Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Intrinsic Motivation

When we want people to do something for us, we often use extrinsic motivators. We offer rewards or punishment, carrot or stick. Sometimes we use coercion. The trouble with extrinsic motivation is that it leads to poorer results. If you're doing something out of duty, guilt, to avoid penalty or to seek reward then you're not doing it because you actually want to.

The alternative is intrinsic motivation and it's incredibly powerful. I recently joined a debate on whether the recent rise in VAT was justified. Not normally something I would have been interested in, but because the posts had started discussing libertarian philosophy I got involved. Pretty soon I was arguing against the existence of a social contract, reading up on 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes and researching German politics around the time of World War 1 (The Act of Enablement which validated to Hitler's dictatorship would be legitimised by the existence of a social contract). What? History? Normally I can't stand the stuff. Yet because the motivation was intrinsic (it came from within), I couldn't get enough.

So one of the ingredients for intrinsic motivation is purpose (In the above example p'owning the guy who thinks because I was born I consent to be governed). Another is autonomy - the minute you start telling people how to do things to a degree beneath their perceived level of expertise, motivation will suffer. The final ingredient is mastery. People do things because they like getting better at them. I stopped enjoying playing the piano when I stopped improving. My friend Ron Ballard stopped playing the saxophone for the same reason.

The best way I've found to achieve this in business is to hire people who enjoy what they do (they'll be doing it outside work too), then let them run. You still need to pay them however!

For further reading see here and here.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

A Beautiful Mind

Knowingly having a closed mind would be pretty stupid, so I'm willing to bet most people like to think their minds are open. But what about you? Is your mind really as open as you'd like to believe?

A friend introduced me to Libertarianism at the start of last year. Libertarianism is a political philosophy derived from a simple and comparatively consistent set of ethics, which are in turn derived from natural law. Natural laws must be true at all times and in all places, so for example it is a natural law that human beings are fallible. It is another natural law that human beings strive to fulfill their needs, which I will simplify to "the pursuit of happiness". Therefore a Libertarian ethic is that man has the right to pursue happiness, although he cannot legitimately do so if his actions violate the rights of another. He does not however actually have a right to happiness. Fundamental principles in Libertarian philosophy include that of private property and non-aggression, both of which are violated by the state, and therefore Libertarians believe in the abolition (or drastic minimisation) of the state.

Wow! Abolition of the state - that would never work... or would it? Now the point of this post isn't to advocate Libertarianism, but it is interesting to describe what happens when you attempt to explain Libertarian Philosophy to the uninitiated (as I have failed to do on numerous occasions). To start with things go well. People like the concept of natural laws and generally accept the private property and non-aggression principles. This is unsurprising since natural laws are a seemingly harmless enough concept not to threaten our world view, and the private property / non-aggression principles are already incumbent within capitalist societies. However the minute you argue that these principles are inconsistent with the behaviour of the state, your subject will aggressively spring to the state's defense. It no longer matters that they may have bemoaned the government for incompetence and inefficiency, the once potential convert will predict chaos, drawing unfounded conclusions, highlighting edge cases while ignoring the gross imperfections inherent in the current statist system. I have yet to find anyone who can form a rational counter argument and yet no one has conceded that Libertarianism has merit - it is simply too different from what most people are comfortable with.

This reaction is described in Plato's Cave and reminds me of when I first encountered eXtreme Programming. I had long been schooled in Waterfall, and despite projects frequently being delivered late and falling far short of their promises, I believed that if only the business analysts would do their job, and the developers would implement the design (when I was an architect) or the architects would design something sensible (when I was a developer), then the software would be of high quality, do what was required and be delivered on time. The consultancy I worked for was small and so survived because they outshone the blue chips. This meant we delivered our parts of the projects on time and within throwing distance of what was required, but typically at the cost of quality - and yet I still believed if people did their jobs (and the customer stopped changing their mind), we would get the magic trifector. It never crossed my mind that Waterfall may be at odds with our natural selves. That human beings are terrible at prediction, estimation and producing riveting, unambiguous technical documentation.

I had heard about XP, but never took the time to understand it properly. When I was first thrown into an Agile project I rejected the methodology on the basis that without a signed off requirements specification there would be no agreement on what was originally requested. I refused to believe that TDD could be used to drive out design, or that architecture could emerge. It didn't matter that my world view had failed to deliver anything more than a polished turd (you have to freeze it first), Agile was for cowboys, crackpots and theorists with no place in the real world. Chaos would ensue.

Thankfully the coach, Paul Beckford had both thick skin and incredible patience. Eventually I began to see what I have previously overlooked. That XP was a highly disciplined development methodology, which cut out the middle man and replaced contracts with early feedback and trust. I remember when I first started realising I had been wrong. I felt small, almost humiliated - certainly vulnerable. The foundation (or pedestal) upon which I had erected my ego was beginning to crack. At the time the sensation was unpleasant, but now I look forward to this feeling because as with Agile and XP it means I am progressing, that I am changing the way I think, that I am hopefully replacing my old broken paradigm for one that is better (although probably still broken). It's not something to be afraid of, it's something to actively seek out and celebrate.

Do you recognise and welcome this feeling? Have you felt it recently? Is your mind really as open as you'd like to believe?