A little under three years ago, Lindsay McGregor graduated from HBS with her MBA. Today she, along with co-author and co-founder Neel Doshi, are the authors of a New York Times best-seller list book, Primed to Perform, and run a hybrid professional services and tech company called Vega Factor.
The two endeavors – writing and starting a company – are not separate. Instead they are twin planks in Lindsay’s mission to unlock human potential at scale by changing how systems operate. Since before her time at HBS, Lindsay has been working to bring cutting-edge psychology and neuroscience research to bear on how companies operate. Work should be more fun, she says, and companies perform better when it is.
Lindsay does this using total motivation (or ToMo), a framework she and Neel developed and that is the centerpiece of Primed to Perform. The ToMo of a company’s employees can predict how well they perform. And for MBAs pondering their next career move, the ToMo framework can also provide useful guidance on your next step.
So, what is ToMo?
The ToMo framework boils what motivates us down into three factors that improve motivation and three that detract from it. The three motivating factors, from most to least motivating are play, purpose and potential. Play is engaging with work simply because you enjoy doing it, with curiosity and experimentation at its core. Purpose comes from valuing the outcome of the work, as opposed to the process of doing it. Potential relates to the second-order outcome of the work, like acquiring skills that will help you get a desirable job in the future.
The three factors that reduce motivation, from most to least de-motivating are emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia. Emotional pressure includes feelings of disappointment, guilt or shame, based on your beliefs or external forces, like your boss. Economic pressure relates to doing an activity solely to win a reward or avoid a punishment – a pressure that has been shown to exist regardless of income. Inertia is the strongest demotivating factor and occurs when you work simply because it is what you did yesterday.
It’s a simple framework with powerful predictive ability and a strong academic pedigree. Lindsay freely admits that she and Neel are practitioners of and evangelists for ToMo, not neuroscientists or organizational psychologists: ‘We’re standing on the shoulders of giants’, she says.
The important thing about the framework, though, is its pedigree. This is not pop business psychology. As they illustrate in Primed to Perform, organizations with higher ToMo perform better. For instance, among surveyed grocery retailers, the company’s ToMo predicts 88% of its customer satisfaction scores.
Specifically, high ToMo organizations show adaptive performance. The distinction between this and tactical performance that Lindsay and Neel draw is an important one. While the demotivating factors can drive up short-term tactical performance (like offering customer support staff a bonus for answering more calls) it erodes long-term adaptive performance (like the ability of customer support staff to creatively solve difficult customer problems) because motivation is undermined.
Writing a best-seller as entrepreneurship
After experimenting with applying the research before HBS, while working as a consultant at McKinsey, Lindsay wanted to bring the ideas to the world. Her first step was to write a three-page article for the Harvard Business Review.
The article, Lindsay says, was ‘terrible, and HBR rejected it’. ‘My next step, then, was to think that if a three page article wasn’t good, a 300 page book would be better.’
She planned to work with Neel to write the book in the summer after she finished her MBA, before returning to McKinsey. Two years later it was done.
After that, the pair embarked on getting the book published, a process that Lindsay says looks a lot like pitching to VCs.
For nonfiction books, the first step, she says, is to prepare a business plan that outlines the book’s intended audience and impact. Lindsay and Neel submitted the plan to literary agents, who then introduce authors to publishers. After 20 iterations on the plan and three months of full-time work, they had a book deal with Harper Business.
The deal provided an up-front cash advance, plus the chance to earn royalties once the publisher recovers their advance. Despite getting a deal, writing the book was ‘not an obviously positive ROI decision… in the short term it would’ve been financially better to stay in consulting’.
Despite the gamble, Lindsay and Neel were excited when it paid off. ‘We put our email addresses in the book’, Lindsay says, ‘And the most rewarding part has been getting emails every day from people about how this is changing their lives – from a Dean of Students at a school who realized how he ran staff meetings was hurting his team’s performance, to a professional soccer player who was applying ToMo concepts with his teammates, to executives of large Fortune 500 companies.
Launching a professional services business
As they was preparing to launch Primed to Perform, Lindsay and Neel were also launching Vega Factor. Vega Factor helps companies improve their performance by understanding and improving their employees’ ToMo.
Lindsay doesn’t accept the characterization of Primed to Perform was mere content marketing for Vega Factor. The purpose, she says, was to create a movement around the research the book covers. The book, then, was the vehicle to touch far more people than she could through Vega Factor.
Vega Factor, then, aims to help the movement by working with companies and creating tech tools that help companies understand and improve ToMo thoroughly and effectively.
Starting a professional services company, Lindsay says, is not really any different to starting a tech company. ‘All entrepreneurship requires you to roll up your sleeves and work really hard’, she says. The benefit of entrepreneurship in this area, she says, is ‘we’re building tech tools to help organizations transform while we’re working with real live organizations. There’s this tremendous feedback loop of being able to put something out there with our clients, see their reaction, adapt and refine.’
How ToMo can help HBS students make better career decisions
‘It’s very tempting in business school, when you’re surrounded by your peers’, Lindsay says, ‘to let emotional and economic pressure sway your career decisions.’ This pressure comes in the form of being worried about not wanting to disappoint family, in the form of FoMo, or in the form of pressure to repay loans. But Lindsay reflects that now, a couple of years out of HBS, ‘people who were able to find a job that spoke to where they found play or purpose are thriving’.
On top of that, Lindsay warns against being overly swayed by potential, the weakest of the three motivating factors. She recounts the example of a friend who recently went through a job search, and found most of her job offers emphasized potential – that the job would help them get somewhere they wanted to go – instead of play or purpose. The friend realized this wouldn’t allow her to perform at her best, and took the job that emphasized the fun the employees had with what they did, even though it was perhaps less prestigious.
That gets at an important part of the ToMo argument: maximizing ToMo isn’t just about being happy. It’s about performance. The reason to care about this, and to try to maximize it is about finding a career in which you’ll perform strongly. That is the secret of ToMo.
Steve Hind (HBS ’16) is a Harbus contributor and previously served as CEO and Editor in Chief. He is the Effective Altruism Chair of the Social Enterprise Club. He was previously a consultant at BCG.