(This was sent to our Dimagi Team on December 28th, 2011)

For the last several years, I’ve worked around Christmas and New Years trying to write up interesting thoughts and revelations from the past and looking to the future for the Dimagi team. With the exception of 2007, I haven’t successfully sent the letter out because what I write always ends up being too trite. I abandoned this one too after I wrote it yesterday, but Cory Zue, our CTO, helped edit it for me and convinced me to send it out. Cory asked me whether I knew I was going to write about this topic or if it just came out. It was a little bit of both.  As all of you know our bottom lines:

“We care about impact, team satisfaction, and profit, in that order.”

Trying to maintain alignment between impact and team satisfaction is basically the only thing that keeps me up at night—I think profit will naturally happen if we nail the first two.
As we’ve grown significantly this year—in terms of our staff, footprint, and aspirations—we have continually had to examine what is the best optimization of our goals. We are poised for an amazing 2012, and ahead of us we have new decisions our organization hasn’t had the trouble or luxury of making before. Do we ramp up our field staff in India further? (maybe) Do we hire a dedicated sales staff? (no) How do we grow our support capabilities? How do we keep growing our impact, team satisfaction, and profit in the long term and short term?

A big part of the answer is ensuring we have the right motivation. Dimagi’s culture—which many of us think is our strongest asset—depends on a strong intrinsic motivation as an organization and as individuals. Whether it is because of travel, working on software that impacts global health, working on code that you can see affects users with your own eyes, or any other number of reasons, we assume each of us has a very high intrinsic motivation to perform our jobs. As an organization, we operate in an industry that doesn’t have an efficient market mechanism to pay for value. Therefore, we are left to determine how much value we are creating through mechanisms other than revenue or profit and loss. I’ve come to break down motivation into three buckets, and striking the right balance between these I believe will allow us to find the right balance between among impact, team satisfaction, and profit.

  • Intrinsic Motivation – Things we want to do. Whether it’s coding, implementing, selling, writing, e-mailing, or attempting to write annual letters, we do it because we want to. Because we want to, because we are all pretty smart, and because we are hard-working, we tend to get good at these things.
  • Mixed Motivation – Things we want to want to do. These either used to fall in to the Intrinsic Motivation category but just don’t quite get us out of bed anymore, or, we think we see the value of doing them but there is something nagging in the back of our mind that it is just not actually valuable.
  • Extrinsic Motivation – Things that we do because we have to. These are things we don’t think we should be doing but are doing it just because someone (a client, a manager) is making us.

At any time, all three of these motivations are driving parts of our behavior. Tasks that used to be easy may now fall into the mixed or extrinsic category. I would guess tasks actually cycle between these much more than we realize. I used to be concerned that everything we ask ourselves to do falls into the intrinsic motivation bucket or we risked diluting our culture. However, I think that concern was misguided. Certainly, if not enough of a person’s job is intrinsically motivated it will show and they will quit or be fired. But not everyone will be intrinsically motivated to accomplish everything on their plate at any one time. What matters is the support, communication, and transparency to knowingly allow individual tasks to fluidly move between these categories while still maintaining an overall high-level of intrinsic motivation for one’s job.

I think this is the key to what Malcom Gladwell and others have recently coined as “deliberate practice” among the high-performing individuals in sport, arts, music, entertainment, and other areas. They are the best at performing because they are the best at practicing. But that’s fairly obvious after you hear it. The question is how to find the motivation to be good at practicing. For me, part of it comes down to understanding what is driving myself and mentally maintaining that drive. As Neal Lesh, our CSO, and I discussed, sometimes you either have to do something or want to do something before you go to bed. What separates highly productive organizations and people is whether you think you have to do it or want to do it. What lets highly productive people sustain those levels is that they have to do it because of intrinsic motivation. Further, they accurately separate the list in to the right piles “have to” and “want to” to maintain the best motivation.

So, this will be the challenge for ourselves and our organization in 2012. How do we continue to grow in size and impact while maintaining a high -level of intrinsic motivation and a culture of “deliberate practice.”? It takes a significant—and sometimes uncomfortable—amount of effort and self-reflection as individuals and as an organization to determine what is driving us, what we wish was driving us, and whether we care enough to do anything about it. And it takes even more effort to actually do something about it.