I just finished Eric Steven Raymond’s Homesteading the Noosphere. It’s a terrific read for anyone looking for a thorough look at the inner workings of the open source software development community. Like others, whenever reading this kind of stuff sooner or later apophenia hits and I try to tie bits to my own discipline, which isn’t programming but design.
In one of the last chapters of the essay (titled Gift Outcompetes Exchange). Raymond offers some tantalising insights into the relationships between doing complex creative work, motivation, and reward. While reading it I recognised a lot of ideas that I’ve long felt are important but could never really articulate. Now I finally have some great quotes, and (over 10 year old) research to back it up!
Psychologist Theresa Amabile of Brandeis University, cautiously summarizing the results of a 1984 study of motivation and reward, observed “It may be that commissioned work will, in general, be less creative than work that is done out of pure interest.”. Amabile goes on to observe that “The more complex the activity, the more it’s hurt by extrinsic reward.” Interestingly, the studies suggest that flat salaries don’t demotivate, but piecework rates and bonuses do.
Thus, it may be economically smart to give performance bonuses to people who flip burgers or dug ditches, but it’s probably smarter to decouple salary from performance in a programming shop and let people choose their own projects (both trends that the open-source world takes to their logical conclusions). Indeed, these results suggest that the only time it is a good idea to reward performance in programming is when the programmer is so motivated that he or she would have worked without the reward!
Other researchers in the field are willing to point a finger straight at the issues of autonomy and creative control that so preoccupy hackers. “To the extent one’s experience of being self-determined is limited,” said Richard Ryan, associate psychology professor at the University of Rochester, “one’s creativity will be reduced as well.”
So a team of designers working in the mode Raymond describes would choose their own projects and not be rewarded for their performance on projects (which is usually measured in efficiency and client satisfaction). In stead, to really keep them motivated, they’d be given a large amount of autonomy (and wouldn’t be instructed on which problems to solve and how to go about it). Of course, this only works with skilled workers, but I don’t think that’s the reason these philosophies haven’t been applied to design work on the scale they have been in programming. I think a lot of resistance for actually allowing designers work like this in a commercial setting are related to a fear of giving up control. Later on Raymond finishes the chapter with:
Indeed, it seems the prescription for highest software productivity is almost a Zen paradox; if you want the most efficient production, you must give up trying to make programmers produce. Handle their subsistence, give them their heads, and forget about deadlines. To a conventional manager this sounds crazily indulgent and doomed—but it is exactly the recipe with which the open-source culture is now clobbering its competition.
When will the first examples appear of design done in this way? When will the first projects pop up that outcompete the cathedral style designs process (or are they already among us)? Are there any designers out there actually working in this way? I’d love to hear from you.