Saul Kaplan: Reboot Motivation

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Dan Pink always makes me think.  Each of his books elicits an “AHA” moment with staying power.  Free Agent Nation changed the way I think about work and relate to institutions forever.  A Whole New Mind rescued the right side of my brain from its inferiority complex and ignited a long-term love affair with design thinking.  Dan’s  book, Drive, is no different.  It has crystallized my life-long instinct that our thinking about motivation and incentives is out of synch with the possibilities of the 21stcentury.  Time to reboot motivation.

The 20th century was all about management.  The North Star was how to get more people to go through the motions efficiently. Seeking personal meaning in work was a distraction. The best workers follow the rules, work hard, and smile.  Work boiled down to an algorithm rendering out any creativity or autonomy.  Fulfillment and empowerment were HR buzzwords and the “soft stuff” relegated to off-site retreats that don’t get in the way of real work.  Incentives in the industrial era were all about carrots and sticks.  Motivation was based solely on external factors including compensation, title, office, and promotion opportunities.

Early in my consulting career I worked for a boutique firm that specialized in sales force incentive compensation programs.  I was consistently amazed by the gaping disconnect between the home office that inevitably over-engineered its goal setting and compensation practices and the actual behavior out in the sales territory.  Sales representatives made quick work of these elegant plans figuring out how to game the system to optimize earnings.  They cherry-picked the incentive plans based on experience, likelihood of earning a payout, and implications for the following year.  The annual dance was de-motivating and rarely resulted in self-directed effort to maximize either the short or long-term value of customer relationships within a sales territory.

photo-saulI have observed legions of managers attempting to manipulate the dials of industrial era tools to optimize the output of employees.  While it was clear to me that this approach sucked the meaning, autonomy, and motivation out of work for most employees it had the unfortunate advantage of delivering short-term business results, until it didn’t.  The game changed when computers began to replace people doing repeatable work tasks.  Technology also enabled repeatable work that still requires human involvement to move to lower cost locations.  If it can be reduced to an algorithm it can either be virtualized or moved.   This work is dehumanizing and uninteresting.  Industrial era work has left the U.S. and it is not coming back.  The work remaining to do requires both a new set of 21st century skills and a new approach to incentives and performance management.

In Drive, Dan Pink, sounds the clarion call for a new motivation paradigm.  He proclaims, ” This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction. Carrots and sticks don’t work in an innovation economy that values heuristic over algorithmic tasks.”  Industrial era incentives won’t work.  Today we need people who are self directed, work effectively in diverse teams, and can thrive with complex tasks that require flexible thinking and approaches.  We need to reboot motivation thinking to align the exciting work of a new century with people who have longed to find meaning in their work and contribute their full potential and passion to it.  Self-determination theory argues that we have three innate psychological needs; competence, autonomy, and relatedness.  Organizations must realign their human capital strategies and practices to these needs.  Intrinsic motivation is what counts today and most companies are still focused on managing external motivation factors.  For most organizations the required change will not be a tweak but a transformation of current HR operating models.

It is time to get on with it.  As Dan points out in Drive the first decade of the 21st century was a staggering underachievement in business, technology, and social progress.  We have an incredible opportunity for innovation ahead of us but it will require a new motivation paradigm and tools to unleash the vast reservoir of global talent. People are driven by purpose, passion, and meaning and it is about time we created a generation of leadership that gets it.  Drive is a must read with actionable ideas to reboot motivation for an innovation economy.


I have enjoyed getting to know Dan as fellow board members of Big Picture Learning.  We share a passion for the incredible education innovation movement catalyzed by its founders Dennis Littky and Eliott Washor.  Dan also wins points in my book for naming his son Saul.  Who the heck names their kid Saul!  The BIF Book Group is reading Drive this month.  Join the conversation here.  We are also looking forward to having Dan join us in person at BIF in Providence on March 29th where he will be discussing Drive with the BIF innovation community.  I think there are a few seats left if you plan to be in the area and would like to attend.  Details here.


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