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The Quest for a Quest

I’m fond of fiction; I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies. I think that a large part of the appeal of fiction comes from the single-minded focus of the principal characters in the plot. When the hero of the book or movie is trying to track down a secret or elude his pursuers or find the murderer, he is solely focused on the task at hand. You seldom see the hero stop to pay his bills or clean up the house or even go to the bathroom. No, our hero has only one goal for the duration of the book or movie, and he is totally absorbed by the effort of achieving that one goal.

This single-minded focus sometimes occurs in real life. I’ve been involved in a number of projects over the years that made me feel like I was part of something bigger — the kind of thing that they make movies about. You get a wonderful feeling when you’re part of something like that. You start each day at work knowing your purpose and knowing what you’re supposed to do that day. You see the goal in the distance and you see your team getting closer and closer to the goal as time goes by. You feel the excitement as the goal approaches. You don’t stop the everyday stuff — caring for the kids, mowing the lawn — but you go through those things on autopilot because your thoughts and attention are focused on the goal.

A Quest gives you Productivity
Whether it’s putting a man on the moon or something much more ordinary like delivering a new software product, the focus of a quest seems to boost your concentration and fuel your productivity. Petty issues get resolved quickly and smoothly when everyone understands the real purpose of your mission. When your entire team is heading in the same direction there is far less disagreement over mundane trivia. With a quest comes a new perspective, a different frame of reference. Everything is defined in terms of whether it takes us closer to our goal or further away from it. Life is simple — at least for the duration of the project — and decisions are easy when the objective is clear.

A Quest gives you “Flow”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about “flow” in his books and articles. He describes an altered sense of time where we get so caught up in what we’re doing that we don’t notice time passing. We start working on something and then “wake up” hours later, wondering why it’s so dark outside. Flow comes from focus, total involvement, and deep concentration on something that completely absorbs us. Flow is part of the reason that a quest is so appealing. We go into a flow mode when we’re working on something associated with a quest. Flow is enjoyable; it feels good to be so focused.

This focus also lets us use both our conscious and subconscious mind to deal with challenges we encounter during the quest. We work on a problem during the day, and finding the solution to the problem becomes so important to us that we devote our subconscious to the task as well. We have ideas while we’re sleeping, while taking a shower, or when we’re doing something that has nothing to do with the quest itself. Thus the quest helps us devote some of our subconscious energy to the achievement of our objective.

How to Lead a Quest
It’s really pretty simple to lead quests of your own. Here’s how:

1. Define an extremely clear objective, one that can’t possibly be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The objective has to be significant but it also has to be simple: something that can be communicated in a single phrase. Examples: “before this decade is out … landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth,” “reduce the amount of labor required for the xyz process by 50%,” “sell our products over the Internet by the end of the year,” “be the first company to ship a product that does xyz.”

2. Frame the objective in a way that makes the achievement of the objective an emotional experience for the participant. This can be tricky. You have to tie the objective to a basic human emotion — preferably a positive emotion.

Pride is often a good choice. Maybe the objective is something that no one else has done, or that no one else has done using your approach. Pride can be a powerful motivator if you can fuel that emotion in quest participants.

Competition is also a good way to make an objective emotional. “We’re going to beat our leading competitor in introducing this type of product.”

Survival is also possible as an emotional motivator, although with survival you’re using a negative emotion: avoidance of a catastrophe.

Often there’s a mix of emotions. “Getting this product on the street before the competition is absolutely required for our company’s survival. There’s no second place — only winners and losers.”

3. Include a time component in the objective, even if it’s arbitrary. Make sure the deadline is aggressive but achievable. If the deadline is too easy to achieve or too far out in the future then it will be difficult to motivate day-to-day effort. If the deadline is impossible to achieve then everyone will give up before they start.

4. Define the project steps for the achievement of the objective in a way that clearly delineates the work that each sub-team or person needs to accomplish. You don’t want a free-for-all; you want a concerted effort by each member of a team. You’ll only get that concerted effort by clearly defining the way in which each team member will contribute to the achievement of the objective.

All Four of these Requirements are Critical
If any one of them is omitted then you won’t have a quest. Leave out the clear objective and people will constantly argue about what you’re trying to accomplish, and eventually they’ll lose interest. Leave out the emotion and no one will care about the project — it will be just another stupid objective that management gives them. Leave out the time component and there will be no urgency, no need to prioritize the project ahead of others. Leave out the delineation of effort and everyone will argue about who’s doing what. All four requirements have to be included for your quest to be successful.

People Can’t Participate in Multiple Quests Simultaneously
You can have multiple quests going on in your company at the same time, but each individual employee can only be a part of a single quest. If you give an employee a role in two quests then he or she won’t be able to emotionally commit to either of them. You might be able to get away with two simultaneous quests if you clearly prioritize one quest over the other. But the second quest distracts the employee, and it doesn’t allow the employee to devote subconscious time to solving the challenges that are encountered in the first quest.

The Connection between Quests and IT Strategy
I’ve talked about IT strategy in other articles and in my book, but I haven’t previously explored the connection between IT strategy and quests. I believe that the key to an effective IT strategy is focus: being able to communicate a few key objectives that your IT organization is trying to accomplish in order to increase its contribution to business success. Using a quest approach is an ideal way to achieve those focused IT objectives. Each major IT objective becomes a quest, and through a series of quests your IT organization will be able to make significant progress by focusing your employees on one thing at a time. You’ll be successful, and your employees will get the motivation they need and deserve.

The quest approach is used by many great companies. Look at the history of Apple, for example, and you’ll see that all of its major products were built using a quest approach. You’ll see the same thing at Pixar, at Sun, at GE and at IBM. The best products were built using a quest approach, and the best employee experiences came from participating in those quests.

If you have a really big objective — something that’s important to a significant number of people — then I highly recommend the quest approach. But while it’s extremely valuable, the quest approach can also be misused if you violate the rules I’ve defined in this article. Make sure you include a clear objective, an emotional tie, a time component and a clear delineation of work. And make absolutely sure that employees only participate in one quest at a time. Otherwise you’ll just discourage your employees, and you’ll hurt your reputation as a leader and as a motivator.

Life can be a series of quests, just like in books and in the movies. It can be fun to focus if we’re truly allowed to focus on one thing. We’ve still got a life to lead, and we’ll still have to do all of those mundane day-to-day things in our non-work time. But participating in a quest gives us something to be proud of, and it contributes to the meaning in our lives.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • John Isenhour May 19, 2009, 9:55 am

    Sorry Harwell, I’ll have to take exception to a statement in your last post.

    Besides technology architecture for our organization, I also teach work and family relations, and I found the statement

    “You don’t stop the everyday stuff — caring for the kids, mowing the lawn — but you go through those things on autopilot because your thoughts and attention are focused on the goal.”

    To not be in alignment with increasing focus, productivity and enjoyment of life. Suggesting that one should parent on autopilot, is in direct conflict with what most parents, when you get right down to it, would say is one of the most important things in life.

    My view, and what I teach is that we do way too much on autopilot, and it does not seem to be a zero sum game, you can derive recharging your work life from being in the moment, if it is cutting the grass or playing with those you love.


  • Harwell May 20, 2009, 7:24 am

    Good point, John. My comment about family life on autopilot was out of line, and it doesn’t in fact reflect what I believe.

    My point was that when you’re focused on a primary goal like putting a man on the moon, a lot of other mundane stuff fades into the background and your quest occupies your subconscious thinking. But I should have used some other examples for things to do on autopilot. Maybe paying the bills, going to the dentist, etc. Not family.

    I also understand your point about “recharging” your work life by living in the moment. I’m not quite sure how to reconcile the two things: focusing your life versus living in the moment. Especially since the flow state you attain through focus actually leads to a strong sensation of living in the moment.

    Anyone else who wants to try to compare a flow state to living in the moment? Or maybe I’ll come back to this in a future article.

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