Interview with Daniel Pink: the Evolving World of Work

Daniel Pink talks about motivational behavior, explaining why old models of motivation, driven by rewards and fear of punishment, no longer work.

In 2009, Daniel Pink shook the foundation of motivational behavior with "Drive", the best-selling book in which he showed why old models of motivation, driven by rewards and fear of punishment, no longer work. In his latest book, “To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others”, Pink took a step forward and presented a fresh look at the art of selling.

Much of Daniel Pink's philosophy is reflected in the work we do. The big picture planning of 10,000ft is based on the principles that team members can do their best work when they have autonomy, an opportunity for mastery and a sense of purpose. That is why we were happy when we had the chance to interview Pink. We wanted to understand the impact of his ideas on creativity and productivity within an organization, and what is at stake for companies that want to embrace the 21st century culture of work.

In "Drive", you say there is a shift in motivation, from a system built on external rewards practices, to one that is centered on autonomy, mastery and purpose. Why is this shift happening now and what do these 3 drivers mean?

We use all kinds of rewards in organizations, but the mainstay is what I call an "if-then" rewards -- as in "If you do this, then you get that." Fifty years of behavioral science yields some very clear lessons on how these rewards operate. It shows that "if-then" rewards are extremely effective for mechanical, routine, algorithmic work. Yet the same body of research shows that they are far less great for work that requires judgment, creativity, and conceptual thinking.

The trouble is this: The nature of work has shifted from routine and algorithmic to creative and conceptual, yet organizations still typically rely on "if-then" rewards for all work. For creative work, the research shows we're far better off paying people fairly and well -- and then offering them great control over what they do and how they do it (autonomy), a chance to make progress and grow (mastery), and the opportunity to connect to a larger mission (purpose).

Why is the "carrot and stick" approach not effective when dealing with creative work? Can you give an example?

Here's the thing. It's not that we don't like rewards. Indeed, we love rewards. They get our attention, but they get our attention in a narrow and focused way. That's helpful for algorithmic work, where you're following an algorithm, a recipe, or a set of steps. But it's usually counterproductive for creative work. For complex tasks, those kinds of rewards will produce activity -- but rarely creativity. What works better?

One example is from the Australian company Atlassian, which conducts what it used to call "FedEx Days," but now calls "Ship It Days." Once a quarter people can work on anything they want, so long as it's not connected to their regular job and provided they show what they've created to their colleagues the following day. Those one-day bursts of autonomy have produced a whole array of fixes for existing products and ideas for new ones that had never emerged. They recognize that the way to foster creative work is not to dangle carrots in front of their staff, but to hire great people and every once in awhile, get out of their way.

Most project management practices are based on control, little feedback and task-oriented processes. How do the principles of "Drive" change the way project management is done?

As the research I describe in Drive shows, good leaders understand that motivation is not something one person does TO another, but as something that people do FOR themselves. That means replacing control with self-direction -- and looking for ways to increase the amount of autonomy people have over their task, time, team, and technique. Good managers also put people in positions where they can make progress, give them meaningful feedback, and help them get better at something that matters. And they help people see the purpose of what they're doing -- how what they do day-to-day makes a contribution and connections to a wider mission.

You wrote this book in 2009. Four years later, how are companies leading the way with this new form of motivation? What's at stake for companies that still stick to the "carrot-and-stick" approach?

Organizations are changing -- albeit slowly. Many are instituting FedEx Days, Ship It Days, Hackathons, and the like. They are building islands of autonomy in the sea of regular work. Many companies have loosened rules on when employees come in and leave and how much vacation they take. Others -- like Valve, Morningstar, and Medium -- have essentially become manager-less.

In a world where talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people, the stakes are high. The very best folks simply will not work in an environment in which they're controlled and restrained.

In "To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others", you share the idea that we are all sellers. Why is selling so important? Isn't sales built entirely on 'if then' rewards?

Traditionally, salespeople have been subject to if-then rewards, only they call them “commissions.” Companies like System Source in Baltimore and RedGate Software in Cambridge, UK, have eliminated commissions -- and seen sales increase. It boosts collaborations since salespeople aren't pitted against each other. Customer satisfaction increases because the salesperson is seen as the customer's agent, rather than his or her adversary. And by not having to police an elaborate, always-gameable compensation scheme -- Who brought in what piece of business? How do we split this commission? -- management frees up time to do better, more valuable work.

How can project managers be more effective in motivating and influencing others?

Project management is a quintessential example of what I call “non-sales selling” in To Sell is Human. As you may know, one in nine American workers works in sales -- that is, their job is to try to convince someone else to make a purchase. But even more important, the other 8 in 9 – including project managers -- are also in sales. They're now spending a huge portion of their time persuading, influencing, and convincing others to make an exchange, to give up what they have (time, resources, “buy-in”) for what’s on offer (an idea, a new way of doing things, commitment to a project).

In order to get better at this kind of selling, project managers should focus on three foundational qualities that social science tells us are most important in moving others: attunement, buoyancy, and clarity. Attunement is the ability to shed the anchor of your own position and instead understand another's perspective and interests. Buoyancy is how to stay afloat on what one salesman called "an ocean of rejection." And clarity is sorting through a welter of information to distill the essence and find meaningful patterns -- as well as moving from solving existing problems to identifying hidden ones.

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