Dan Pink at TEDGlobal 2009: Running notes from Session 12

Posted by: Shanna Carpenter


Dan Pink, once a speechwriter for Al Gore, is now a career analyst beginning a revolution in the workplaces of the world. This morning at TEDGlobal he begins by noting that a little over 20 years ago, he did something that he regrets. He went to law school. He didn’t do very well. Pink jokes that he graduated in the part of his class that made the top 90 percent possible. He never practiced law a day in his life as he wasn’t allowed to. But today, against his better judgment, he says, he wants to use some of those legal skills. He wants to make a case for rethinking how we run our businesses.

Pink shows a slide title “The candle problem,” a psychological experiment created by Karl Duncker in 1935. A person is brought into a room and given a candle, a box of thumbtacks and matches and asked to attach the candle to the wall so that the wax doesn’t drip on to the table. The person who can solve the candle problem is one who, rather than seeing the box as receptacle for the tacks, sees it as something that can be used in the solution. The box is tacked to the wall and the candle placed on it.

This experiment is used to learn about incentives, Pink explains. Two groups of people are offered the problem — the first group is simply timed and the second group is offered rewards. It takes the second group three and and a half minutes longer than the first group, on average, to solve the problem. “That’s not how its suposed to wrk! I’m an American. Incentives work!” Pink exclaims. But, he says, this experiment has shown that incentives actually dull thinking and block creativity and he notes that this is not an aberration. It’s been shown over and over again. It’s one of the most robust findings in social science and also one of the most ignored. There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.

Another experiment was done with the problem presented in a slightly different way. Th tacks were taken out of the box, and then the incentivzed group did much better than the other. Pink says this is because it’s an easy problem. For these types of tasks of narrow focus, where you can see the goal right there, rewards work really well.

However, he points out that around the world, white collar workers are doing less of this second type of work and more of the first. Narrow tasks have become fairly easy to outsource and to automate and right-brain conceptual tasks have become more important. Everybody in this room, Pink says, is dealing with their own version of the candle problem. And for those people the if-then rewards don’t work. “This is not a feeling. I’m a lawyer, I have no feelings. This is not a philosophy. I’m an American, I don’t believe in philosophy,” he says. This is a fact, Pink asserts.

He draws on the a study by Dan Ariely and his colleagues. Ariely et al found that once the given task in one of these experiments was only a mechanical skill, rewards would mean better performance, but if any rudimentary cognitive skill was needed, a larger reward would mean a worse performance. The study was retested in India to control for cultural differences and they found got the same results. Studies at the London School of Economics have also found that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on performance.

So, Pink says, to get out of the messes of the 20th century, we don’t need to do more of the wrong things. We need a new approach, one that includes three basic elements: Autonomy, mastery and purpose. These are the building blocks of an entirely new operating system. Today, he says he’s going to talk about autonomy. The traditional notions of management are great if you only want compliance, he explains. But for creative thinking, we have to approach things differently.

He points to the software company Atlassian — a few times a year, they tell their engineers to go off for 24 hours and work on anything that is not their regular job. Then they all come back together and present their work. They call these Fedex days, because they have to deliver something overnight. Atlasssian has taken also implemented the 20 percent time rule that Google has, where employees can take that 20 percent of their time at work to work on whatever they want. Pink says that about half of Google’s products have come from that time.

Pink also advocates results only work environments (ROWE) where there are no schedules, people don’t have to work in the office, employees can work wherever and whenever they want and meetings are optional. When companies implement ROWE policy, he says, productivity always goes up and turnover goes down.

For more evidence, he discusses two different models that were posed for creating a digital encyclopedia. The Microsoft model which included hiring researchers and experts and extensive planning, and the Wikipedia model where people would participate because they were interested. Pink asserts that 10 years ago, you could not have found two economists who would have said that the Wikipedia model would work better, but it does.

Science knows that motivators only work to solve narrow problems, Pink declares, but they destroy creativity. Maybe, he says, if we can increase productivity in solving the candle problems everywhere, we can change the world.

Photo: Dan Pink at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 12: “Enquire within,” July 24, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson

Comments (10)

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  • Mehdi Maghsoodnia commented on Feb 1 2011

    great talk. I totally agree. My biggest success in management has been when I leave the team alone and give them a purpose.

  • Michael J. Trout commented on Sep 7 2009

    His ideas need to not only applies to business but to education. We will make sure these ideas and concepts are incorporated in the eSingularity platform EDUIT is looking to build for an educational solution for Asia.

  • Toogo Telework commented on Aug 25 2009

    As usual, my horizons have been stretched by a Ted talk. I was already a strong advocate of work autonomy as applied to location and schedule (i.e. various telework scenarios), but now I have some borrowed science to back up the argument my heart made, and I can envision new potential applications.

  • Marco Armani commented on Aug 25 2009

    Beautifully put, and very well presented. Makes me think back about old organizations I worked for and how they ran their business, and how different it is from what I’m experiencing now. Dan, thanks for so perfectly putting this idea into words and for tying in the science behind it so well.

  • Cantona Pop commented on Aug 24 2009

    Their best effort would rely on the quality of empowerment. Members of the empowerment team would have to confront their own tendencies to manipulate, enable and figure out what empowerment actually is. There is no winner/loser, there is only the beauty of bringing excellence to being in relationship with others. I would so love to see that reality show. CantonaX

  • Nancy Williams commented on Aug 24 2009

    I was watching a reality show: Biggest Loser, and while I was inspired to do something about my own weight issue, I was turned off by the competition. I realized I was seeing a perfect example of the widespread dis-empowering practices entrenched in our societies. I got the idea to Montessori-ize the reality show. Wouldn’t it be cool to have a show that was based on empowerment. So, (taking Biggest Loser as example) the purpose of the show would be to have experts and peers empower participants such that they took off as much weight as they possibly could. Their best effort would rely on the quality of empowerment. Members of the empowerment team would have to confront their own tendencies to manipulate, enable and figure out what empowerment actually is. There is no winner/loser, there is only the beauty of bringing excellence to being in relationship with others. I would so love to see that reality show. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Nancy Williams commented on Aug 24 2009

    Dan, what you are talking about is something Maria Montessori saw when she began observing human behaviour in children. She found that the reward/punishment quickly shifted the source for action from one based on what the pure self has to offer to one based on being judged and evaluated. She saw that as soon as rewards were offered frustration, fear, disinterest, and sometimes even misbehavior replaced the intrigue and concentration that accompanied doing something out of interest and collaboration.

  • David Yorka commented on Aug 22 2009

    Outstanding offering as usual. TED is on my dream destination list –until then I continue to enjoy the blog/vlog/pod/post bonanza of bright lights!
    (please edit my comment –I believe there is a type-o in paragraph four, end of first line.)