Category Archives: Work

Five Stars for Daniel H. Pink’s “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”

Daniel H. Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition) is well worth reading and thinking about. I hope readers — including librarians and teachers — will apply, with gusto, in all school and work environments, the fact “that enjoyment-based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when working on the project, is the strongest and most pervasive” (Kindle Location [hereafter KL] 324-325) motivator of good work performance. The more we all do that, the better work – and life – will be for all of us.

The concepts Pink discusses weren’t a surprise to me, and I’ve long supported his conclusions. I’ve been reading and thinking about human motivation for more years than I want to count – since high school, back in the dark ages when the Skinner Box was all the rage and theoretical battles were still waging hot and heavy between the Freudians and Jungians and between the psychoanalytic theorists and behaviorists. Acceptance of combinations of what Pink calls Motivation 1.0 (the drives to survive – food, shelter, procreation) and Motivation 2.0 (to seek reward and avoid punishment more broadly) was common; Maslow’s ideas about humanistic psychology were not universally accepted.

I remember debating Frederick Herzberg’s ideas about job motivation in both high school and college classes. In college, the Humanities and English profs, especially, came down on Herzberg’s side, citing their own careers as proof that motivation included both Herzberg’s extrinsic rewards (pay, working conditions, job security) and innumerable and to them more important intrinsic rewards. A good number of the psychology and sociology profs agreed, but about as many played semantic games to define all motives as still extrinsic. My own zig-zag through life proves to me how dominantly important intrinsic motivation is.

What did surprise me was Pink’s including Best Buy and Gap, as well as some government agencies, in its list of employers paying attention to the value of intrinsic motivation enough to become ROWE (results only work environment) organizations. It’s a move I did not expect anytime soon from any but tech companies, like WordPress (see my review of The Year Without Pants) and Netflix. As Pink says:

Too many organizations— not just companies, but governments and nonprofits as well —still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm. Worse, these practices have infiltrated our schools, where we ply our future workforce with iPods, cash, and pizza coupons to “incentivize” them to learn. – (KL 187-191).

I also was happy to learn more about the new types of corporations being developed. These include Vermont’s “low-profit limited liability company” or L3C, which does generate at least modest profits has the primary aim of offering significant social benefits.” (KL 339-342); Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus’ “social businesses” which replace the profit-maximization principle with the social-benefit principle;” and The Fourth Sector Network’s is promotion in the United States and Denmark of the for-benefit organization— both economically self-sustaining and animated by a public purpose, such as Mozilla (KL345-349); and the “B Corporation” designation requiring companies’ bylaws so that incentives favor long-term value and social impact instead of short-term economic gain (KL 350-352).

The trick, of course, is translating the general concepts into specific behaviors in our schools and organizations and businesses. We also need to be applying them at home, in the ways we raise children. Meanwhile, I’m feeling a bit smug about knowing I’ve been ahead of my time in at least a few ways that matter.

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The Year Without Pants: What work can be when the motive is meaning, not just profit

Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work (Wiley. Kindle Edition, 2013), is the most readable book about organizational culture that I’ve ever read. Usually these are deadly dreary things, either pedantic and pompous or full of some self-appointed business guru’s shallow ideas – or both. Berkun takes an entirely different tack, chronicling the year he spent working for Automattic, the company which maintains WordPress.com, and describing how and why it succeeds. AND it’s a good read, with lots more in it worth absorbing than I mention here.

Berkun says that the “gift of unusual organizations like Automattic is a reminder to open our minds. The problem with modern work, and one that sheds light on the future, is how loaded workplaces are with cultural baggage. We faithfully follow practices we can’t explain rationally” (pp. 74-75).

The internet makes it possible for Automattic to work the way it does, but only having the right people running things makes it happen. Matt Mullinweg is owner and founder, and Toni Schneider is CEO. Because of them, “the big cultural bet wasn’t on process but on people” (p. 61). Management is seen as a support role, and the organizational structure stays as flat as possible. Schneider’s philosophy is “1. Hire great people. 2. Set good priorities. 3. Remove distractions. 4. Stay out of the way” (p. 77).

Schneider sees product creators as “the true talent of any corporation, especially one claiming to bet on innovation. The other roles don’t create products and should be there to serve those who do.” These support roles include areas like management, legal, human resources, and information technology. “If one group has to be inefficient, it should be the support group, not the creatives. If the supporting roles, including management, dominate, the quality of products can only suffer” (p. 38). So the creators get the equipment and other things they need, even if supporters have to make do with less.

Employees can work or meet at Automattic’s offices when they need/want to, but the office space sees little use. The point is the quality of the work, not where or when it happens. Everyone works remotely, from wherever in the world they happen to be, which might be at home or in a workspace they share with others (who don’t work for Automattic) or anywhere else. If they lease co-working space they get a stipend, “another act of support for employees discovering how best to get work done” (p. 76).

Employees work in teams, and communication is mostly via IRC (internet relay chat), or posts on P2s (a P2 is a special blog theme made for internal Automattic communication), or via Skype – almost never by email. When teams really need to meet, they fly to places like Rome or Hawaii or Paris. Mullinweg encourages meeting in such places; the teams accomplish good work, bond, and emotionally recharge.

Critics of such innovations often dismiss them on the grounds that they would not “scale well.”  Bergun says,

What good is something that scales well if it sucks? Why is size the ultimate goal or even a goal at all? If you’re the kind of person who loves …  the place where you work, you don’t need it to be any bigger than it is. The inability to scale is one of the stupidest arguments against a possibly great idea: greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place. (p. 54).

I’m hoping Automattic doesn’t opt to “go big” because its purpose (and the WordPress copyleft license) is so delightfully radical: “The single-sentence vision for WordPress had always been to democratize publishing, which meant they wanted anyone, anywhere, who had something to say, to always be able to publish it for free” (p. 38). “In January 2011, when the threat of a federal bill referred to as the Stop Online Piracy Act threatened free speech, WordPress.com blanked out its entire front page, participating in protest with dozens of other websites” ( p. 39).

The WordPress philosophy boils down to three elements:

  • Transparency. all discussions, decisions, and internal debates in the WordPress community are public,
  • Meritocracy. Those who put in more time and made better contributions receive respect.
  • Longevity. An OpenSource license means that WordPress, which was “born from a failed project” (Cafelog),  can “live on and be useful in ways the original creator never imagined”  (p. 35)

WordPress’ copyleft license is a GPL, or general public license. Automatic constantly improves WordPress and distributes the improvements at no charge to the entire WordPress community. Users need a server to host their free WordPress blog; they can use any server they want, but WordPress.com  provides free basic server service and derives its income from space upgrades and other extras, such as custom site design, adding a domain, template upgrades, and so on.

Long live WordPress and small companies like Automattic that find ways to make work meaningful while they contribute to the public good.