TED Talk 4 for Nov7: The puzzle of motivation by Daniel H Pink

I did not post anything new on 4,5and 6. Apologies.

Today, I saw the TED talk of Dan Pink on Motivation.

About Mr. Pink

Daniel H. Pink is an American author who has written five books about business, work and management. He worked as an aide to Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and from 1995 to 1997 he was chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore.As of 2012 Pink’s 2009 talk on “the surprising science of motivation” was one of the 10 most-watched TED Talks. In 2011, Thinkers50 named Pink as one of the 50 most-influential management thinkers in the world.


Mr. Pink starts off with a humourous streak in his delivery which he maintains throughout the talk. He stresses why the traditional approach of  carrot and stick is not scientific citing the remarkably simple yet thought-provoking  candle experiment.

Candle Problem (left) and Its Solution (right)

Mr. Pink explained how when the Candle Problem was given to two groups, with one group being given an incentive of 20$ for the fastest solution, and the second group begin given enough time to complete in their own pace, contrary to popular notions, the incetivised group took on an average 3.5 minutes longer than the leisure group. He  goes on to say how this particular experiment was not an aberration and was replicated many times for over 40 years. He says

This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored. If you look at the science, there is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.


Candle Problem for Dummies

The carrot and stick theory worked when the task given was relatively simpler, what Pink labels as Candle Problem for Dummies. He rightly points out that such dummy works are outsourced to countries (like India) while the original candle problem that requires some creativity is being performed on a daily basis in North America, Western Europe and parts of Asia. The C&S works only when job is simple and focussed having no need for applying thought into the problem at hand.

If-then rewards work really well 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. And so, for tasks like this, a narrow focus, where you just see the goal right there, zoom straight ahead to it, they work really well. But for the real candle problem, you don’t want to be looking like this. The solution is not over here. The solution is on the periphery. You want to be looking around. That reward actually narrows our focus and restricts our possibility.

He goes on to explain another experiment conducted in MIT and later in namma Madurai!

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.

As long as the task involved only mechanical skill bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance. But one the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.

Then the same team went to Madurai, India where standard of living is lower and  a reward that is modest in North American standards is more meaningful. The experiment was repeated.

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.

Pink repeats that what business does is not aligned with what science tells. In this time of economic uncertainty, what we need is not more of such wrong approaches but correct approaches so that high performance can be delivered by creative minds. He explains what the good approach which revolves around the desire to do something because that something mattes to us, that something is interesting, and important to us.

And to my mind, that new operating system for our businesses revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

He rightly points out how the  concept of Management is something that we invented like, say, Television and not a tree which is natural.

Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better.

He gives some striking examples of self-direction.

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. That one day of intense autonomy has produced a whole array of software fixes that might never have existed.

The 20  Percent Time done, famously, at Googleis another example. Engineers can work, spend 20 percent of their time working on anything they want. They have autonomy over their time, their task, their team, their technique. Radical amounts of autonomy. And at Google, as many of you know, about half of the new products in a typical year are birthed during that 20 Percent Time: things like Gmail, Orkut, Google News.

Another example is  something called the Results Only Work Environment, the ROWE, created by two American consultants, in place at about a dozen companies around North America. In a ROWE people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time,  or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them. Meetings in these kinds of environments are optional. What happens? Almost across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.

He destroys the notion that this is a Utopian concept by cleverly comparing Microsoft’s well edited, well-budgeted product Encarta Encyclopaedia and Wikipedia where people add details for fun, no one gets paid, and people do it because they like to do it.

He very succinctly concludes his points.

There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. And here is what science knows. One: Those 20th century rewards, those motivators we think are a natural part of business, do work, but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances. Two: Those if-then rewards often destroy creativity. Three: The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive — the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things cause they matter. And here’s the best part. Here’s the best part. We already know this. The science confirms what we know in our hearts. So, if we repair this mismatch between what science knows and what business does, if we bring our motivation, notions of motivation into the 21st century, if we get past this lazy, dangerous, ideology of carrots and sticks, we can strengthen our businesses, we can solve a lot of those candle problems, and maybe, maybe, maybe we can change the world.


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