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Motivation, Leadership and Great Design

Ben Thompson had some interesting thoughts on motivation and design over Labor Day weekend.

what about motivation? What is the best way to ensure creativity and inspired design?

It is widely recognized that intrinsic motivation produces much more passionate work and more creative results than extrinsic motivation. Ben cites open source software as being partly responsible for commoditizing the means of production in our industry and as a great example of intrinsic motivation. He notes that this is:

The same motivation that produces something truly great.

Of course open source doesn’t have the strongest record in design, perhaps because it lacks the dictatorship of a single individual with the taste to create something amazing. The sort of dictatorship, in fact, that exists in the modern corporation, particularly ones that are functionally organized.

Interestingly, many of the most successful open source projects have leaders called a Benevolent Dictator for Life. A BDFL certainly doesn't command resources the way a CEO does but they do retain authority over what code gets into the central repository. The best open source leaders are charismatic and have a strong sense of vision that inspires an intrinsically motivated community to make contributions. They shape the project and the culture of the community surrounding it. Their authority is effectively on loan from the community, but it does exist in real ways.

The open source leader's position is only as strong as their support by the development community. Open source projects can be forked and taken in a different direction by any member of the community. If enough developers support a different direction a fork will happen despite any intentions the leader may have, sometimes leading to competing projects. This possibility creates a strong incentive for the leader to consider carefully input from the team working on the project. A subtle but organic process of feedback and competition of ideas is imposed upon open source projects1 and their leaders that is not imposed upon corporations and their CEOs.

The lack of design sensibility in open source software may be a result of the softer, more organic structure of the development communities surrounding these projects. It may also be that the design community hasn't been as interested in contributing to open source projects as the engineering community. Or it may be that open source is the playground of engineers in their free time, a time where they do things their way without much interest in following the lead of designers (which would explain a relative lack of interest on the part of designers). In the end all of these are probably contributing factors.

Ben concludes:

Maybe that is the winning formula: a tastemaker setting direction, and those inspired by nothing more than the love of their work doing what they do best.

Or maybe not. One’s mind does wander on a holiday.

This certainly does seem to be the winning formula that has worked for Apple, yet Apple is the corporate anomonly. I think a big part of the reason this worked at Apple is not just Steve's role as tastemaker, not just the talent he surrounded himself with, but the fact that he actively listened and allowed himself to be challenged. He changed his mind extremely quickly when the right argument was made (often taking credit for the “new” idea). He was initially opposed to some of Apple's best strategic moves (such as iTunes for Windows) but was persuaded by his team. It is extremely rare to find a visionary tastemaker who has the ability to inspire and lead a team of passionate “A” players. Yet I believe it is far more rare to find such a person who can do so while retaining enough humility and reverence for the their work to keep their mind flexible in this way.

Can this same formula work elsewhere? I believe it can but only under rare circumstances2. Much more commonly I think the dictatorial leadership structure of our corporations results in a rather steep hidden tax on value creation. In aggregate this results in a cost far steeper than the bankrupcies Ben mentioned as the downside limit.

Nothing destroys intrinsic motivation faster than being told what to do (and sometimes how to do it) by leaders who are incapable of inspiring a natural desire to follow them. Sadly, far too many modern corporate “leaders” are MBA-trained managers who lack the authentic vision and charisma inspire such a following. Decisions are often made and communicated in ways that appear arbitrary and capricious to the team resulting in further destruction of intrinsic motivation. Talented teams capable of high energy and great work are stiffled in this kind of environment. The result is a team going through the motions without energy or inspiration and mediocre products that take too long and cost too much to produce.

The question of how to best organize ourselves to produce creativity, innovation and value is a complex one. It becomes even more complicated when we separate the questions of what system of organization might be most likely to produce these things from the question of what system of organization if successful might produce the greatest results. I'm pretty sure the answers to these questions are different. I'm also pretty sure that there are much better systems than the dictatorial style prevalent today if our goal is to produce more and easier to sustain innovation within an established corporation3. What I'm not sure of is whether we might be able to find a system of organization that can increase the frequency of creativity and innovation in our corporations without artificially limiting the degree of innovation that is possible.

In other words, how do we optimize for the common case without preventing positive anomalies like Apple under Steve Jobs?

  1. When I discuss open source projects I am specifically referring to volunteer open source projects. Corporate funded and controlled open source projects such as Android are of course not subject to the same forces as long as the sponsoring corporation funds development of the project.
  2. Elon Musk is a leader that may be capable of succeeding at this style of leadership.
  3. Better methods would have some kind of mechanism that enforces the appropriate consideration of those actually doing the hands-on work of creating new products. I don't have a strong idea about what this might look like but it must result in leaders capable of articulating a compelling and inspiring vision to those who are realizing that vision.