There are some books you read and you simply absorb and move on about your business. These books either impact you profoundly at a subconscious level, and you don’t realize the impact until much much later; or, they don’t impact you at all. There are other books that seem to reframe your view right away and the more you converse, you find the language of the text seeping into your conversations and thusly reinforce what you’ve learned every time you employ the wisdom transfered through your readership.
Dan Pink has written three books in a row that have had impact on my perspective. Any regular follower of the blog knows how much I’ve been influenced by “A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” or “The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.” Those texts highlighted to me where I needed to go next given the headspace I was in when I read them. If there’s any big “a-ha” to me from Pink’s new book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us,” it’s that he’s writing about where I am now. If Dan Pink is ahead of the future curve, letting people know behind him what’s coming up ahead, maybe this means I’m catching up. For me, that’s affirming and a little scary at the same time.
If you could even boil down the theme of the book to one central idea, it’s that of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations. He frames this early on in the book in a number of ways. First, by talking about the failures of Arthur Anderson, Enron, Wall Street and our financial institutions, he dispels the notions that focusing on the mushy stuff doesn’t affect the bottom line. Clearly, by losing focus on things like greater purpose, ethics, the people we affect, the change we want to see in the world — losing that kind of focus and, instead, hyper-focusing on performance results (extrinsic motivators) affects material gains, at least in the short-term, but at the expense of losing those material games and wreaking unspeakable havoc on the lives of people far beyond the scope of your perceived impact. Pink highlights a number of changes I didn’t know about that are starting to happen — for instance, in April 2008, Vermont became the first US state to allow a new type of business called an L3C (low-profit limited liability corporation). It operates like a for-profit business but it’s primary aim is to offer significant social benefits. — an interesting alternative to a 503c corporation.
Second, Pink frames the praise of intrinsic motivation by highlighting, with multiple examples, that this isn’t new, it’s well researched and the evidence holds true in the face of how we think about rewards. He links the notion of how work can translate to play (or vice-versa) to the example of Tom Sawyer getting his friends to pay to paint his fence. This “Sawyer Effect” was researched by behavioral scientists like Harlow (1940s), Maslow (1950s) and Deci (1960s), Lepper and Greene (1970s). There’s now seven decades of research on how people are actually motivated, and while you might not have heard of these names, if you’re in learning you’ve no doubt heard of Abraham Maslow (also from University of Wiscons – Go Badgers!). The theme of “the hidden costs of rewards” is recalled with several examples.
To be clear, Pink doesn’t admonish rewards or money or anything like that. He’s making the case, very convincingly, that there’s something else, bigger than the material, that we need to focus on — that once we’ve met some very basic survival needs, we’re ultimately leading unsatisfying lives unless we’re working for something bigger than what’s immediately in front of us. By tapping into that greater good, we unlock a lot more contribution, engagement and ultimately rewards of a virtuous cycle. One method that’s needed to do this, Pink cites fairly early on, is identifying heuristics vs. algorithms. He writes,
“An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion. That is, there’s an algorithm for solving it. A heuristic task is the opposite. Precisely because no algorithm exists for it, you have to experiment with possibilities and devise a novel solution.”
I just had a conversation related to this last night. My friend and I discussed workplace cultures where there are all these meetings, all the time, that everyone must participate in. I mentioned to him that I out-of-hand decline any meeting request that doesn’t include an agenda, or at least a goal about what we’re supposed to accomplish in the meeting. That clears out about 80% of my meeting invites (this is a page out of Lencioni and even Six Sigma). For the meeting invites that are left, I’ll typically respond if it’s vague or I don’t immediately realize why I specifically need to be there — and I’ll respond by what they’re hoping I can add to the conversation. If it’s a quick answer, I give it to them. If it’s not, I know it’s a meeting I need to attend because there’s probably additional context required.
That’s my algorithm for reducing the amount of meetings I need to attend, and that affords me the kind of time needed to accomplish many of the novel things I do, like maintain relationships with really really smart people in the field so that when I have a question, I can get good answers. How do I maintain those relationships? By helping others. There’s no algorithm for how that all gets done — those are heuristics.
I don’t want to give too much more away on the book. It’s a fast read. It’s an easy read. It’s an important read and it will open you up to some very interesting research and science behind motivation. This impacts you; this impacts how you impact the people you work with and work for.
I’m looking forward to seeing Dan Pink tomorrow when he comes to Chicago at the Union Club. Admission is $35, which probably means it won’t be as cool as it was when I had coffee and interviewed him back in 2007, but it’s worth it because, quite frankly, he’s just that good.