Dan Pink on Creativity and Motivation

A friend recently shared Dan Pink's talk on Creativity and Motivation with me. Pink discusses the progression of the 20th century 1st world workforce from a majority of simple task oriented workers to a majority of cognitive, right brained knowledge workers in our modern day. He then proposes that this new workforce is motivated not by the same monetary goals as yesterday, but rather by more fulfilling incentives, which he lists as autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

I wholeheartedly agree that the leading thought workers of today are ultimately attracted to these higher causes of self-fulfillment. Yet, I differ from his purportedly absolute stance that motivating by these three factors and removing monetary reward from the picture is a recipe for success.

Pink provides two extended examples,

  1. Atlassian Fedex day. Fedex day at Atlassian is essentially a 24 hour period during which engineers are encouraged to develop whatever code they want, specifically nothing on which they're currently working. Eventually, this has graduated into a 20% autonomy policy.
  2. Microsoft Encarta versus Wikipedia. Encarta was a multi-year project out of Microsoft, costing them large amounts of money and diligent coordination. Wikipedia promised no money to any contributor nor did it set any schedule for content.
In the case of Atlassian, his claim is that the engineers produce higher quality work faster during autonomous time because they are working for themselves. I agree that this has a lot of merit, but I disagree that this measurement alone can prove his point. In a typical development environment, engineers report to product managers. Product managers set the specifications and timelines. Typically, the communication between the engineer and the product manager is poor and this poor communication leads to bugs, missed deadlines, and subpar products. Much has been written on this subject (see Agile, XP, Scrum, Kanban). While this isn't the only difference between autonomous and required development, it does provide reasonable justification to question the percentage that autonomy plays in the success of Fedex days.

Next, Encarta versus Wikipedia. Again, I agree that there is much more incentive to contribute to wikipedia as an individual versus a requirement to work on Encarta as an employee. However, I attribute to that discrepancy very little influence in the eventual failure of Encarta. Three other factors played a very large role in the outcome of the Encarta / Wikipedia showdown,
  1. It happened right around when the internet was becoming ubiquitous.
  2. Wikipedia is a SaaS model: available anywhere; always up to date; social. Contrast that against Encarta which was available only on your machine, valid only at the time of install, and did not provide a straightforward way to share information with everyone.
  3. Wikipedia is free (See Chris Anderson, Freemium).
Ultimately I'm not opposed to his proposal; I'm just not convinced by his two examples.

My feeling is that material gain must still be taken into account. For example, consider a job that pays $200,000 versus a job paying only $40,000 that promised full autonomy in choosing projects and deadlines: very few engineers will choose the latter. At 200,000 against 160,000, you'd potentially have a strong case.

My conclusion is that autonomy, mastery, and purpose drive higher quality innovation, but that the level at which those drivers operate is variable. Furthermore, this debate needs more unassailable data points.


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