you on this site. Please get in touch? Thanks! Karla PS Happy Birthday

  3. This seems to have a lot of relevance to life itself!

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