Book Review: Primed to Perform



I heard about Primed to Perform when Lindsay McGregor, one of the co-authors, was a keynote speaker at Slack Frontiers{.confluence-link}. She presented the major theme of the book, "total motivation," and a brief glimpse into the science behind their work. Her presentation was incredibly informative and thought provoking, so I immediately reserved the book from the library. It's a good book, and I highly recommend it.

The basis of the book is an examination into the factors that produce highly motivated, highly successful teams. These teams are generally comprised of highly motivated, highly successful individuals, so looking at individual motivators is a recurring element of the book. As shared at Slack Frontiers, they have identified six major indicators, three positive and three negative. They call these "direct" motivators and "indirect" motivators. That terminology was a little weird to internalize at first, but it primarily indicates the source of the motivation: purpose, for example, is not something that someone can really give you so it's a direct motivator, coming from within you. Money is something that someone else can give you, so it's an indirect motivator.

A great quote from early in the book is “Money is weak glue.” This really resonated with me, personally, and their research strongly suggests that money, as an indirect motivator, does not generally help drive individual or team performance. They determined that "Why people participate in an activity affects their performance in that activity. ... Motive affects performance."

The three direct motivators are play, purpose, and potential. The three indirect motivators are emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.

More interestingly, "Direct motives typically enhance performance while indirect motives decrease it. The closer the motive is to the work itself, the better the performance." Play is the strongest motive. Then purpose. Then potential. Inertia is the most destructive, then economic pressure, then emotional pressure. The definition of "play" is very interesting. It means having the ability to think creatively about the work one does. This is true whether you're working in an assembly line in a Toyota factory or selling loans direct to customers.

The authors identify the people within an organization, usually leaders but not always, that help drive total motivation. They call these people "Fire Starters", and enumerate how they embody and support the direct motivators for themselves and their peers, while also working to decrease the negative influence of indirect motivators.




Emotional pressure

Economic pressure


As the book progresses, they reinforce the notion that total motivation works to support adaptiveness, and that being able to adapt to new and challenging situations is the hallmark of truly exceptional companies. “Academic researchers have found that tactical performance goals focus people on just the appearance of competence. Adaptive goals focus people on becoming competent."\

The authors had some good suggestions for how to work toward adaptiveness. Once a week, you should look at your tactical goals and think about how they can be translated into adaptive goals.

Tactical: reduce operating costs from 80% of revenue to 75% of revenue.
Adaptive: find three new ways to make our process less complicated.

They suggest that teams have a weekly 45 minute huddle, focusing on the following agenda:

“Most organizations hope that talented leaders will simply emerge; great organizations are more deliberate.” Creating great leaders requires training and feedback. It's a non-trivial investment.

The good news is that no one needs to wait. Whether you're a manager or an individual contributor, you can start taking steps to enhance total motivation. “Building a world class culture starts with you. Begin your own continuous improvement cycle, selecting one leadership behavior to work on every two weeks. Find a friend going through the same journey and share ideas. Huddle regularly with your team and help them develop play, purpose, and potential.”

One whole chapter was on identity, with the sub-heading "Your people's 'why' depends on your organization's 'why'".

Another chapter focused on the play motivator. “The most powerful and the most overlooked source of total motivation is the design of a person’s role within an organization. Often, jobs are designed entirely around tactical performance.” This chapter started with an exploration of Taylorism, the notion that you can maximize tactical performance by giving each task to a specialist, who can become really good at it. There's one ideal way to perform each task, and each person should work in that one prescribed way. There may be situations in which one way to do things produces generally better outcomes, but in our knowledge worker environment that's not often the case. A sense of experimentation, continuous learning, and individual empowerment all combine to produce better results for the company, and great motivation and satisfaction for the employees, through adaptiveness.

The book then moved into an examination of the "Performance Cycle":

“Every role benefits from a theory of impact that frames where a person needs tactical performance versus where she needs adaptive performance. That clarity inspires play and purpose.”

“If you cannot predict how your people will solve for VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity) how can you predict what data they will need?”

“Ideas stimulate curiosity. Curiosity fuels play.”

Tortoise: ideas that require broad consensus before they are tried.
Hares: ideas that can be tested quickly, even if they may fail.

“The playground isn’t about ping-pong tables. It is about giving people clarity that when doing certain parts of their job, they have wide degrees of freedom to experiment, and even fail, as long as they learn from it.”

The next chapter was all about career ladders. “Rather than funnel all your people up one pathway, you should create a land of a thousand ladders.” This chapter was especially interesting to me, as someone who was deeply involved with the creation of the current technical career track for CoverMyMeds employees. I read this with a keen eye to learn what we might have done wrong.

Scientific study of the human brain revealed that “[t]he direct motives were processed in the same part of the brain that makes educated guesses about how your behavior might affect a situation and then learns from what really happens. ... Competitiveness, on the other hand, was associated with a part of the brain that enables us to handle ‘distressing emotions.'”

“Competitive career ladders make us spend our time thinking about how to get promoted instead of how to do great work. Yet at the same time, we need to give people opportunities to grow and take on more responsibility. How can we create opportunities without damaging total motivation? The answer: by giving each person his or her own individual career ladder. "

The book identifies three common career ladders within organizations:

“Defining the rungs helps your employees understand what’s expected of them. It allows them to prioritize their learning and development and ensures that promotions are fair.”

“Each rung must create more organizational value than the previous rung. The rubrics that define each rung must specifically address how additional value is created.” This identified a pretty major gap, at least in my mind, with the CMM technical career track. I think we should definitely do a better job of articulating how higher level roles produce additional value.

“Companies can support their employees’ career ladders even if there are few or no formal opportunities for promotion... by providing employees with more opportunities for play, purpose, and potential even if their titles don’t change.”

Are the endpoints of each career ladder in your organization deeply aspirational?

The chapter titled "The Hunting Party" was also very informative.

“Every time you create a team or division in your organization, you’re making a big cultural decision, whether you’re aware of it or not. ... Few of us consider how teams and divisions can create communities that increase total motivation and performance.”

“[I]ncreasing the size of a group causes a decrease in individual effort.” Scientific studies have confirmed that the more people are involved in a task, the lower individual effort each person expends, assuming that everyone else is covering for them.

“A strong community solves for many motives. A strong community reduces emotional pressure. When you’re working in a strong community, it feels safe to be vulnerable. Because you feel safe, your play and purpose are not canceled out by anxiety.”

The authors gave a quick summary of the work of Robin Dunbar on monkey communities. His research resulted in Dunbar’s Number, which the book uses to underscore the importance of group sizes:

“Organizations should actively work to facilitate the creation of villages, bands, hunting parties, and confidants.”

“[B]reak your company into villages that are each around 150 people in size. Each village should have a name, an objective, a heritage, traditions, and perhaps a more personalized version of the behavioral code that governs your entire organization.”

“In organizations, a band is the ideal size for sharing knowledge and scaling up the creativity of individual play.”

If "Fire Starters" are the people who get all this stuff going, "Fire Watchers" are those tasked with actively monitoring your organizations efforts and working to support everyone to develop an adaptive, total motivation company. Changing one aspect of your organization is likely to have non-obvious consequences, or constraints, that can be easy to forget. The authors call this “coordination neglect”, and offer some good examples of unintended consequences from this sort of thing.

“Building a culture ecosystem that is internally consistent requires many cultural keys to be aligned. ... In most organizations, the keys are either managed by separate people or they are not managed by anyone.”

“Is your leadership program designed to be consistent with your performance dialogues? Is your job design approach consistent with your identity and your compensation philosophy? Most organizations’ cultures suffer from a lack of consistency in their design.”

The book suggests a dedicated core team of Fire Watchers, supplemented by a rotation of other people through the year, to keep the fire burning.

“Successful rotation through the noncore team of fire watchers should be part of the managerial career ladder. You wouldn’t want to create leaders who didn’t understand how to build great cultures.” I really liked this notion: it underscores the fact that culture and alignment are a responsibility for all leaders and managers within a company. It helps ensure that everyone sees and shares in the work necessary to build and support a culture of adaptiveness and total motivation.

Winston Churchill is claimed to have said “To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often.” This is a pretty powerful statement.

In additional to building meaningful career ladders and working to support the culture of adaptability, Performance Calibration is important. The book provides a couple of interesting examples, and encourages the notion of “Performance acceleration” over “performance review”. A simple shift from past-tense to future-tense is a pretty powerful unlock to greater success, in my mind. It's important to reflect, of course, but putting a greater emphasis on what things will be done, rather than on what was done, seems much more likely to produce positive outcomes.

The book provides several examples throughout of the importance of understanding selection bias, and "the blame game." Sales people often get promotions or bonuses on factors that are largely external to their actual decisions and efforts. We as a people tend to incorrectly attribute success or failure based on outputs, rather than inputs. It's a good idea to read the book and look for these examples, and consider how they apply to your own work efforts.

“Absent a formal process, assignments and promotions appear to be based on favoritism, or whoever makes the most noise. Lack of transparency creates new forms of emotional and economic pressure.”

Edward Deci is quoted as saying “The proper question is not ‘How can people motivate others?,’ but rather, ‘How can people create the conditions within which others will motivate themselves?'”


Primed to Perform was an easy to read book. As you can tell from the quantity and length of quotes I shared above, I found it to be a thought-provoking read. It will take some real effort to tweak some of the ways I think about my role, but I think that effort will be worth it. In many ways, the book aligns well with some of the notions of Agile and Scrum. It goes a good bit deeper, though, so should not be taken as simply a supporting document for Agile.

This is a good book for individual contributors and managers. It's good for people thinking about making the shift into management, as well as people looking to level up in their current non-management role.

The authors have built a consulting company based on the ideas presented here. They offer a free survey to measure your (or your team's) total motivation. They also offer on-site trainings, workshops, and the like to help teams figure out what they need to work to implement any of these ideas.

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