Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: Drive

Drive is the latest in a series of books that really should have been a magazine article. You can get most of the gist of the book from the 20-minute TedTalk Daniel Pink gave in 2009. The talk is really good: in 20 minutes Dan explains that extrinsic rewards actually serve to reduce performance in creative tasks, and turns what would be pleasure into work. This isn't really controversial, and there's a lot of studies to prove it. For instance, Warren Buffett, who's long lived in a $300,000 house for 20 years, and picks up a salary of $100,000 a year, outperforms any number of Wall Street traders and investment bankers who get all sorts of bonuses and performance incentives dangled in front of them.

The problem with the book is that it doesn't say a lot about what you do with this knowledge. For instance, he suggests 20% time as something good. I agree. Unfortunately, I've heard of places where that 20% time was treated as a reward for good behavior, with large swaths of the organization referring to it as 120% time. Dan Pink doesn't examine the secondary and follow on effects of introducing something like this in a traditional environment with traditional management.

A friend of mine once told me that he thought the biggest mistake the company we worked for made was to introduce a career ladder for engineers. At that time, I disagreed, because I thought that the extrinsic motivation of promotions and additional stock options, etc., would generate good behavior. Having seen the follow-on effects in later years of people gaming the system, and what should have been a motivational tool turn into a de-motivational tool, I'm inclined to agree. For software engineering at least, extrinsic motivations don't work. Ditch it and ensure that people have job satisfaction instead doing work to the best of their ability.

None of that is in the book. If it was, I'd be please about paying $9.99 for the Kindle edition. As it is, I say watch the Ted Talk for free --- there's nothing new in the book. Dan's very good at explaining existing work, but isn't an original thinker capable of analyzing second-order effects. Not recommended for the price, though being a short read, you could easily check it out from the library.
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