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The 3 Things That Motivate Us

· Agile Zone

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How do I motivate my developers? - is a question you hear all the time from managers who haven't been paying attention to the patterns found in many software development shops.  Dan Pink has looked at much of the scientific research behind human motivations.  What he found was that most of our work motivation boils down to three factors - and money has nothing to do with it.

This paradigm shift in workplace sociology began with an MIT study showing that cognitive tasks were actually negatively impacted when given an increasing monetary reward.  A study in Madurai, India was done with much larger rewards, but it had the same result.  Subjects were given three levels of monetary awards in each study and the ones who were offered the highest incentives performed the worst.  Monetary motivation worked for purely mechanical tasks, but not for cognitive ones (even rudimentary cognitive tasks).  This result has been replicated again and again in other scientific fields.  Not to say money isn't a factor, it's just not a big factor once people make enough so that they don't worry about it (which is relative to certain situations, of course).  If they don't have to think about the money, their focus is on the work.  So how do you motivate them?

Numerous studies indicate that three main factors lead to better performance (and personal satisfaction):

  • Autonomy -  For workers to engage and not just comply, they need some freedom and self direction.
  • Mastery - Getting better at something gives people a sense of accomplishment and sometimes, the satisfaction of being a leader in their field.
  • Purpose - People are fueled by passion, so they need to believe that what they're doing has some sort of transcendent purpose.  This is how Steve Jobs convinced a Pepsi Co. executive to work for Apple - because Jobs said they were going to 'change the world'.

Autonomy Case and Point

Atlassian's solution for giving more autonomy to its developers involves taking one day (a Thursday) every quarter and letting the developers work on whatever they want with whomever they want.  All they have to do is show their results after 24 hours during a party with snacks and beer on Friday.  The 'free day' ends up producing a whole bunch of software fixes and new product ideas in an unusual spurt of productivity.  The key sometimes is to just get out of people's way and let them make something innovative.

Quick note on Purpose: Crappy products can result when profit is the only motive, with no transcendent purpose.

Workers in the Development/IT industry (more than most other industries) have come to understand these motivations and make policy changes that acknowledge this research.  The success of open source software is probably one of the best examples of how autonomy, mastery, and purpose motivate more than money.  

Let's try and apply this research to a real world case found on Stack Overflow (asked about two weeks ago).  The research isn't useful unless we can apply it to practical situations, right?  So the question is about how to motivate a team of developers, trained in some of the latest technologies, that now have to work on pretty old legacy code (the kind that probably doesn't pad your resume).  How do you motivate them to work on this code?

Well, a big problem is that they probably won't fulfill their need for mastery, or at least not in something they want to master.  One effective solution would be to start an initiative to build a new platform with modern technologies, resulting in better performance.  This would satisfy the need for some workers' purpose and mastery too, if they learn while doing it.

If a new platform is not an option, which is commonly the case in large, convoluted enterprises, then the team needs to find other ways to make the work meaningful.  Giving the team members a chance to suggest long term maintenance solutions and allowing them to act on those possibilities autonomously could make the work more meaningful (purposeful).  Although purpose, mastery, and autonomy are not the ultimate answers to every motivational problem, you can see how they could be used to brainstorm ideas for motivating people.

P.S.  You'll notice that one SO answer with zero votes suggests "extra cash". :)

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