Years ago, the television show Mission Impossible always began with a scene in which the team leader, Mr. Phelps, would receive a tape describing his next mission. The tape invariably began, "Your mission, should you choose to accept it..." No matter how silly the rest of the show became, this single line reveals a keener understanding of human nature than is displayed by most product development organizations.
Elite organizations have always appreciated the importance of voluntary choice when seeking individuals to take on challenging missions. For centuries, military organizations that have asked their members to take unusual risks have all been voluntary. This wasn't an accident. The military knows that people are always more committed to a path that they have chosen themselves than one assigned to them. Religious orders asking their members to make unusual sacrifices have known the same thing: volunteers are more committed than those simply assigned a job.
Why is this the case? The normal human psychology for us is to exaggerate the wisdom of the choices that we make for ourselves and to question the wisdom of choices that are made for us by others. For example, have you ever noticed how hard it is for you to turn around once you have begun traveling down a wrong path? In contrast, we will quickly question the wisdom of going down an avenue that someone else has selected for us when even the slightest obstacle emerges. This is due to a very basic principle of psychology. People prefer to feel good about themselves. Part of this preference includes viewing their own choices as superior to those of other people. This inherent bias that's present in all cultures distorts our perception of reality.
In 1975, psychologist Ellen Langer reported the results of a classic experiment in which $1.00 lottery tickets for a $50.00 prize were given to two groups of people. The lottery was then canceled and ticket holders were given the opportunity to sell back their ticket. Those who had the opportunity to pick their own ticket wanted an average of $8.67 for it. Those who were simply given a ticket wanted an average of $1.96. In this case, the value premium associated with making one's own choice was eight times higher than that of nonparticipation. Obviously, people are more committed to choices that they make for themselves.
What does this have to do with product development? Quite simply, if you want team members who are committed to the goals of a project, then have them volunteer for the job. This isn't a question of management style. Whether you're a participating manager or a dictator, you will get better outcomes when people volunteer for their jobs.
So why don't companies get people to volunteer? Some object that it's time-consuming. But, that isn't really true. The extra time it takes to sell people on the opportunity is more than repaid by their willingness to work harder on a choice they arrived at themselves.
Some managers worry that everyone will want to volunteer for the same project and some volunteers will be rejected and demotivated. This seldom occurs if the choice is seen as fair and rational.
Other managers object that nobody will want to volunteer for the pointless, boring, and doomed projects. This may be true, but it isn't necessarily bad. Rather than coercing people to work on such projects, it makes more sense to provide them with meaningful, interesting, and realistic work.