Good Vibrations 7: Stars in the workplace
March 4, 2015
Start with the why
"Could it be they all took a look at Simon Sinek?", I wondered after one day and a half in California. Many presentations indeed commence with what they believed in as a company and why they did what they did. It corresponded seamlessly to Sinek's TED presentation. A few examples:
Palantir: "Building the technology to solve the world's problems"
Scripps: "The doctor of the future will be oneself"
23andMe: "We were frustrated about the pace of science"
PayPal: "We try to take the friction out of the payment system"
Singularity University: "Change a billion people's life in 10 years time"
And this is not even boasting. It is a beacon for the employees. Flower power makes room for market power. Just like the hippies in the sixties, today's innovators demonstrate a remarkable desire to change the world. This ambition is important as it creates meaning for the employees.
Dan Pink, a former speech writer for the American vice-president Al Gore, delivered a tour de force in Drive. He brilliantly succeeded where scientists had failed. He produced a modern, straightforward, and powerful synthesis that really provides insight into what drives people.
Most stimuli turn out to be counterproductive, argues Dan Pink. Even worse, they often produce precisely that behavior that we wish to avoid. For example, the bonus culture in banks is a good indication of how dangerous such behavior is. According to Dan Pink, the most powerful motivator in a professional organization is intrinsic in nature.
"In environments dominated by extrinsic rewards, many people work until they obtain the reward – but no further. Meaningful achievements require raising someone's perspective to a higher level."
After Motivation 1.0 (think: a Neanderthal for whom survival comes first) and Motivation 2.0 (think: a worker in a routine job who is rewarded or punished in function of his productivity), it is now time for Motivation 3.0. This Motivation 3.0 is summarized by three elements: autonomy, skill, and purpose. We actually did not need Dan Pink for that. The Antwerp group of singers, De Strangers, expressed it perfectly in their local dialect:
"Wa ge doet, da doet er nie toe, mor doeget en doeget goe" (What you do does not matter as long as you do it and do it well)
The presentation at Coursera was outright astonishing. It took place in a setting that directly concerns me, namely higher education. Somewhat symbolically, meeting room 136, where the presentation took place, was marked with a label stating 'History' on that day... In their presentation, three thirty-somethings demonstrated an insight and maturity you would not have expected from such young people.
California is the Champions League, and that attracts talented young people. At Google, they allege that it is easier to solve large problems than smaller ones. Because this precisely attracts the biggest talents. At Palantir, a big data company, they reason the same way:
"We want employees that seize tasks. Note: twenty percent of our employees are interns. Talent is the scarcest resource in big data. We recruit the best. We try to identify someone's superpower, what that person is really good at." [Free translation]
At Palantir, they allege that competence is not necessarily correlated with seniority. At Janssen Research, they also think along the same lines. Authority based on age has a dysfunctional impact. On the other hand, internal competition has a beneficial impact. Diego Miralles provides an excellent summary:
"Dynamism is the price paid for local stability” [Free translation]
In Shop class as soulcraft, Matthew Crawford heartily pleads for practical manual labor. Such labor engenders a concrete result. Knowledge work alienates the individual from its abstract and intangible result. This might be Silicon Valley's appeal to talented young people: that is where you can still change something, leave your mark on the world.
 Pink D. Drive. The surprising truth about what motivates us. 2009
 Pink D. o.c., p. 58.
 Crawford M.B. Shop class as soulcraft. London: Penguin Books, 2009.