28 December 2013

How We Squelch Individuality and Progress - or Why Intrinsic Motivation Matters

Nobody ever asks "Why would you want to travel?" or "Why would you want to walk along the beach to watch a beautiful sunset?" or "Why would you want to make love to that beautiful woman?" or "Why would you want to eat that delicious meal?" Some things - the best things - we do for their own reason. We're human and because of that there are certain things that we simply enjoy doing for their own sake.

As it turns out, work and learning are included among those things we're intrinsically motivated to do. Yet the way that we manage schools and work places suggest that we don't believe this, suggest that we don't believe that people would ever learn or work for no other reason than to simply experience doing it. The aha moment from learning or the gratification from a job well done can be at least as satisfying as a good meal or a stroll through the woods.

Last night we had dinner with old friends. Peter has a successful, small business. Of course everyone gets that, understands business success that lets a couple plan three big trips (Australia, Ireland, and Iceland) for 2014. We all applaud that. But while people understand Peter's success, they are clueless about how he became successful. Other people thought of him as inventor working on products they didn't understand (and of course, were dubious about) but he thought of himself as an entrepreneur. " His obsession with tinkering and creating just looked eccentric and inexplicable. And of course that is one of the problems with understanding intrinsic motivation: while we all love food and affection, most of us are intrinsically motivated to do at least one or two things that are simply inexplicable to anyone else. And that is Peter with his inventions. (And just to put things in perspective; the man who began designing and inventing parts for phone and data systems before the Internet is now at work - as a hobbyist - on nuclear fusion.) I love Peter's enthusiasm for projects and new inventions which I understand only at the most superficial level. Listening to him describe the problems he's solving on his way towards creating atomic collisions makes me happy.

Of course the most sane and probable bet is that Peter won't solve any new problems in the domain of nuclear fusion. As he says, though, his probability of doing that, while a long-shot, is above zero. And it is because of people who become intrinsically motivated to solve a particular problem or create a particular thing that we aren't just sitting around comparing different club handles and affirming old techniques for bringing down rabbits and mastodons. Progress is the product of people who take ownership of a task or project that has the potential of changing the world and probably will - in any case - change them. But of course that is nearly tangential to why they do it: they are intrinsically motivated.

Few people can conceive of a world in which we depend on intrinsic motivation and feedback as the two ways to direct behavior, a world in which we don't grade or rate or use other methods to control people. In the Fourth Economy I speak of how business is perhaps the last domain for autonomy, work becoming as personal as religion is now. I don't think that I properly articulate or convey just how different that would be from the current model in which students starting in kindergarten and employees working until retirement have their tasks, projects and roles defined for them by others and are then extrinsically motivated towards those goals. The switch from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation as the expectation for work and learning is a huge shift, and it could give us more Peters in the world.

Deming's chart that shows the forces of destruction, the actions we take to kill off intrinsic motivation and, in the doing, a person's sense of self or what makes them unique, is captured in this chart he often showed in his seminars. It's worth reading and taking seriously.


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