Friday, October 29, 2010

Can we be even more human?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, motivation

I once worked for a wholly-owned subsidiary of the corporation. While I was in the process of transferring to a new job in the "mother corporation", the subsidiary got a new president. Early on he gave a speech with the title "A Passion for Profits." I went right to my desk and wrote him an e-mail recounting my career and its basis in a passion for excellence (also the title of a great book by Tom Peters, which I read several years after applying the term to my own attitude toward work). I explained that producing excellence reliably had always been followed by substantial profit and profits.

I also noted that "passion for profits" is a synonym of "love of money", which, a Bible verse tells us, is "a root of all kinds of evil." I'd been told he is an active Bible student. His reply was so self-serving and disingenuous that I did not continue the contact. I was SO glad to be leaving that subsidiary.

The fact is, in pursuit of excellence, it was great to be a software developer for the 1960s-1990s. A computer application either delivers or it doesn't. People will love it or hate it. I learned early on to train one or two high-energy customers, then recruit them to write the "help" text. Then the help was much more helpful. As a developer, I knew too much about the ins and outs of a program, and I could not write "help" that would be very useful to someone who was new to it.

Based on a lifetime of such experiences, I was interested to take the little assessment at Dan Pink's 'Drive' site, to see where I fit on the Type X versus Type I scale. To my surprise, the summary stated, "…we assess your behavior as mostly type X." I was as honest as I could be with the assessment questions, and being brutally honest about it, I realize that, while I require a lot of freedom in my own workplace, I am less willing to afford those benefits to others. It's a good thing I am not a boss! I have joked this way in the past, "If I lead a horse to water, and it won't drink, my impulse is to drown the horse." Sadly, it is more true than I'd wish.

I am thus very glad to have read Daniel H. Pink's new book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. It is definitely raising my consciousness. It helped me understand just how good some of my own bosses have been. If they were not expressing Type I behavior, I'd be in real trouble!

So what are Type I and Type X? As the author explains, we have three levels of motivation: Survival, Production, and Fulfillment. He calls the first Motivation 1.0, using the analogy of an operating system. It is how the human race operated for its first million years, and how animals operate. In the recent past, civilization arose, and with it the division of labor became more formalized. Motivation 2.0 emphasizes efficiency of Production, and efficiency experts such as Frederick W. Taylor built an industrial machine with humans as cogs needing to be coerced (rewarded and/or punished) into producing goods and services.

Motivation 3.0 is our third drive. We exercise it when pursuing a sport or hobby that we enjoy. The key word here is "enjoy". The only way Motivation 3.0, or Fulfillment (my word, not his), can work is if three elements come together: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. An internally motivated person is typically more productive than an externally motivated person, yet the productivity is a side product of the joy of the work itself. Type X, then, refers to eXternal motivation (2.0), while Type I refers to Internal, or Intrinsic, motivation (3.0). The latter outperforms the former, hands down.

Case in point. Before I left that subsidiary, I worked several years in a "skunk works" that developed a workstation for geo-scientists to use. We numbered twenty, including our supervisor, who also loved to write computer software. We were all "superprogrammers". The term was coined by Caper Jones in 1977 to describe computer programmers who were ten to 100 times as productive as their fellows. A good journeyman programmer could produce 2-3 debugged, tested, "correct" lines of "high level" (Fortran or COBOL) computer code daily. Superprogrammers breezed along producing up to 200 lines daily—tested, debugged, and correct. My typical production rate in the 1980s-90s was 100 lines daily of Fortran code. As a result, our small shop outproduced software corporations that employed 100-200 (or more) programmers to develop commercial workstations that we were competing with. And we loved the work. Our proverb was, "A vacation is when you work only eight hours a day."

In such a work environment, we had lots of autonomy. "Flex time" was "start any time before 7:30, go home any time after 4:30". While nobody had a cot in their office, the idea did get raised, and not by any bosses, either. But a fellow has to eat and see the family once in a while… As the prior paragraph demonstrates, we also experienced mastery. And as for purpose, nothing could be simpler. We wanted to produce the best workstation system to help our customers find more oil than anybody else in the business. We wanted to beat the pants off our competitors, which included Microsoft. We did so, year after year.

All good things must end. Mr. "Passion for Profits" was deeply distrustful of people who are internally motivated, was blind to the evidence of superior productivity, and had the group broken up. The company uses a commercial product now. I escaped intact. I am 1,500 miles away, and have worked my way into a near-skunk works situation. I hope it can last another couple of years until I am ready to retire. People love my work, and I love doing it. The "managers" keep their hands off as much as possible. So far, no blindness.

I wonder how I would fare at Atlassian, a company touted in Drive as one of the most Type I companies, if not the most. One thing they practice is "FedEx Days", a day in which individuals and groups can work on anything they like, so long as they have something to report to everyone else the following day. The results are so outstanding, sometimes it seems that those quarterly events yield half the company's products. We use an Atlassian product, Confluence, at work.

The book doesn't just explain Motivation 3.0 and the research behind it. It contains a substantial section of tools and suggestions for persons and organizations. Type I behavior, particularly for control freaks like me, cuts both ways. It is, for me, a new level of the Golden Rule, learning to offer the same autonomy to others I demand for myself. The author conveniently provides several condensed versions of his theme, including a Twitter tweet: "Carrots & sticks are so last century. Drive says for 21st century work, we need to upgrade to autonomy, mastery & purpose."

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