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Linda Rising Talks About Incentives at GOTO Amsterdam 2013

by Ben Linders on Jun 18, 2013 |

The third annual GOTO Amsterdam conference from june 18-20 is attended by more then 440 software developers, IT architects, agilists, product owners and project managers. The conference covers Java, Mobile, Cloud, OpenSource, Lean/Agile, Architecture, New Languages & Process communities. At the start of the conference, Linda Rising and Martin Fowler were awarded the medal of honor from the GOTO conferences for all the talks that they have done during the years.

The first day of the conference started with a keynote by Linda Rising who talked about incentives. Her talk explored some of the research on incentives starting from the industrial age, and looked at how it is being doing in practice by managers with development teams. She gave some examples of incentives other then “carrots and sticks”, which are rare. Linda mentioned a friend of her who paid her child when she was learning ice skating for every time that she fell, stood up, and tried again. And Zappos who offers newly hires $3000 if they quit after the initial training period. She explained about the Lego robot experiment, where 2 groups were building robots. Both groups knew that the robots would be destroyed, but in one group they were destroyed immediately after they were built in front of the people who build them. The experiment explained that “if you take the same people with the same initial passion and desire and place them in meaningless working conditions, you can easily kill any joy they might derive from an activity”.

InfoQ interviewed Linda about her experiences with incentives and about motivation.

InfoQ: You started your keynote with Pavlov and "carrots and sticks", which is still dominant in the behaviorism approach for rewarding people. As you mentioned, it often doesn't work this way to motivate people. Why do so many still use this approach?

Linda: I think the behavioral approach is intuitively appealing. We want people to do something so let's give them a reward if they do it and beat them up if they don't. Most
people don't have time to read the research so they're unaware of progress that's being made in the area of incentives.

InfoQ: You mention that incentive schemes can and have been misused. Can you give some examples how this happens in today's organizations? And what can be done to prevent it from happening?

Linda: I've been part of many organizations that sincerely believed they were encouraging a certain behavior by giving some kind of reward. In one company, if someone did a really good job of supporting you, you could go to the supply cabinet and give them a small gift, e.g. movie tickets. What happened, as you might imagine, is that many people gave their friends gifts but neglected others (even if the others had done a lot for them). In other cases, when the reward was large enough, a lot of effort was invested over a long time to do everything possible to ensure that a particular individual or a particular team was recognized -- sometimes this involved sabotage or deception -- hard to believe --


There's a famous attempt by Pizza Hut to encourage school children to read that provided coupons for free pizzas after a child had read a certain number of books. What they found is that children would pick short, easy-to-read books to get the pizzas and that after a summer of this, the children really didn't enjoy reading. In other words, the result was fat kids who hated to read. Not what everyone had in mind at the start.

InfoQ: Money can be used to motivate people as you mentioned. But the lack of monetary rewards can also demotivate people. Would you recommend money as an incentive?

Linda: Enough money should be on the table to remove it as an issue. This is Dan Pink's suggestion. New research from Teresa Amabile at Harvard shows that what folks like the technical knowledge workers we see are motived by "progress on work they care about." Seems obvious. Of course, we need money. We're not going to work for free, but after a sufficient amount, it's no longer motivating. I've seen many teams who were offered bonuses for working severe amounts of overtime and most did not want it.

InfoQ: There is a school of positive psychology. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania describes it as "the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive".  Have you heard of this, and do you think that it can help us to find better approaches for incentives?

Linda: I think Seligman is part of the work on incentives. His input has been around the notion of happiness -- defining and measuring that. That's what it's all about isn't it? At the end of the day. We want to enjoy life, enjoy our work, feel that we've made a contribution?

InfoQ: In your presentation you mentioned that joy and happiness are important motivators. Can you give some examples of this?

Linda: There's a famous experiment done by Dan Ariely with some Legos. The subjects who built robots out of Legos and immediately saw their work destroyed built fewer robots than those who saw their creations lined up on display -- even though both groups were paid the same and both groups knew that it was just an experiment and that all the robots would be destroyed eventually. It reminds us of how little it takes -- sometimes just sincere appreciation -- to bring out our best.

InfoQ: Do you know organizations that have taken a different approach with incentives, and have been successful with it?

Linda: My very best example of an organization that takes a "different approach" to everything is Menlo Innovations. I met the CEO, Rich Sheridan, a couple of years ago, and I have been following their awesome evolution every since. I think when we talk about any one thing, like incentives, it's like John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club said, we will find that the one thing is hooked up to everything else in the universe. I'm not sure you can get one thing right without having the others things right as well. Now, having said that, you can always start with one thing and grow it, step by step, and cause change in the organization through ripple effects. That's the way to make effective organizational change -- another topic :-)!

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