The tasks which motivate us most aren't always the ones we most need to concentrate on.
I just came across this post on Slashdot from computer games site IGN, about the reasons why people become obsessed with computer games, like World of Warcraft and Call of Duty.
The author suggests one of the reasons is because they offer guaranteed rewards for the time put in.
Apparently gamers call this toiling away until the goal is achieved, grinding.
The author of the article concedes that the risk-versus-reward rules don't always apply in the real world.
"The real world does not operate this way. You can grind at a job for 10 years and still be laid off."
This phrase made me think about another piece of content I have recently come across.
This is a book called Complexity to Simplicity - Unleash Your Organisation's Potential is due out next week by Professor Simon Collinson from Henley Business School.
It deals with how complexity creeps in to working life. He suggest a list of ten ways this can happen in the IT sphere.
1 Work really hard going in the wrong direction
Devote as much of your day as possible to projects or activities that have limited impact on the real value drivers in your business
Spend your time on really urgent things, even if they are not important to success in the long term
Try and reverse all the decisions you made yesterday
2 Learn rocket science
Don't delegate things that you are rubbish at to the real experts. Just try and do them yourself, you'll get there eventually.
Defer all important decisions until you have some more useless or unobtainable information, and then delay the decision for another month.
Talk around the subject as much possible, but don't talk about the real issues or move things forward.
Repeat what the last person said, but don't use the same words as them. That way it will sound like you are actually making a different point.
Over intellectualise and over complicate absolutely everything you can.
Focus on the politics; don't worry about truth or action
4 Involve everyone in everything
Have as many points of view as you possibly can, as it's great to hear 100 peoples identical perspectives, all expressed in subtlety identical ways
Try to involve people who don't have the experience/skills to add value, and then listen to them all really diligently and try to implement all their suicidal suggestions.
Try to spend as much time as possible aligning people on issues that don't affect them or they cannot contribute to.
5 Focus on the process, not on the action/issue itself
Spend your days agonising over the process, don't worry about getting things done when there's a process to be embellished or discussed!
6 Perfect absolutely everything
Make sure you to get everything 100 per cent right all the time, even if it's not particularly important.
Don't worry about spending your time perfecting everything to the point where it's 2 years too late!
7 Reinvent the wheel
Change/amend everything that comes across your desk to reflect your personal views or preferences. Don't worry about whether your changes are substantive; just make sure it's done your way!
Revel in the joy of reinventing something that exists, or repairing something that works really well already!
8 Make e-mail the focus of your entire day
Log on to your e-mail at 6am the morning, then spend all your time working on your e-mail in box.
Respond immediately and start working on anything unimportant or humorous. Defer anything important to another day.
Send as many e-mails to as many people as possible, making sure that your arse is fully covered by copying everyone in the company into every e-mail.
If you don't have access to your computer, check your phone every 3 minutes.
Don't bother with the phone and certainly don't walk 10 meters to talk to the person next to you, just send them another e-mail.
9 Duplicate, duplicate
Don't waste time doing your own job, spend your time doing someone else work, or even better do exactly what another person/department slightly different way.
10 Do everything you can think of
Develop a list of 100 projects/ideas that you think might just be good ideas.
Don't prioritise the projects/ideas that will have the biggest impact on your company's performance, instead divide your day into 100 individual slots and devote 6 minutes (1/100th of your working day) to each idea.
This is great because you will never achieve anything, so you won't make any mistakes, so you won't get fired.
What brings these two pieces of content together is a focus on the way people obsess about detail to avoid facing up to the prospect that all their hard work may come to naught.
The staff in many IT departments are also hardened video gamers. It's certainly true in my workplace.
So, it's reasonable to assume the motivations for grinding out a level on COD MW3 are the same as grinding away at a bit of tricky code, which is almost irrelevant to the rest of the business for all its complexity.
I would suggest that the key to getting your staff to concentrate their efforts on the stuff that matters is in placing the right carrots in front of their noses.
What those rewards may be, in this time of static pay increases, is probably best tailored to the employee concerned, within the limits of your power to give out such gifts.
Managers usually have a little elbow room to grant gifts of some sort, be it time off in lieu, or even a gold star. In one of my former teams, good work was rewarded by placing a large garden gnome on the stars' desk (and so were slip-ups). Be imaginative - the recognition is the important thing.
In his blog on motivating creative people (this includes IT professionals, by the way), business coach Mark McGuinness suggests these rewards:
3 Awards (block of Perspex)
6 Access to further opportunities