Sunday, December 26, 2010

Mobile Computing: A Wasted Opportunity

There's a revolution brewing because of mobile computing, but it might never get off the ground.

Thanks to Steve Jobs, we're now making computers so small and portable that they can be used anywhere--like right now, as I stand in line at Nordstrom Rack (Editor's note: This blog post was written on 12/23/2010). All of a sudden, there is something productive I can do wherever I go (assuming you consider writing blog posts productive).

The danger is that all the usual siren songs are also there--the Four Horsemen of distraction: Email, Twitter, Facebook, and the Web. And with mobile computing, consumption is always going to be easier than creation. Even now, I find typing on my iPod painfully slow.

Clay Shirky writes about the potential benefits of "cognitive surplus" if we can redirect TV time into productive work. Heck, I'd settle for redirecting waiting-in-line time from videogames and idle sexual fantasies to productive work.

I would love to see people taking advantage of their downtime to write or self-reflect, but Silicon Valley seems determined to lure them into raising virtual crops or making virtual friends instead.

What do you do with your mobile computing time? Are you using it to advance the things that really matter to you? Or are you still wasting it?

Rewards and the Motivation Paradox

I'm finally getting around to reading Daniel Pink's "Drive." I had held off for a long time, figuring that I didn't need to read someone else's rehashing of Deci, since I'd already read the source material.

I was wrong.

Pink does a great job of synthesizing a number of different strands, including behavioral economics, Deci's work, as well as reformers like Alfie Kohn. I found myself discovering unexpected new insights.

1) I've always had difficulty reconciling studies that show that extrinsic rewards hamper productivity with clear business examples where they help. For example, one of the classic studies I recall from HBS is Emerson Electric, which uses piecework rewards to drive incredibly high levels of productivity.

Pink explains this paradox by highlighting the mechanism of action. Extrinsic rewards harm productivity by displacing intrinsic motivations. But in cases where intrinsic motivations don't apply (e.g. situations where the work is routine and straightforward), extrinsic rewards increase motivation and productivity.

That fits perfectly with piecework assembly of electronic components (though even then, one must be careful to specify a quality target as well, since extrinsic rewards tend to encourage corner-cutting).

2) I've also had difficulty swallowing the notion that money doesn't motivate simply because Silicon Valley is built on money. For all the high-falutin' talk about changing the world, most entrepreneurs still fight like hell to avoid dilution.

But after reading Pink's book, the answer there is clear as well. For entrepreneurs, the intrinsic motivations for starting a successful company are so strong that no amount of external rewards can affect them. Creating a new company is a process that drips with the key factors of autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

In addition, the very uncertainty of entrepreneurship may inoculate entrepreneurs against the negative effects of rewards. Researchers have found that contingent ("if-then") rewards affect motivation, but unexpected rewards do not. Since no one can guarantee the results of your startup, the potential reward doesn't reduce intrinsic motivation.

For proof, just look at instances where startups are acquired with a contingent earn-out--how often have you seen acquired entrepreneurs go nuts as they "punch the clock" and "turn the crank", counting the days until they're free to start a new company.

I'm only 1/3 through the book--hopefully I'll have more insights to report when I'm done!