Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Motivation in the Rhizome

In a wonderful TED talk, Daniel Pink explains how we must rethink motivation in the 21st Century, if we are to move from motivating people to do routine, mechanical, factory-type work—or what I associate with work within hierarchical structures—to motivating people to do open-ended, creative work—work within rhizomatic structures. First the video:

Pink makes a case for changing the way we handle motivation in modern businesses by showing that the traditional ideas about rewarding positive behavior and punishing negative behavior do not work so well in the new forms of 21st Century businesses. He says that research into motivation has demonstrated that extrinsic incentives (money, grades, etc.) either have no effect or a negative effect on the performance of people engaged in complex, open-ended tasks that require strong problem-solving skills and creativity, while extrinsic incentives still have a positive effect on the performance of those engaged in rote, routine tasks with clear objectives and explicit performance routines. Extrinsic incentives narrow our focus, and thus, work very well with mechanistic, narrow tasks; however, they actually interfere with those tasks that require a broad point of view. A study of motivation by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston  reports that in their study as long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance, but once a task called for "even rudimentary cognitive skill," a larger reward "led to poorer performance." The London School of Economics reports: "We find that financial incentives … can result in a negative impact on overall performance."

However, Pink claims, most businesses still primarily use extrinsic incentives to motivate their people; thus, there is a mismatch between what science knows to be true and what business actually does. If we want to work our way out of the current economic mess, says Pink, then we must use intrinsic incentives for most of our workers, and he mentions three:

  1. autonomy - the urge to direct our own lives, 
  2. mastery - the desire to get better at something that matters, and
  3. purpose - the yearning to serve something larger than ourselves.

Traditional management is great for enforcing compliance, but self-direction, or autonomy, is better for promoting engagement. Tech companies such as Atlassian and Google give their employees free time (autonomy) to engage in personal projects at the company expense. These companies find that many of their most productive, innovative new ideas come from this free time. Pink then describes ROWE (Results Only Work Environments) where employees have no schedule or imposed routine—how they do their work is totally up to them. In the case of two online encyclopedia, Microsoft's Encarta and Wikipedia, Microsoft provided all the correct extrinsic, old-style, hierarchical incentives, while Wikipedia provided intrinsic, new-style, rhizomatic incentives. Wikipedia wins.

I think we can easily apply this thinking to education, where we are accustomed to motivating students with carrots and sticks, rewards and punishments, with grades and detention. Old style rewards and punishments work well in classes where the outcomes and the methods for reaching those outcomes are fixed and explicit. If, however, we want to encourage creativity and a sense of exploration and amazement in our students, then traditional rewards and punishments do not work. They actually hinder.

What works? According to Pink, autonomy is a fine place to start. If we want to encourage creativity and problem-solving in our students, then we must give them more ability to self-organize. Autonomy, however, frightens most schools, even colleges. Teachers are way too afraid of it. After all, they might lose the little bit of authority that they have. However, this is the situation of the rhizome. Connectivity—the principle that every point can and must connect to every other point—overturns the hierarchy and its command-and-control structures. Rhizomes are self-organizing, even under extreme duress of the most fascist states.

Then mastery is a fine way to continue. I truly believe that the desire to be really good at something that is important to you is a core desire in humans. I'm amazed that we've been able to create a system of education that destroys that desire in so many.

Finally, purpose is a fine way to wind it all up. Again, I believe that most of us want to be of use in something that is larger than ourselves, and if these are the things that we really want from our students—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—then we need to reconsider the structures through which we try to inculcate those values. Command-and-control, hierarchical structures just won't do the job.


  1. As a big believer in rewards, I am surprised to say the least. But after giving it a little more thought, it makes perfect sense. The higher the reward, the more we want it and the less attention we give to the task. Interesting. I really like the idea of being able to set up my own schedule, as long as the work gets done. The is one of the reason many nurses enjoy working in the Home Health field, especially working mums. They are usually given patient who don't require critical care and so can usually go anytime they want during the day. It makes their lives so much easier thus they are happy nurses and that reflects on the patients too!

  2. Ownership of ourselves is an exceedingly high reward, one that most of humanity has not yet achieved. We are too often managed by some extrinsic power from a boss, a teacher, a spouse, etc, who feels entitled to make demands on our time, our space, and ourselve – too often without our consent.

    Finding your rewards within yourself is a very difficult trick, but one worth learning, I think.