Feb 22, 2013

How a Group of Volunteers Beat Microsoft

In the early 1990s Microsoft had a great idea: create a digital encyclopedia to be distributed on CD-ROM and online. There would be hundreds of well-paid employees working on this important project. It looked and sounded like a great idea at a time when people still connected to the internet via dial-up modems and the thought of having the information of twenty of more heavy books (think Encyclopaedia Britannica) on one CD was truly revolutionary. But less than twenty years later, in October of 2009, Microsoft pulled the plug on MSN Encarta. What had happened?

According to Daniel H. Pink, the author of Drive. The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us it was a failure of what he calls the operating system Motivation 2.0. The first version (Motivation 1.0) is  all about the very basic goal of staying alive by finding food and procreating to ensure that there will be a next generation of humans on earth. Version 2.0 is a bit more complex than that:
"The Motivation 2.0 operating system has endured for a very long time. Indeed, it is so deeply embedded in our lives that most of us scarcely recognise that it exists. For as long as any of us can remember, we've configured our organisations and constructed our lives around its bedrock assumption: The way to improve performance, increase productivity, and encourage excellence is to reward the good and punish the bad." (p. 19)
In other words, with carrots and sticks, meaning we're no more complicated than a mule drawing a cart. If you want me to do something, offer me a "carrot". If you'd like me to refrain from doing something or want me to stop what I'm doing, threaten me with a "stick". A simple concept that makes sense -- at least most of the time:
Carrots and Sticks
"Motivation 2.0 still serves some purposes well. It's just deeply unreliable. Sometimes it works; many times it doesn't. And understanding it's defects will help determine which parts to keep and which to discard as we fashion an upgrade." (p. 21)
But why does Pink contend that this operating system is deeply unreliable? Because it assumes that humans are purely rational beings...
"In real life our behavior is far more complex than the textbook allows and often confounds the idea that we're purely rational. We don't save enough for retirement even though it's to our clear economic advantage to do so. We hang on to bad investments longer than we should, because we feel far sharper pain from losing money than we do from gaining the exact same amount." (p. 27)
So it turns out that these extrinsic motivators (usually money, but it can really be anything that will supposedly bring you happiness) don't always work and in some cases may actually backfire. But as Mr. Pink explains, it usually depends on the kind of task you're asked to do:
Begin with complexity. Behavioral scientists often divide what we do on the job or learn in school into two categories: "algorithmic" and "heuristic." 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. Working as a grocery checkout clerk is mostly algorithmic. You do pretty much the same thing over and over in a certain way. Creating an ad campaign is mostly heuristic. You have to come up with something new." (p. 29)
It's not too hard to figure out what this means. We need a new operating system. Motivation 3.0 if you will. Or maybe we already have it and are subconsciously using it every day. But how does it work? And will understanding it help us to motivate others around us (employees, students, etc.)? Let's hope Daniel Pink can answer these questions in the rest of his book. For now, we'll have to do with this conclusion:
"The implications for motivation are vast. Researchers such as Harvard Business School's Teresa Amabile have found that external rewards and punishments -- both carrots and sticks -- can work nicely for algorithmic tasks. But they can be devastating for heuristic ones." (p. 30)
So what went wrong with MSN Encarta? Probably not a lot. I'm sure it was a great project. But for some reason a group of volunteers decided they didn't need to get paid to do the exact same job. They didn't need extrinsic motivators, they just enjoyed what they were doing. The result? Wikipedia. And the world has never been the same since...

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