What open source communities teach us about motivation

Open source defies the laws of economics and our conventional wisdom about motivation. But every company should operate like an open-source organization, according to a captivating and easy-to-follow whiteboard talk from Dan Pink.
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

How is it members of open source organizations do such incredible and thorough work with their software -- for no compensation at all?

Daniel Pink pondered this question, calling in the best of motivational thinking of the era, and comes to this startling conclusion: monetary rewards motivate as they should for low-level mechanical tasks, but have the opposite effect on high-level cognitive tasks.  Something much greater is at work.

"Pay people enough to get the issue of money off the table," Pink says. But the ultimate motivation that accomplishes great things is autonomy, mastery, and purpose, and, unfortunately, "traditional notions of management run afoul of that."

The open-source phenomenon is the best illustration of the drive to mastery and purpose, Pink explains. "You get a bunch of people from around the world, who are doing highly skilled work, but they're willing to do it for free. They volunteer their time, up to 20 hours a week, and then what they create, they give it away rather than sell it."

A captivating and easy-to-follow whiteboard talk, adapted from Dan Pink's talk at the RSA conference, illustrates the hidden truths behind what really motivates us at home and in the workplace. Some folks call this the "coolest presentation ever."

The open-source economic model defies the laws of economics and our conventional wisdom about motivation, would have been laughed at 20 or 30 years ago, but is currently reshaping information technology, Pink says:

"You have Linux, powering more than one out of four corporate servers in Fortune 500 companies. Apache, powering more than the majority of Web servers, Wikipedia. Wht are people dong this? Why are these people, many of whom are technically sophisticated. They have jobs, they're working at their jobs for pay. They're doing challenging and sophisticated work. And yet, during their limited discretionary time, they do equally but more purpose-driven work -- not for their employer, but for someone else for free. That's a strange economic behavior."

The motivation is challenge and mastery, Pink says:

"Along with making a contribution, there's the purpose motive. More and more organizations want to have some of transcendent purpose. Partly because that's the way to work better, partly because that's the way to get better talent."

And sticking to the old carrot-and-stick model of motivation is a failure in today's marketplace, he says:

"When the profit motive gets unmoored from the purpose motive, bad things happen... bad things ethically sometimes.  It results in crappy products, lame services, and just uninspired places to work. When the profit motive becomes unhitched from the purpose motive, people just don't do great things."

The organizations that are flourishing are animated by the purpose motive," Pink points out. That makes people enjoy going to work every day. For examples, look at Skype, "which has the goal is to be disruptive but for the cause of making the world a better place," and Apple, where Steve Jobs vowed to "put a 'ding' in the universe."

"If we start treating people like people, and not assuming they're simply horses -- slower, smaller better-smelling horses," Pink says. "If we get past this ideology of carrot and sticks, we have the promise to make our world just a little bit better."

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards