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The 3 Things That Motivate Us

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How do I motivate my developers? - is a question you hear all the time from managers who haven't been paying attention to the patterns found in many software development shops.  Dan Pink has looked at much of the scientific research behind human motivations.  What he found was that most of our work motivation boils down to three factors - and money has nothing to do with it.

This paradigm shift in workplace sociology began with an MIT study showing that cognitive tasks were actually negatively impacted when given an increasing monetary reward.  A study in Madurai, India was done with much larger rewards, but it had the same result.  Subjects were given three levels of monetary awards in each study and the ones who were offered the highest incentives performed the worst.  Monetary motivation worked for purely mechanical tasks, but not for cognitive ones (even rudimentary cognitive tasks).  This result has been replicated again and again in other scientific fields.  Not to say money isn't a factor, it's just not a big factor once people make enough so that they don't worry about it (which is relative to certain situations, of course).  If they don't have to think about the money, their focus is on the work.  So how do you motivate them?

Numerous studies indicate that three main factors lead to better performance (and personal satisfaction):

  • Autonomy -  For workers to engage and not just comply, they need some freedom and self direction.
  • Mastery - Getting better at something gives people a sense of accomplishment and sometimes, the satisfaction of being a leader in their field.
  • Purpose - People are fueled by passion, so they need to believe that what they're doing has some sort of transcendent purpose.  This is how Steve Jobs convinced a Pepsi Co. executive to work for Apple - because Jobs said they were going to 'change the world'.

Autonomy Case and Point

Atlassian's solution for giving more autonomy to its developers involves taking one day (a Thursday) every quarter and letting the developers work on whatever they want with whomever they want.  All they have to do is show their results after 24 hours during a party with snacks and beer on Friday.  The 'free day' ends up producing a whole bunch of software fixes and new product ideas in an unusual spurt of productivity.  The key sometimes is to just get out of people's way and let them make something innovative.

Quick note on Purpose: Crappy products can result when profit is the only motive, with no transcendent purpose.

Workers in the Development/IT industry (more than most other industries) have come to understand these motivations and make policy changes that acknowledge this research.  The success of open source software is probably one of the best examples of how autonomy, mastery, and purpose motivate more than money.  

Let's try and apply this research to a real world case found on Stack Overflow (asked about two weeks ago).  The research isn't useful unless we can apply it to practical situations, right?  So the question is about how to motivate a team of developers, trained in some of the latest technologies, that now have to work on pretty old legacy code (the kind that probably doesn't pad your resume).  How do you motivate them to work on this code?

Well, a big problem is that they probably won't fulfill their need for mastery, or at least not in something they want to master.  One effective solution would be to start an initiative to build a new platform with modern technologies, resulting in better performance.  This would satisfy the need for some workers' purpose and mastery too, if they learn while doing it.

If a new platform is not an option, which is commonly the case in large, convoluted enterprises, then the team needs to find other ways to make the work meaningful.  Giving the team members a chance to suggest long term maintenance solutions and allowing them to act on those possibilities autonomously could make the work more meaningful (purposeful).  Although purpose, mastery, and autonomy are not the ultimate answers to every motivational problem, you can see how they could be used to brainstorm ideas for motivating people.

P.S.  You'll notice that one SO answer with zero votes suggests "extra cash". :)


Walter Bogaardt replied on Wed, 2010/06/16 - 12:05am

Remember if we take Maslow's law of needs that Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose are at the upper end of motivation. This said in an economy where it is not being met would software development exist even to debate this point? IE we probably don't see as much Open source contributors from Uganda, Nigeria, or Columbia.

We do have to look at a different perspective. What drives people towards software development in the first place. Obviously they have attained the lower level of statisfaction. Software development is no more interesting, than medical science, astronomy, or even palentology. Yet people are driven to these other fields. 

Jeroen Wenting replied on Wed, 2010/06/16 - 1:28am

What drives people is recognition.
And that's often sorely lacking in an industry where people are often considered little more than machines. Interchangable, breathing, machines. This has come to the point where humans are described as "units of labour" in planning documents. When something goes wrong, everyone is quick to lay blame with those units of labour. Yet when things go well, there's no praise (after all, who praises the CNC machine in a workshop for doing its job?).
This is highly demotivational. People start to think "why bother, nothing I do is good enough anyway" and put in as little effort as needed to get the job done, there's no incentive to excell, to go the extra mile to deliver a product that's not just conforming to spec (if that) but is actually a great product.
Being constantly overruled by some "architect" in his ivory tower who dictates every single detail of a project has the same effect, especially as that "architect" will take the praise of a successful delivery when the people in the trenches get the blame for any failure even if they warned that such failure was inevitable because of flaws in the "architect"s design (I've seen this happen more than a few times).
Sure, a decent salary and compensation helps. Nice gadgets are nice (but most of us with a decent salary buy those ourselves anyway). A company car is a great asset to have if you get one (common here, if your job requires any time at customer sites). But if there's no job satisfaction, all that pales in comparison with the foul taste you get when yet another failed project is blamed on you despite you warning for months that it was going to fail, or when yet again someone whose sole contribution to the product was negotiating the price with the customer gets all the praise for it and you get nothing.
There's now (from what people tell me) a net outflux of workers in IT, despite a slowly increasing demand for people. That's because older (thus more experienced) people are quitting because of what I mentioned while younger people are not entering the market because they were put off by the dismal prospect for jobs a few years ago to start learning the skills needed at universities and colleges.

Hauke Ingmar Schmidt replied on Wed, 2010/06/16 - 3:21am

Read (Bruce Eckel) for the original article.

Mitch Pronschinske replied on Wed, 2010/06/16 - 7:06am in response to: Hauke Ingmar Schmidt

Thanks Hauke.  This could be a good supplement to the Dan Pink video and my original article here.

Dave Newton replied on Wed, 2010/06/16 - 8:49am in response to: Jeroen Wenting

What drives people is recognition.
That might drive *some* people, but IMO the best people are driven by internal factors, not something like "recognition" that they have no control over.

Jeroen Wenting replied on Thu, 2010/06/17 - 2:28am in response to: Dave Newton

maybe I should have said appreciation instead of recognition. And it is an internal factor, it's what makes you feel good. If you go home each day after being chewed out again by some manager or marketing guy about something you know you had nothing to do with, or worse you warned that same person about earlier yet they told you to do anyway, that's not a nice feeling. You start to think "why bother", and people end up leaving the industry over it after seeing it time and again in many places of employment and hearing from colleagues it happens to them all the time too.
Having a feeling of accomplishment over having created something nice only to be stamped on for it having taken 5 days longer than the 20 day deadline, when you had yourself told them before that it'd take at least 30 days or having had the scope increased to where you had to warn them the 20 day deadline was impossible is not something most people take satisfaction from, believe it or not. Yet that is the reality for most people in the IT industry (and in any size company, if my experience over the past 15 years or so is anything to go by).
The high turnover in most companies at all levels that we see in the IT industry is no accident. It's not caused (mostly) by people seeking higher salary only (if that were the case we'd see the same in all sectors, yet in most industries staff are far more likely to remain in the same company for decades than they are in IT) but by people dissatisfied by the work environment and seeking something better, yet being put off by whatever they find time and time again until they quit the industry for something else (or try to start their own company and eventually either fail or treat their employees the same way).

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