Daniel Pink, known for his insightful take on what truly inspires and encourages us all, joined opensource.com for a webcast June 22 on the subject of his latest book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.
Pink is interested in motivation from the perspective of science. Over the last fifty years, social scientists the world over have been taking a hard look at what motivates people, particularly at work. They've tried to crack the code of motivation, and the results are often surprising.
Humans are complicated, and their motivations are many, starting with the simple biological drive to do things like eat and sleep to satisfy basic needs. That drive is a basic part of what it means to be human, but we have levels of motivation above that. The next level is the reward/punishment response. If you're constantly faced with positive or negative stimulus in a given situation, you will begin to respond appropriately in those environments.
The concept that we could construct a system of rewards and punishment to "grease the gears of commerce and social connection," as Pink put it, was an incredible breakthrough in human history. But again, even that second level of drive is not all it means to be motivated as a human.
The shortcoming of the reward/punishment system is that it is inadequate for the types of work we do today. Social science has shown over fifty years that if you want people to relatively simple, straightforward work--algorithmic tasks that follow a set of rules--the classic motivator is the if/then motivator. If you do this, then you get that. And in those environments, this is an effective motivator.
However, those if/then motivators are ineffective for creative and complex tasks outside of a set of rules or algorithms. If you're trying to solve problems, iterate something new, and find non-obvious answers, if/then motivators aren't sufficient.
For this, we need to turn to the third drive. In this level, we also do things because they're meaningful, because they contribute to something greater, because they feel right. But instead of turning to this third level when we see if/then motivators fail, we tend to assume that the carrot and stick were insufficient rather than inefficient. Thus, we create a larger carrot or more pointy stick, resulting in an even bigger miss.
Money as motivator
Many people think of financial motivation as the primary driver in the workplace. And when it comes to paid work, you simply have to pay people enough. In a paid environment, money is an important motivator, although not necessarily in the ways you immediately think. "You have to honor the norm of fairness," Pink said. "If you violate that, you're toast." People evaluate this fairness internally when they recognize how much they are paid compare to peers, both down the hall and at the company across town. But what about open source, where people work very hard for free?
"The amazing thing about open source as a phenomenon is that not too long ago, people would have looked at the very proposition of open source and said, 'No. That is simply not possible. It is no more possible than walking out of my office and levitating,'" Pink said. Now people with discretionary time choose to do complicated work for free and give away their work. Telling an economist that not too long ago would have been like telling a physicist that the law of gravity doesn't apply outside your office. It just seemed impossible.
With a three-dimensional view of human beings, it seems less illogical. We relied too long on profit as the motivator. But it's certainly not the only thing. People aren't motivated solely by money. We are incredibly motivated by higher purpose, and the highest performing companies are those doing something to contribute to the world.
If you want people to engage, you don't manage them to control them. You give them the freedom to get there on their own. You give them the autonomy to choose when, where, and how they do their work.
Pink gave the example of an Australian software company that does something dozens of companies have begun to imitate. Once a quarter, they give their software developers the opportunity to go do absolutely anything for the next day. They then have to show everyone else what they've created during that 24 hours. They call it "FedEx Days" because the employees have to deliver something overnight. It's led to a whole array of improvements, new products, and other benefits for the company through a method completely divorced from the carrot-and-stick approach. You hire good people who want to do amazing things, and then get out of their way, even just for a day.
Facebook hires software engineers, put them through boot camp, and through that boot camp, they choose what part of the company they want to work in. The company picks the employees, then the employees pick what they want to work on. This is the opposite of most companies, where you inherit your coworkers and projects when you arrive.
Intuit has "10% time," which means they can spend 10% of their time creating whatever they want. After the CEO declared that mobile was key to the company's future, a team on 10% time created multiple mobile apps before the official mobile project had even been funded.
Mastery is our desire to get better at stuff. It's inherently satisfying. Harvard Business School research has shown that the single biggest motivator for employees is making progress. And that applies to open source--you can make a contribution, do something that matters, and see the results of that.
Inside most organizations, great work can be lost. Making progress can be difficult just because of the structure of the company. Progress depends on feedback, and the workplace is often feedback deprived. The rest of our lives are rich in feedback, but at work, you generally get it once a year in an annual review. Nobody successfully improves on feedback that comes only once a year.
Some companies are experimenting with peer-to-peer feedback, either in the form of reviews or cash rewards for good work.
People do what they do better when they know why they're doing it. Giving people just a simple reminder of why they're doing something can significantly improve performance.
Open source projects from Linux to Apache to the smallest open source ventures are very much grounded in all of these principles. People can choose the directions of their own lives, get feedback, and do it all with a sense of purpose.
"I really think that open source offers a lot of clues for how to run non-open-source companies better," Pink said. "It points us to a future that's going to be more efficient and better in every respect."