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Computing Thoughts
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
by Bruce Eckel
April 2, 2010
"... there's a gap between what science knows and what business does." This is the mantra that Dan Pink repeats throughout his book, describing how we unintentionally demotivate through our mistaken beliefs about how motivation works.


This gap occurs in many other areas as well, but I think Pink is correct in choosing motivation as the most important target for business, school and life in general. Nothing is more fundamental for the success or failure of a company than the motivation of the people working there. It turns out that the "natural" approach of using threats and rewards is actually counterproductive -- it makes people reduce their productivity.

If it was that simple it wouldn't be quite as puzzling. The problem is that threats and rewards do work, but only for repetitive mechanical tasks -- the very kinds of manufacturing jobs that are continuing to leave the country (even though manufacturing itself has steadily increased). But threats and rewards are only effective when what you want is compliance.

It's like Newtonian mechanics, which seems like the only truth there is, as long as you do everything within the Newtonian domain. As soon as you get very small, large, fast, heavy, etc., you realize you've only been working with a subset of the rules. In the same way, as soon as you move away from menial labor where, sure enough, if you offer people more they'll work harder, you discover that the carrot-and-stick approach no longer works. For creative work, it's demeaning; it removes the intrinsic motivation and turns creativity into drudgery. When that happens, people lose their motivation and work less.

The same thing happens in schools. When you offer students extrinsic rewards, they learn to work only for extrinsic rewards, and not to learn. "Teaching to the test" is a short-term political move that has long, deep and very destructive results.

Pink gives us the components necessary for a happy and productive workplace which he defines as "Motivation 3.0." He stops short of defining "Business 3.0" (which is what I would like to do). This is understandable, as he's trying to make an airtight case, to drive an unarguable wedge into the old business practices. Coming up with an untested structure for Business 3.0 would distract from the force of his arguments, so it was the right choice (although he does point out some working companies that embrace his principles).

Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose

The three essentials for motivation when doing non-repetitive work are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy is essential for happiness. You need to feel like you're steering your own boat. This will probably be the hardest one for traditionally-schooled managers to absorb. In its purest form, the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), all the normal control that a manager exerts over an employee is relinquished. Employees come in whenever it works for them, work at home when they can, meetings are optional, and there are no time clocks. The only thing that matters is results. If you're used to top-down control, this will be very hard. And a company that is built around hierarchical command-and-control might not be able to make the change.

Of course, the ROWE approach is extreme, and perhaps more appropriate for a startup than for an existing company. An established organization can still incorporate a more autonomous environment, and new teams can experiment with ROWE as long as their manager can hide this from the company at large.

Mastery, the way Pink has presented it, is a little puzzling for me because he lumps mastery and flow together, which seem to me to be two very different things. Mastery is something that is achieved over years, a little bit at a time. It's often a difficult process with many ups and downs and small insights that can take weeks or months to achieve. Flow is the opposite; it's the daily satisfaction you get from doing something that's not too easy but not too hard. Ideally you get flow every day, and it's what carries you through the difficulties of achieving mastery.

I wonder if Pink didn't lump the two together just so that the resulting formula came out in a nice triad, which is in fact easier to remember.

To achieve flow, you need:

  • Clear goals
  • Immediate feedback
  • A challenge that is not too easy nor too difficult
  • Autonomy
  • Something that engages you
  • Enough structure

Games appear to be targeted towards achieving flow. Note that Test-Driven Development (TDD) might also produce flow.

Purpose. Although autonomy and mastery can keep employees happy in the short and medium term, without the feeling that you are working towards a higher purpose -- something larger than yourself -- eventually you start asking "what's it all for?" and lose motivation. So it's important that there is real underlying meaning to your work.

Motivation 3.0

Although there are relatively few companies so far that have consciously made the move to incorporate Motivation 3.0 practices, Pink describes some of them in the book. Although many business books provide examples of companies that apparently support their conjectures, this one feels different to me, mostly because it focuses on what keeps employees happy and motivated. That just feels right to me, probably because what drove me away from being an employee was watching the life being sucked out of everyone around me (one of these companies went through reorganization fads every six months; I lost track after "business units"). Pink's analysis could be applied to companies themselves: if the company is motivated through extrinsic rewards, it will organize itself around those rewards and nothing else.

Some companies are ahead of the curve. Netflix, for example, pays people well (this removes any concerns about fairness) but they never give bonuses. In contrast, note the practice of excessive CEO bonuses, and the destructive outcomes that this seems to produce.

For me, the best thing about this book is that it reminds me I am not a lone voice crying in the wilderness when it comes to reinventing business. At one point he even says "Management is not the solution. It's the problem." There are lots of people attacking this problem from many different approaches and many books to read; Clay Shirky is an example (Here Comes Everybody is great).

We've been told the wrong story so many times we believe it: "the reason for a company is profit." That's like saying the reason we're alive is to eat. Management theory is convinced that it is a science, therefore any improvements must have happened because of scientific knob-twiddling by management. "Drive" shows that improvements happen despite things that management does, that our desire for fulfillment is so strong that we can achieve things in the face of the roadblocks that management places. Consider a skunkworks project, which must be hidden because normal management would not allow it to happen. Or stories of teams that are great within a failing company; team members stay because they are fulfilled by the team despite the catastrophic actions of the management surrounding the team. (Note that when I say "management" here, I am referring to the myriad management theories based on the belief that management is science, not the people who are in the role of managers.)

The challenge is not to figure out how to make money. A company filled with autonomous, motivated employees will learn how to make money, and will be able to discover and change when old markets disappear and new markets form (much faster than an unmotivated organization). The real challenge, for a company whose prime goal is profit, is how to remain inspired and motivated once the short-term extrinsic thrill of making money has passed.

The first Reinventing Business conference will tentatively be June 22-24 or July 14-16, in Crested Butte, CO. Both dates are open at the conference hall and I need to determine which works best. This will be an open-spaces conference with a similar structure to the Java Posse Roundup, however, attendance will be limited to 25. Check your calendars; I'll be putting the conference page together over the next couple of weeks.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel ( provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2010 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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