Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Motivation: Carrot and Stick; or Steering Wheel

"Cognitive Surplus: The Great Spare-Time Revolution"
Wired Magazine (May 24, 2010)

"Clay Shirky and Daniel Pink have led eerily parallel lives. Both grew up in Midwest university towns in the 1970s, where they spent their formative years watching television after school and at night. Both later went to Yale (a BA in painting for Shirky, a law degree for Pink). And both eventually abandoned their chosen fields to write about technology, business, and society.

"Now their paths are intersecting. In December, Pink, a Wired contributing editor, came out with Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The book digs through more than five decades of behavioral science to challenge the orthodoxy that carrots and sticks are the most effective ways to motivate workers in the 21st century. Instead, he argues, the most enduring motivations aren't external but internal—things we do for our own satisfaction.

"And in June, Shirky is publishing Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, which mines adjacent territory. He argues that the time Americans once spent watching television has been redirected toward activities that are less about consuming and more about engaging—from Flickr and Facebook to powerful forms of online political action. (For an alternate perspective on the influence of the Internet, see Nicholas Carr's essay) And these efforts aren't fueled by external rewards but by intrinsic motivation—the joy of doing something for its own sake...."

I'd be much more impressed and confident about some of what these two said, if I didn't remember when the miracles of modern technology and all that would result in four-day (or was it three-day?) work weeks - and introduce lack of 'something to do' as a major social problem.

That was before we were all going to die in the food riots and disease and nuclear war and stuff like that.

We didn't get the Jetsons or Mad Max, at least so far. Although it looks like some earnestly sophisticated folks are still holding out hopes for some sort of global catastrophe.

That's another topic. Sort of.

I think Shirky and Pink (what a name for a partnership that'd be!) make sense, though, for the most part. Particularly the contrast of passive television viewing with (potentially) non-passive Internet use. This is another case where 'it's not the sixties anymore.' Can't say that I'm sorry about that.

Whether the Wikipedia model and other DIY communities, where participants take a vote to see what they want to be true, are going to be the 'wave of the future' or not - we'll see. I've noticed that Wikipedia has been offering citations in its articles. And noting when the 'I think Elvis is living in Camelot' articles don't say where they're getting their assertions. Yet another topic.

Another excerpt from that Wired interview:

"...Shirky: We're still in the very early days. So far, it's largely young people who are exploring the alternatives, but already they are having a huge impact. We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, for example, using Wikipedia, to see how far we still have to go. All the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits represent around 100 million hours of human labor. That's a lot of time. But remember: Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year...."

Shirky may be right about "it's largely young people who are exploring the alternatives," although I've run into a number of old coots mature fellows about my age who blog actively. (I was born during the Truman administration.)

And I emphatically agree that information technology has gotten to the point where people can interact with each other, wherever they are on Earth. Providing they understand the same language and have adequate writing skills and an Internet connection, of course.

Shirky and Pink's upbeat view of the Information Age isn't universal, of course. ("Data-Driven Art: For an 'Overwhelmed' 'Hive Mind???' " (January 27, 2010)) But I think we're in for exciting times - which is a sort of good news / bad news thing.

"Motivation" came up in that Wired interview - no surprise, since Daniel Pink has had a few words to say on the subject, in a YouTube video:

"RSA Animate - Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us"

theRSAorg, YouTube (April 1, 2010)
video, 10:48

"This lively RSA Animate, adapted from Dan Pink's talk at the RSA, illustrates the hidden truths behind what really motivates us at home and in the workplace.

There's a transcript of a similar talk by Pink at dotSUB. Since it covers pretty much the same ideas, here are some excerpts from that (other) presentation by Pink.

"...This shows the power of incentives. Here's what he did. He gathered his participants. And he said, "I'm going to time you. How quickly you can solve this problem?" To one group he said, I'm going to time you to establish norms, averages for how long it typically takes someone to solve this sort of problem.

"To the second group he offered rewards. He said, 'If you're in the top 25 percent of the fastest times you get five dollars. If you're the fastest of everyone we're testing here today you get 20 dollars.' Now this is several years ago. Adjusted for inflation. It's a decent sum of money for a few minutes of work. It's a nice motivator.

"Question: How much faster did this group solve the problem? Answer: It took them, on average, three and a half minutes longer. Three and a half minutes longer...."

"...And what's interesting about this experiment is that it's not an aberration. This has been replicated over and over and over again, for nearly 40 years. These contingent motivators, if you do this, then you get that, work in some circumstances. But for a lot of tasks, they actually either don't work or, often, they do harm. This is one of the most robust findings in social science. And also one of the most ignored...."

"...If-then rewards work really well for those sorts of tasks, where there is a simple set of rules and a clear destination to go to. Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus, concentrate the mind. That's why they work in so many cases...."

"... Dan Ariely, one of the great economists of our time, he and three colleagues, did a study of some MIT students. They gave these MIT students a bunch of games. Games that involved creativity, and motor skills, and concentration. And the offered them, for performance, three levels of rewards. Small reward, medium reward, large reward. Okay? If you do really well you get the large reward, on down. What happened? As long as the task involved only mechanical skill bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. Okay? But one the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.

"Then they said, 'Okay let's see if there's any cultural bias here. Lets go to Madurai, India and test this.' Standard of living is lower. In Madurai, a reward that is modest in North American standards, is more meaningful there. Same deal. A bunch of games, three levels of rewards. What happens? People offered the medium level of rewards did no better than people offered the small rewards. But this time, people offered the highest rewards, they did the worst of all. In eight of the nine tasks we examined across three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance...."

"...Atlassian is an Australian software company. And they do something incredibly cool. A few times a year they tell their engineers, 'Go for the next 24 hours and work on anything you want, as long as it's not part of your regular job. Work on anything you want.' So that engineers use this time to come up with a cool patch for code, come up with an elegant hack. Then they present all of the stuff that they've developed to their teammates, to the rest of the company, in this wild and wooly all hands meeting at the end of the day. And then, being Australians, everybody has a beer...."

It sounds crazy, at first: but makes sense. To me, anyway.

For some sorts of jobs, paying the worker more results in higher performance. That's for jobs where the task is something like 'pick up a load of bricks here, take them there, and then come up for another load: continue until the whistle blows.'

Apparently, as soon as you get into jobs that require 'rudimentary cognitive skills,' higher financial rewards result in lower performance. It's not that money isn't important - the bottom line seems to be that once the pay is enough to end the worker's financial worries, more pay degrades performance.

I'm not entirely convinced - but I think Pink is onto something.

Particularly the 'autonomy' thing. Also 'mastery' and 'purpose.' Which means that, once you've got a competent worker - and a job that requires some thinking - it's a good idea to let the worker know what's supposed to be done, when it's supposed to be finished, and then get out of the way.

This is not what control-freak managers want to hear. And part of the explanation for why I like being my own boss: and don't regret not taking a 'success track' in some corporation. That's really another topic.

Go ahead: watch the video. Or, not. But it's a pretty good introduction to an - interesting - idea.

The video's a sort of animated whiteboard presentation: impressive. Not just 'bells and whistles,' either: the drawings and writing add, I think, to the spoken words.

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