Drive, by Dan Pink, is a book about what really motivates us and why, and I believe that anyone who leads a team, community, or open source project would benefit from reading it.
It turns out that extrinsic incentives — the old “carrots and sticks” system of punishments and rewards — really don’t motivate us very much at all. This isn’t to say that things like money, benefits, promotions, and bonuses aren’t important, but science tells us that after a certain level (i.e. when pay is already fair and equitable), extrinsic motivators aren’t really all that effective.
True motivation is something at once more simple and more complex. Intrinsic incentives — those motivations that come from within and are part of our fundamental character and make up — are the real reason we strive to excel, why we take such satisfaction in producing exceptional work, and are what lie behind our real passions and drives.
Pink postulates that there are three elements to intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.
The first element, Autonomy, is based on the observation that people are more likely to be engaged in and passionate about something if they are free to be self-directed — allowed not only to choose what they work on, but to find their own solutions, strategies, and approaches to the work involved. Pink puts forth “four Ts” where autonomy and self-direction matter: task, time, technique, and team.
Compare these two situations: In the first, you are asked to work on a project you select, on your own schedule, using methods you choose, and with a team that you recruit. In the second, you are asked to work on something you’re not interested in, on a schedule someone else sets, using methods you have no influence over, and with people you can’t trust, don’t like, and find difficult to work with. Which would you find more motivating? Where would you do your best work? Autonomy is an absolutely fundamental part of motivation.
Mastery, Pink’s second element, is based on his belief that we each have an innate “desire to get better and better at something that matters”. This drive is what lies behind that seemingly magical state known as “flow” — where time falls away when you’re working on a clear task that is just challenging enough without being frustratingly difficult. When our tasks are just slightly beyond our current level of mastery we are inspired to push ourselves to get better and accomplish ever greater things.
The third element, Purpose, provides a grounding context for the other two. “Autonomous people working toward mastery perform at very high levels. But those who do it in the service of some greater objective can achieve even more.” If you believe that what you’re doing has a purpose larger than yourself — say, as an example, ensuring there is choice and innovation on the internet and safeguarding the future of the open web — you’re going to be even more motivated to accomplish amazing things.
The book mentions both Wikipedia and Firefox as examples of what people can accomplish when driven solely by intrinsic motivation. All three elements are present: contributors are autonomous (entirely self-selecting and able to scratch whatever itches they like), highly skilled and driven to continually get better at what they do, and they usually have a pretty fundamental belief in the purpose and importance of the larger project. Working together over several years, the people involved with these projects have accomplished what most sane people would have believed was impossible only a few years ago. Intrinsic motivation is powerful, powerful thing.
If you’re interested in understanding the power of intrinsic incentives (and, to some extent, the dangers of extrinsic incentives) and harnessing those to motivate your team or open source community to even greater feats of awesome, I think Drive is definitely worth reading.