Shiny Happy People

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Richard Maltzman
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The reference?  An old song by REM (with the help of Kate Pierson of the B-52s).  I may even provide the official music video below.  If you're good, that is.  If you read the post, it will appear.

I just finished reading two engaging books by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Flow”, and “Good Business”.  Both books talk to the definition of – and importance of – happiness.  I’m going to focus on Good Business in this post, since it sits (I believe) squarely on the intersection of project management and sustainability.

Csikszentmihalyi starts this book by making the case that the torch of leadership - those responsible for societal development - has, in effect, been passed the centuries from ‘nobility’ to ‘clergy’ to ‘business’. 

The author discusses “how leaders who have impressed their peers with their business success and their commitment to broader social goals go about their jobs … what ambitions motivate them, and what kind of organizations they try to develop in pursuit of those ideals.”

If you agree with me that project managers are executers of business ideas (profit or non-profit), if you believe that project managers are those who make things happen, the ones who turn dreams into reality, read on.  If not, go back to your humdrum job.

The book is summarized well at this site:

Here is a summary of what brings happiness at work.  I would extrapolate this to mean happiness in projects.

  1. Clear Goals – “True enjoyment comes from the steps one takes toward attaining a goal, not from actually reaching it.”
  2. Immediate Feedback – “The sense of total involvement of the flow experience derives in large part from knowing that what one does matters, that it has consequences.”
  3. Balance Between Opportunity and Capacity – “If it appears to be beyond our capacity we tend to respond to it by feeling anxious; if the task is too easy we get bored.”
  4. Deep Concentration – Flow happens when “the distinction between self and activity disappears… a pleasant feeling of total involvement.”
  5. Present Moment – “Because in flow the task at hand demands complete attention, the worries and problems that are so nagging in everyday life have no chance to register in the mind.”
  6. Control – “A worker who feels micromanaged soon loses interest in her job.”
  7. Sense of Altered Time – “Quite often, this means that time is perceived as flying by.”
  8. Loss of Ego – “While one forgets the self during the flow experience, after the event a person’s self-esteem reappears in a stronger form than it had been before… Similarly, people who have more flow experiences also have higher self-esteem overall.”


From a project manager’s viewpoint, moving further up and to the right on this chart is a good thing, since in a project, team members who are happy “are more productive, have a higher morale, and have a lower turnover… An ideal organization is one in which each worker’s potentialities find room for expression.”

Some of the messages will be clear and present in terms of general best PM practice:

“To summarize briefly the essential conditions for flow to occur, they are: clear goals that can be adapted to meet changing conditions; immediate feedback to one’s actions; and a matching of the challenges of the job with the worker’s skills.”

Much of this you may recognize from Herzberg’s Hygiene Theory of Motivation.  However there is a connection to sustainability here as well – and this is exemplified in the book by the examples the author uses from (for instance) Patagonia.  He quotes Yvon Chouinard,

“We are not in the business to make a profit.  We are not in the business to make a product.  We are in the business to really change the way other companies operate”.  Extracted today from Patagonia’s web page, their mission statement is:

Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

Part of this, of course is due to Patagonia’s long-term view.  “We really do try to act like this company is going to be here a hundred years from now”.  That changes the way people behave, and I would argue, it significantly changes the way projects are chartered – and how their success is measured.

This is something that really could motivate workers, and project team members.

The author continues, “today, business leaders cannot begin to foster a climate of positive order if their sole concern is making a profit.  They must also have a vision that gives life meaning, that offers people hope for their own future and those of their children.  We have learned how to develop five-minute and even one-minute managers.  But we would do better to ask ourselves what it takes to be an executive who helps build a better future.  More than anything else, we need hundred—year managers at the helm of corporations."

I know – this is talking about people at the helm of organizations and we are “only” project managers.  But what is a project manager if not the “CEO” of a temporary organization, accomplishing specific objectives tied to the organization’s strategic goals?  So we should be paying attention to books like this because we are at the helm, and perhaps just as leaders need to be hundred-year-managers, as the 'executors' of business ideas, we need to be hundred-year project managers.

It will make you and your team happier!  And who doesn’t want that?

Oh wait. You wanted to see that video?  Here it is:


Posted by Richard Maltzman on: March 30, 2017 09:10 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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Great article. And I love R.E.M., but I love Kate Pierson even more. She's the bomb! If everybody worked every hour of every day humming this song, what a world it would be.

I have not read the book yet, so anything I write, is with that caution. The model seems a bit simplistic to me: challenge and skill. Certainly skill and challenge are important to truly enjoying one's work, but it seems to me there are many other factors involved as well. For example whether one's boss is supportive or infuriating; or whether company policies and actions promote employee well-being or reduce employees to cogs in a machine. These are just two examples, but there are others like physical environment, team dynamics, family and cultural expectations, opportunity for advancement (not just promotions but skill advancement and other challenging work).

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Music is the medium. Passion is the message.

- Herbie Hancock