What continues to surprise me most about open source software (OSS) development is how the particular mindset OSS embodies has seeped into an incredibly diverse range of discussion that transcends software itself. Daniel Pink‘s latest book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is the latest example of how OSS has served to concretely demonstrate truths about human behavior.
The basic gist of Pink’s book is that business models of the 20th century have it all wrong in terms of what drives employees to perform better. Pink argues that for workers whose jobs require creative skills the kind of work that represents an increasing majority of jobs in America and the UK now that repetitive tasks are being more frequently outsourced, money is a poor motivator. Rather, by delving into the latest research in neuroscience and behavioral science, Pink suggests three things that motivate creative production: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Pink defines autonomy as having greater freedom at work. Given the chance to be self-directed, Pink demonstrates, workers will approach tasks they’ve designed themselves with greater enthusiasm. Pink cites the company Google, which requires that all employees spend 20% of their time working on whatever they feel like doing. Google has noted that some of the company’s most innovative ideas have grown out of their 20% rule. Mastery, according to Pink, is the desire to become highly skilled and knowledgeable in a specific skill or set of skills for its own sake. The final piece of the motivation puzzle is purpose: knowing that what you are spending your time doing is reaping tangible benefits for others.
When looking at Pink’s scheme, it comes as no surprise that he offers the open source software revolution as the golden model of true human motivation in action. Those of you in the OSS camp know full well the personal fulfilment derived from working on a project in which you are given an opportunity to join a community, collaborating with others freely and openly, working on your own time to master your craft, and helping others out in the process.
Although many open source software developers subscribe to the open source mindset, Pink points out that few look at the bigger picture. In an interview published on OpenSource.com, Pink noted:
‘I think that people who are involved in open source sometimes don’t realize how extraordinary it is. […] If you had presented it in business school to some strategy professor saying, “I’ve got this new business model for creating software, and here is how it goes: A bunch of people around the world who don’t know each other get together and work for free. And these are highly skilled, technically able people who decide to do really tough, sophisticated work for free, and they give away their product”, it would have seemed ludicrous. And the fact that it worked and it worked so well, and the fact that it has challenged if not toppled other software products that are created in the more conventional way, ought to give us some hints about how we structure firms, how we organize workers, and I think deep down what really motivates people to do amazing things.’
In the final analysis, Pink’s book about motivation demonstrates why OSS is so successful, and how the model can inspire and inform both businesses and individuals seeking fulfillment through work. It’s an engaging read that will remind you why and how OSS plays such a pivotal role in the development of expanding human capability.