Saturday, July 23, 2011

Saving the phenomenon of OSS

I just reread Dan Pink's Drive, a book that I recommend highly for anyone who leads people or is interested in how human motivation works.  The basic premise of the book is that there is a growing gap between "what science knows and what business does" to motivate people.  He calls the traditional setup that still dominates the mainstream corporate world "Motivation 2.0" and makes a compelling case that this throwback to the industrial age is in need of a major version bump - Motivation 3.0.    Drawing on a substantial body of behavioral science research, Pink demonstrates that the "If-then" reward structure that dominates how we try to motivate people today is not well-suited to the post-industrial workplace where "work" is no longer primarily made up of boring, repetitive tasks.  Instead, he argues that intrinsic rewards are far more effective in today's world.  He calls out three primary drivers of intrinsic motivation: mastery, autonomy and purpose.

What I found very interesting, and at the same time a little troubling, after reading this book, is how well it saves the phenomenon of open source contribution.  Pink mentions OSS as an example of the beginnings of  Motivation 3.0.  At least looking at my own involvement in OSS, the drivers above do a pretty good job explaining how it is that I am willing to spend so much time volunteering.  Much better than what other "anthropologists" have come up with, which generally devolves to Motivation 2.0-speak (we do it because it will enable us to make more money somehow).  Working with great developers on hard problems can provide a sense of mastery that is hard to attain otherwise.  Autonomy is also key.  We "scratch itches" that we have as - and when - we have them.  And finally, there is a sense of contributing to something larger than ourselves or our code - a purpose.

The troubling bit is that we stand at the crossroads now in open source.  We got where we are as a result of really forward-thinking community engagement - being on the vanguard of Pink's Motivation 3.0.   People are now, in large numbers, being paid to work on OSS projects and commercial software companies are "open sourcing" their products faster than established OSS communities can absorb them.   Will we be able to maintain the powerful intrinsic reward structure that has gotten us to this point and use our elevated position to drive positive change in the Motivation 2.0-dominated establishment?  Or will the "OSS phenomenon" gradually vanish as we collectively "grow up?"

With all hats that I may wear, I will be trying to lead the change toward environments that provide the kinds of intrinsic rewards that I have enjoyed in OSS and tried my best to bring to the corporate world.

1 comment:

  1. Couple of great references pointed out to me:

    RSAnimate video based on a Dan Pink talk at RSA

    The Unselfish Gene HBR article by Yochai Benchler. Soon to be expanded in Yochai's new book The Penguin and the Leviathan