Intrinsic Motivation and Unlimited Vacation

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation is something that has always interested me. I was one of those youngsters who wasn’t very good at doing what they were told to do, I had to actually want to do it, or be bribed! I wasn’t lazy though, if I wanted to do it then I was away. Natural justice has meant that I now have a daughter who works in the same way. I spend many an hour thinking about how I can I make room tidying seem like a fun activity that benefits her in some way.

La motivation by Philippe Boukobza

I’m mentioning intrinsic motivation because apparently it’s a hot topic at the moment having been talked about by Clay Shirkey (who I recently met on a train!) at TEDGlobal 2010 in Oxford. I know this because Martin Hamilton recently wrote a thought provoking post (Intrinsic motivation – from Magic Trackpad to @psychemedia) where he explores this idea and what it means to employers.

So, what’s this all about? Let me frame it like this… Why is it that companies like Apple and Google consistently produce exceptional ideas, products and services? How can other organizations best learn from these firms?

Intrinsic motivation is all about doing things because they interest and stimulate you. This is in direct contrast to extrinsic motivation, which is principally about doing things because you have been instructed or coerced to – often with some implied threat of punishment for failure.

Martin concludes his post by mentioning Open University lecturer Tony Hirst. Tony is a bit of a god in the HE developer world. His blog ouseful is full of amazing ideas and exciting suggestions. Tony works as a robotics lecturer but he is fully supported in his role as an ‘idea creator’ (my words), to be honest his role isn’t that dissimilar from my team leader Brian Kelly’s. For a while Brian was funded as UK Web Focus and was just fountain of ideas, he still is but probably doesn’t have as much free rein these days. OK we can’t all be as creative as these guys but each of us has something we are interested in or a work area we’d like to do more of.

Martin ends his post with some questions about how we measure impact in a world of Tonys (and Brians).

So how would your organization recognize and reward (or even attempt to “manage”!) someone like Tony? Of course we can’t all be Google, but a useful first step is undoubtedly some level of self-awareness of the power of intrinsic motivation and the results that it can deliver.

One thing Martin doesn’t consider in his post is the current economic climate and the leash it will put on us having time to work on intrinsically motivated projects. The government might like to argue that cut backs will make us more creative, but the reality for most of us is that doing the day job (if we still have one) will become higher priority then innovation. So over here in the UK we won’t be creating any Googles or Apples of our own in the near future.

When talking about Google Martin mentions “Google’s famous “20% time” for personal projects, which gave rise to the likes of Gmail, Google News and Adsense“. That free time would be a serious luxury to most.

After reading Martin’s post I posted something about it on Twitter and a Twitter friend pointed me in the direction of this particular story on NPR – Unlimited Vacation Time Not A Dream For Some.

The jist of it is that some companies over in the US are giving their employees unlimited vacation time. Unlike over here where this means redundancy :-( there it is what it says it is! The theory is that flexibility makes people more productive and engaged. Not only that but the key is getting the work done.

some companies said as long as the work gets done and the productivity that we are looking for is achieved, you don’t have to track your time and you can take unlimited leave.

The article also points out that companies value workers who can manage their own time. Paul Boag’s recent post Work less, produce more touches on this. I liked his comment:

Participating in life beyond the web provides a valuable perspective that can be missed when you are constantly on the job.

How true!

My mother, who is Dutch, was recently telling me about the long holidays all my cousins have been having. I asked her how they’d got so much time off work. Her reply was that “they worked less hours and had more holiday time in Holland because when they were working they got more things done than the British did“. Now those of you who know Dutch people will probably agree with me when I say that they aren’t noted for their tact, but that they do normally tell it like it is! I don’t think British workers are lazy but we are a society that still doesn’t really get output driven working.

I think both Martin and Paul’s posts and the NPR article are saying something along the same lines. If an organisation gives its staff the space to be intrinsically motivated, it allows them flexibility and it also support an environment of output driven working then ultimately both the employer and employee will be better off. I guess you could say it’s all about respect and being given the space to have a clear head…

My big worry is that we are rapidly heading away from these ideals, or am I just a pessimist?