What Golf Can Teach Us About Good Work Design

April 4, 2018

As we have discussed in past posts, the way that most managers think about designing work hasn’t changed much in over 100 years.   Working at the turn of the last century, Frederick Winslow Taylor pioneered the idea that work could be both broken down into specific tasks and then routinized, so that each person would repeat the same small task over and over again.  Taylor’s system was a huge leap over its predecessors—Peter Drucker called Taylor the Isaac Newton of work—and led to dramatic increases in productivity.  It also created jobs that were VERY boring. Taylor also believed in a strict division of labor, managers designed the work and laborers were supposed to do what they were told without question.   It’s not too surprising that Taylor’s system was actively resisted by those who had to work in it.

Taylor’s legacy is so strong, that it is often difficult for people to even conceive of an alternative—many people believe that work is just boring, that’s why we call it work, and there isn’t much we can do about it.

Dynamic Work Design (DWD) offers an alternative.  Redesigning work using the four DWD principles can lead to work that is both more efficient and a lot more engaging.  That said, understanding how the principles show up in the real world can be tough precisely because we are also so immersed in Taylor-style thinking.  Analogies and metaphors from outside the factory and office can help build an intuitive sense of what good work looks like.

One of our favorites comes from the late Richard Hackman, a Harvard psychologist who did foundational studies of both work design and teams.  Consider the game of golf.  Initially, it would appear to have all the features necessary to ensure that nobody would ever play the game.  It is expensive, time-consuming, immensely frustrating, and basically pointless.  The great Winston Churchill once said, “Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”   And, yet, it remains one of the most popular sports in the United States.  Almost 30 million people played at least one round last year.  What gives?

The author pictured with his mother, Caroline Repenning. A scratch golfer, she taught him everything he knows about golf (except how to beat her).

Decades of psychological research suggest that people enjoy tasks when they have the following characteristics:

  • They feel like they are in control;
  • They get regular feedback on performance;
  • There are opportunities to build new skills and improve;
  • They are challenged just beyond their ability level.

Despite being, in the words of Mark Twain, “…a good walk spoiled,” golf (and many other sports and hobbies) satisfies all of these nicely.

  • First, though golfers often like to blame other factors, the player is in complete control of her performance.
  • Second, golf provides immediate feedback.  The moment I hit a bad shot, I know it.  I often like to joke with my students about what golf would be like if it worked like my day job—I would hit every shot into the fog so I couldn’t see it land, and then three months later I would get an email telling me my score; not a lot of fun.  They always laugh until I remind them that’s exactly how performance and budget reviews work in almost every organization.
  • Third, golf offers an almost infinite collection of new skills to build and there is a multi-billion dollar industry out there just waiting to help me shave a few strokes off my game.
  • Finally, thanks to the handicap system, it is easy to set both reasonable targets for improvement and compete with players of varying ability levels.

Although hitting a little ball into a tiny hole doesn’t seem like much, the game has every feature needed to engage the human brain.  And the situation is similar for a wide variety of other sports and hobbies.  In fact, take a second to reflect on your favorite activity outside of work.  I’ll bet it satisfies the criteria above better than your job does.

So how do you fix the work at work, to make it more engaging like golf without losing much-needed efficiency and control?  Consider three of the Dynamic Work Design principles as guides:

Reconcile Intent and Activity:

Make sure people get regular feedback on whether or not they are meeting their targets. Psychologist Jim Reason often says that humans are “furious pattern matchers.”  Make sure your people are getting enough clear feedback that they can start to identify what works and what doesn’t.  And the feedback doesn’t always have to be positive.  I don’t like hitting a ball out of bounds when I play golf (which happens more than I like), but when I do, I want to fix the problem right away and show that I am in control.

Structure Problem Solving:

Humans have a strong developmental drive.  We like to get better at stuff.  Make sure the work you design offers people a steady diet of opportunities to learn new skills.  Better yet, when they fall short of their targets (because you are giving them regular feedback) teach them how to engage in simple structured problem solving so they can resolve their own issues (you can read about our preferred method HERE). This is one of the truly magical elements of companies like Toyota and Southwest, everyone is solving problems to make the company better.

Optimal Challenge:

Finally, you need to regulate the challenge level that your people face.  If they always meet their targets they will grow complacent. Conversely, if they are perpetually falling behind, then they will resort to shortcuts that can push the system into “firefighting” and the capability trap (learn more about the “capability trap” in this WEBINAR).  There is no magic formula (that I know) to calculate the right challenge level, so you will need to experiment.  The basic rule is that the work system should be generating a steady stream of problems to be solved.  If everything is a problem and nobody ever has time to really fix them, then the challenge level is too high and you need to lower it.  If nothing ever goes wrong and everybody is leaving early, then maybe it’s time to turn up the heat a little bit.

So, if you are feeling a little stuck in your efforts to redesign a piece of work, just remember golf.  If people are in control, getting feedback, and getting better, then they are going to enjoy their work, even if it is trying to hit a little white ball into a small hole with tools ill-suited to the task.


Nelson Repenning

Nelson helps translate successful fieldwork into underlying principles with rigorous academic underpinnings for use in his work at MIT as well as by ShiftGear.

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