Autonomy Matters

“The Puzzle of Motivation,” by Daniel Pink, TEDTalk

[Michael’s note: Where you see “education” in blue, Daniel Pink originally said, “business.” But in other writings, including his best-seller, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Pink says schools would benefit from embracing the “autonomy, mastery, and purpose” approach described here.]

Scientists who’ve been studying motivation have given us a new approach. It’s an approach built much more around intrinsic motivation—around the desire to do things because they matter, because we like it, because they’re interesting, because they are part of something important. [It] revolves around three elements: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves….

I want to talk today only about autonomy. In the 20th century, we came up with this idea of management. Management did not emanate from nature…. Somebody invented it…. Traditional notions of management are great if you want compliance. But if you want engagement, self-direction works better.

Let me give you some examples of radical notions of self-direction….

How many of you have heard of the company Atlassian? Atlassian is an Australian software company. And they do something incredibly cool. A few times a year they tell their engineers, “Go for the next 24 hours and work on anything you want, as long as it’s not part of your regular job.” Engineers use this time to come up with a cool patch for code, come up with an elegant hack. Then they present all of the stuff that they’ve developed…to the rest of the company, in this wild and wooly all-hands meeting at the end of the day. And then, being Australians, everybody has a beer.

They call them FedEx Days. Why? Because you have to deliver something overnight…. It’s pretty clever. That one day of intense autonomy has produced a whole array of software fixes that might never have existed.

And it’s worked so well that Atlassian has taken it to the next level with 20% Time­–done, famously, at Google–where engineers can spend 20% of their time working on anything they want. They have autonomy over their time, their task, their team, their technique. Radical amounts of autonomy. And at Google, as many of you know, about half of the new products in a typical year are birthed during that 20% Time: things like Gmail, Orkut, Google News.

Let me give you an even more radical example: something called the Results Only Work Environment, the ROWE,…in place at about a dozen companies around North America. In a ROWE people don’t have schedules. They show up when they want. They don’t have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them. Meetings in these kinds of environments are optional.

What happens? Almost across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down. Autonomy, mastery and purpose: These are the building blocks of a new way of doing things. Now some of you might look at this and say, “Hmm, that sounds nice, but it’s Utopian.” And I say, “Nope. I have proof.”

In the mid-1990s, Microsoft started an encyclopedia called Encarta. They had deployed all the right incentives. They paid professionals to write and edit thousands of articles. Well-compensated managers oversaw the whole thing to make sure it came in on budget and on time. A few years later another encyclopedia got started. Different model, right? Do it for fun. No one gets paid…. Do it because you like to do it.

Now,…if you had gone to an economist, anywhere, and said, “Hey, I’ve got these two different models for creating an encyclopedia. If they went head to head, who would win?” Ten years ago you could not have found a single sober economist anywhere on planet Earth who would have predicted the Wikipedia model.

This is the titanic battle between these two approaches. This is the Ali-Frazier of motivation. Right?… Intrinsic motivators versus extrinsic motivators. Autonomy, mastery and purpose, versus carrot and sticks. And who wins? Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose, in a knockout. [Microsoft closed MSN Encarta in 2009.] Let me wrap up.

There is a mismatch between what science knows and what [education] does. And here is what science knows. One: Those 20th century rewards, those motivators we think are a natural part of [education], do work, but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances. Two: Those if-then rewards often destroy creativity. Three: The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive–the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things because they matter.

And here’s the best part. We already know this. The science confirms what we know in our hearts. So, if we repair this mismatch between what science knows and what [education] does; if we bring our notions of motivation into the 21st century; if we get past this lazy, dangerous, ideology of carrots and sticks; we can strengthen our [schools]…and maybe, maybe, maybe we can change the world.

Daniel Pink is the author of five provocative books on education, behavior, work, and management. In addition to Drive, his best-sellers include A Whole New Mind.

[Watch the entire TEDTalk:]


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