S2E2: Drive Revisited – Dan Pink

9 months ago

Key points:

  • We have to recognise that we are in charge
  • Getting our most important thing done each day is an important part of feeling satisfied in our jobs
  • As Teresa Amabile taught us we feel happy in our jobs when we feel like we’ve made progress in meaningful work. Email isn’t meaningful work. That means we need to deprioritise email to a lower status
  • Research of when cooks can see customers the food improves (purpose)
  • We’re proud of things we initiate, not the things we respond to
  • the best bosses see their role as “having their team members’ backs”

Full transcript

I don’t think we’re having anything like the summer that you appear to be having in Washington. Has it been hot there?

DAN PINK: Are you talking about the climate?

Now all these things are just merging. The metaphorical and the literal are merging into one aren’t they.

DAN PINK: Both the literal and the metaphorical are verging on hellish.

Dan thanks for joining us. Drive was probably the most important book for understanding the world of work in the last 10 years. And understanding our motivations for work.The framework of autonomy purpose and mastery as the motivations for people in work. It obviously connects because it’s so memorable and it’s so actionable. I just wonder if we could go into those themes in a little depth. And firstly if we could jump into autonomy – the freedom to get things done. Everyone who sees the idea of autonomy can recognise the importance of it – do you want to explain why.

DAN PINK: Yeah yeah I think to actually to understand autonomy especially in the context of business you have to understand another concept and that’s the concept of management. What is management? We tend to take that whole concept too seriously. We think that management is something that’s always been here. Actually if you kick management off of its pedestal a little bit, you say that management is a technology. It’s a technology for organising people to be productive. It’s a technology from the 1850s. And when you get to the heart of it and you look at the genesis of management, management is a technology used to get compliance. To get people to do what you want them to do the way you want them to do it. Now we obviously still need compliance in organisations you won’t to have an organisation full of only-compliant people. You want people to be engaged. And the funny thing about you Bruce or me or other human beings is that we don’t engage by being managed. Nobody does. The way that human beings engage is through self-direction and so if you really want people to be engaged and you need engagement for higher level creative conceptial work you’ve got to give people a little bit more autonomy over the key aspects of their work. What they do. When they do it. How they do it. Who they do it with.

And so that’s really why it matters so much, that human nature a lot of this research shows is to be autonomous and self-directed. We have to start making organisations that go with that grain of human nature rather than against it.

And I was particularly taken in that you document in Drive how certain companies hack or adapt and bring autonomy to the fore. So Atlassian is one example or the examples of hack sessions seem to be another. Could you could you give advice on other examples or how you’ve seen that working.

DAN PINK:  Sure. I think there are so many examples now. Many of them came about after the book was out and I think there’s something really important on this going on in the broader world of work. So many great examples. I’ll give you two extremes. The book came out a few years ago so I’ll give some examples that are since then. So in the UK there are these two guys, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov. They teach at the University of Manchester. They won the Nobel Prize in Physics a few years ago for isolating something called graphene. Graphene is this substance ultra ultra ultra ultra-thin but stronger than steel. It’s almost like a fantasy. Huge breakthrough material of science. How did they organise their work at this laboratory at the University of Manchester? Well they have regular work that they do. They write grants and they have to fulfill the obligations of those grants. They have papers that due. Do they have to deliver those papers. But at this laboratory they also do something that they call ‘Friday evening experiments’ where for two or three hours every week they just work on stuff that they’re interested in.

The rules: can’t be anything you are funding for, can’t be anything where they have a paper due, can’t be anything boring. Just a couple of hours every week. A little island of autonomy. They ended up making their breakthrough on graphene, not in their regular work but in their Friday evening experiments in this island of autonomy. So autonomy leads to the Nobel Prize in physics. And one of the greatest breakthroughs in material science in the last hundred years. But then you have on the other side of it, one of my favourite examples which comes from a credit union here in the States called Columbia Credit Union. It’s like a bank, it’s a nonprofit and you have members rather than customers. So this young woman there who runs the customer service department, the customer service department has like six people in it, mostly just answering the phones. And she turns to her boss “I want to do a ‘Ship It Day’ like Atlassian does”. And her boss says ‘no way’. So she says ‘Oh God, here we go’. So she goes back to the drawing board and she comes up with this idea. She says to her team ‘here’s a little idea I’d like you to do, one an hour every week leave the phones. Go somewhere else. Think about a better way to run this place. Think about something that we’re not doing for our members that we should be doing for our members’. She calls this thing a Genius Hour. One hour every week.

And so if you think about this. This is what’s happening out there. You have work, you got to do your work. You have assignments, you have stuff you need to do. You have deadlines and everything like that. But more and more organisations, large and small. Profit and not for profit, whatever are carving out these little islands where people can spend a few hours doing their own thing, doing what they want. And I think that’s a really good example of how autonomy can lead to greater productivity and greater innovation.

So that’s interesting because I was worried whether in the intervening time whether there’d been a push back on autonomy. I saw that Google updated their Investors’ Letter a few years ago saying that 20 Percent Time had gone. And in fact I worked four years at Google and I never once heard anyone – engineer or otherwise – talk about it. I mean in fact it was once described: ‘yes we do 10 percent time it’s called Saturday’. And I wondered if there’d been a push back against autonomy?

DAN PINK:  I don’t think it’s a pushback against autonomy. I think there’s a recognition that autonomy can lead to greater work. The question is how do you give people sufficient autonomy, especially in fast paced businesses where there are deliverables where stuff has to get done.

And so I think that that something like 20 Percent Time was almost from its inception too big a bite at the apple. It was too much. And so what you see now is an array of more modest things. So you think about this Friday evening experiment. It’s like two or three hours a week. That’s not 10 percent. This other one, it’s a credit union. So they have a Genius Hour for one hour a week in a 40 hour work week. That’s two and a half percent time. What’s happening is that autonomy is being recognised but how it’s being operationalised is a little bit more modest. As you know Google pulled back from that 20 percent time and very few companies do 20 percent now. You have some who are doing things akin to 10 percent time. But what you see more is you see more companies doing more modest things. A Ship It day, a Genius Hour, Friday evening experiments, Freestyle Friday rather than something much more audacious.

The thing that really struck me was autonomy was the thing that was most assailed in the time since you’ve written Drive by the growth of email. The one thing that seems to leave all of us feeling powerless now is these 300 emails that we’re getting a day. I just wondered whether autonomy, that freedom to experiment was the sort of thing that might be being squeezed out. Is there anything that you think we can do to push back on the march of digital demands on us?

DAN PINK: I think what we have to do is that we have to recognise that we are in charge. Our devices are not in charge. Our emails are not in charge. We are in charge. And and what I have become a bit more ferocious proponent of both simplification and prioritisation. So what do I mean by that? One idea is something called (I have it here I’m talking to you from my office and I have a white board right there). And it says like what’s my MIT today. Most Important Thing. All right so you set your priority ‘what’s my most important thing’. Do that first. Don’t check Twitter. Don’t check my email. Do my Most Important Thing.

Set priorities. The other thing what could you see in high performers is that they will dedicate a certain amount of time each day literally to reading. Just like read stuff. I think about all the time I’ve wasted answering email and all that. If I’d taken that hour to read something I’d be a lot better off. I just think it’s a matter of us establishing priorities simplifying and sticking with it.

I recognise that that’s very difficult to do. It’s easier for me to do because I work for myself. It’s harder for people in organisations to do. But I think bosses have to give people cover to do that. They have to say ‘our company, our organisation is going to be better off if you spend more focused time doing your most important task, if you spend more focused time learning. And because there’s a finite number of hours in the day the things I might sacrifice is responding to an email where there’s 37 people CC-ed on it.

Can we move on from Autonomy and managing work and just talk a little bit about mastery. How do you see Mastery – and getting better things – how do you see that best exemplified in modern working environments.

DAN PINK: Yeah I mean I think that one of the things to understand here is on Mastery is the research. I think the best piece of research to come out on this was from maybe five, six years ago. From Teresa Amabile at Harvard Business School. The way she did the research was really interesting. It’s all done in North America. She got several hundred people at these North American organisations to receive an email at the end of every day. The e-mail said ‘how was your day? Were you motivated or not motivated?’ What she got, people would answer the email “today I was motivated because of this, today I was not motivated because of that”. So she collected these things from several hundred people for more than a year. Think about 12000 daily diary entries of work. Are people motivated or not on the job? She crunched the numbers. The single biggest motivator by far was making progress in meaningful work. The days people were making progress were the days they were motivated. I think the evidence here is is really powerful. How are organisations getting better at doing this? I think there are couple of interesting things going on. Number one is that ever so slowly they are improving the feedback mechanisms inside of firms. So the only way you know whether you’re making progress is if you’re getting information on how you’re doing. And truth be told annual performance reviews are not an effective way to give people feedback on how they’re doing. They’re a joke.

This is remarkable. I would not have thought this was possible when I wrote the book. Adobe – got rid of formal performance reviews. Accenture – got rid of formal performance reviews. G.E – got rid of performance reviews.

And so now there’s this search. I don’t think the problem has been solved. But there’s a search inside of companies for how do we give people rich, regular, robust, meaningful feedback to help them make progress to help them achieve Mastery. I don’t think that problem’s been solved but I do think people understand the diagnosis a lot better and they’re making a good faith effort to move toward solutions.

And I guess that learning mentality, that that sense of continuous improvement is actually a really desirable thing. I was reading a really good bit about Seeking Systems which is sort of a bit of what Jakk Pannsepp at Washington State University and he just talks about how that desire to learn new things and seek more is a really important part of self renewal. Mastery seems very much linked to that.

DAN PINK: Absolutely you see this. Here’s the thing watch what people do. Think about the weekends. You got people all over the world playing sports. Why are they going to become professional athletes? No. They like it and they get better at playing tennis or running or swimming. You’ve got people play musical instruments or singing in choirs. Why, are they going to become recording artists? No. They like it. And they get better at it. And I think it’s part of what makes us tick. I think it connects to your earlier point which is that one of the obstacles to doing this is the constant deluge of text messages and email that is preventing people from doing that. Like if you want to learn, you need focused time and attention to learn something. You can’t do it in between answering emails.

Yeah when you feel like you’re treading water with digital communication’s demands upon you, you at least feel like you’re making progress in something else.

DAN PINK: Yeah it actually happens to me and I’m not unique in this. A lot of times I deal with my email like this if I can answer it immediately I do. If not I put it into a another folder and I try to do it in batches. That’s one of my maintenance things – put it in a certain email folder and I’ll answer it in batches. I’ll sit when I’m completely fried, or if I’m traveling I’ll do it on the airplane or something like that. A few weeks ago I inadvertently and permanently deleted that folder. There wasn’t a huge number of emails in there. There was like 50. I just lost them. Couldn’t retrieve them. And you know what, the world didn’t end.

Could I take us onto the third part of the themes which is Purpose. And I just want you to help really answer a question. Purpose is the one that I think we’ve heard most of in the last eight years. And it’s really been appropriated for lots of uses hasn’t it. I just wonder if you could give us a clarification. For you is Purpose the thing that gets an individual up in the morning or is it the thing that a company has stencilled onto their main wall, which is it? Is it this corporate thing or is this individual thing?

DAN PINK: I’m going to give you the worst possible answer to that. It’s neither and it’s both. Let me tell you what I mean by that because I’ve changed my view on this since I wrote the book based on some new research and interviews. I have a slightly different view of purpose now because I think I initially got it wrong. Here’s how I think about Purpose now. I think there are two kinds of Purpose. One of them, I don’t have a better name for it, it’s what I call capital P Purpose. That is: ‘am I doing something big and transcendent?’ When I go to work today I’m helping to solve the climate crisis, I’m helping to feed the hungry, put shoes on the shoeless et cetera et cetera. And there’s evidence that’s a pretty good performance enhancer. It’s important at both the individual level and the corporate level. It really is.

But it’s not the only kind of Purpose there is. And the truth of the matter is that many of us in our day-to-day job we can’t access that kind of Purpose every single day. I can’t come into my office here in the garage behind my house and say ‘today I’m playing a role in ending dependence on fossil fuels’. I’m doing something more mundane. I’m going to write a book. The other kind of purpose that’s important is what you can think of as lower case P Purpose. That’s simply this: ‘am I making a contribution?’ That’s it. In a corporate setting, if I didn’t show up to work today would anybody care? Would anybody notice? Would something not get done. Did I help Bruce out because he was in a pinch and I helped him out? I made a contribution. By doing that I didn’t end world hunger. But I made a contribution to Bruce. If I didn’t do that things would have been less good. There’s other great research about cooks that when you allow cooks – cooks in a cafeteria – when you allow cooks to see the customers the quality of food improves. They’re not feeding destitute people, they’re feeding middle class people in Chicago or Boston or London getting their lunch. But when they can see the customer the quality of the food improves. Why? Hey I’m making a contribution! I’m making this cheese omelette and someone is going to eat it. I want it to be good because someone’s eating it. Forgive the long winded response. But that’s the way I think about Purpose now. Capital P, small P. Am I making a difference and that’s important. If you can do that but also day-to-day, am I making a contribution? And that’s also really important. I think that when you look at at the company level, go to your initial question, the fact that the purpose is stencilled on the wall is less important than if it’s kind of imbued in the air stream. But also if you’re a leader in an organisation just letting people know they made a contribution, letting people know that if they didn’t show up we would miss you. Letting people know that it’s like ‘hey you know if you didn’t come to work today something wouldn’t have gotten done’ is also really important and is a form of purpose. So I’ve changed my view on this because I think that a lot of times we see the word Purpose. It’s such a muscular, majestic word that we think it only means this big kind of purpose. But in fact that other kind of purpose is just as important.

Finally when we we’re trying to make sense of work I’ve seen you talk the idea where people at the end of their career will be proud of the things they initiated not the things that they responded to. Which I think is what you hinted at along the way there. Is there any way that we can balance that more. Probably just being aware of it is an important step isn’t it?

DAN PINK: I agree with you, I think being aware of it is an important step. I also think it’s an architectural problem in our lives. You have to build your life the way that you want it built. If you have a hole in the roof fix the frickin’ roof. That’s an architectural problem in your house. If you have a hole in the roof and you’re spending too much time responding to things, solve that problem. Tell your boss ‘I’m not able to do my best work under these conditions’. Put it on an auto-responder saying ‘I try to read every email but I’m sorry I just can’t reply to every email’. Put some kind of boundaries on your work. It’s hard. I don’t want to be simplistic about it. It’s hard to do. But you’ve got to ask the most important question in life which is ‘compared to what?’ Is it hard to put those kinds of boundaries, have time where you can do focus heads-down work, where you can do focus learning. Is that hard to do? Yeah it’s hard to do. But compared to what? Compared to the cost of spending your days, your weeks, your months, your years, your life simply responding to email rather than doing your best work. That’s a bigger cost. What I think the key here is in organisations is you need bosses who understand this and give people cover. One of the things that you see in the work of someone like Bob Sutton at Stanford and others, is that one of the things the best bosses do is that they have their employees’ backs.

If I’m Bruce’s boss and Bruce doesn’t respond to Mary’s email and Mary is hacked off about that I have Bruce’s back. I say ‘you know what? That’s cool. Bruce was so busy doing something else it was more important. Sorry about that. He has to prioritise’. It’s individuals taking action and bosses giving them cover.

I see that you’re working on a new book about timing. There was one thing in one of the previous episodes I was chatting to someone who had noticed that authors write for three hours a day in the morning. I was just interested in what other patterns you’ve observed in your preparation for that. There are many times in the day that are more suited to us dispatching emails or dealing with certain parts of our jobs?

DAN PINK: There actually are, for most people what you see is you see a pattern of the day that has basically a peak, a trough and a rebound. Generally in the morning people have a peak that’s when they do best at analytic heads-down work. There’s often a trough after that in the afternoon where people don’t do very well on anything. That’s a good time for e-mail. That’s a good time for some of this other stuff. And then people often have a rebound a little bit later where they’re often very good at creative kinds of stuff, more conceptual kinds of things. Now that’s a pattern that holds for about three quarters of the population. The other quarter of the population actually runs the other way. The metaphor in the world of chronobiology is Larks and Owls. Now the truth is that most people are in the middle. Most people are neither hardcore Larks or hardcore Owls but about a fourth of us are pretty Owly. If you’re an Owl it goes the other way. If you’re an Owl do your creative work in the morning when you’re a little bit more groggy, you have fewer inhibitions. Slide through the afternoon trough and do your heads down focused work later in the day.

I’m a middle guy so I abide by that because I when I write books I come into this office and in the morning. I’ve got my MIT right there. I have my MIT on the board. I turn off my phone. I close out my email and I give myself a word count I have to hit. I am not allowed to do anything else until I hit that word count. Sometimes I hit my word count by 11 in the morning, sometimes I don’t hit it till 4:00 in the afternoon. Those are bad days.

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