I learned a very profound thing from my partner Dave Jilk at Feld Technologies 25 years ago. I have been practicing, and getting better at it, ever since. It’s a core part of the way I work with people and I have Dave to thank for it.
First, some context. Feld Technologies was my first company. Dave and I started it in 1987. We hired, then fired, a bunch of part time people and then just worked together – the two of us – for the next 18 months until we hired our first employee (Shawn Broderick). We were cash flow positive every month because we never raised any outside money. We both did everything, working very closely together. As the company grew, we partitioned a lot of things – I became the sales guy – generating much of our new business. Dave became the software guy, managing the team and getting the work done. But we continued to work closely together – he sold plenty of business and I did plenty of work, including doing all the network integration work for our clients, and occasionally managed something.
We were both young and very inexperienced so we learned a lot together, mostly by screwing things up and then fixing them. Sometimes we had a lot of fun, sometimes we were under tremendous stress, and every now and then one of us was miserable. We were (and continue to be) best friends so when one of us was very unhappy, the other could pick up on the vibe quickly and we talked about it.
I remember a stretch of time where I could tell that Dave was really aggravated with me. This wasn’t uncommon – our love and respect included plenty of “moments” as we were both developing into real adults. But this aggravation seemed deeper and didn’t surface in an obvious way.
I remember taking Dave out to dinner at a sushi place called Nara around the corner from our office at 260 Franklin Street in Boston. I can picture how the night felt – dark and empty with plenty of downtown Boston ambient noise. We went to Nara a lot – this was way before sushi became trendy and it was one of the few places in Boston, located a few blocks away from our office. They had excellent huge bottles of cold beer and amazing fish. And it was always quiet and there was always a booth open.
We sat down, got our beers, and I started with the issue, as I often do.
I asked, “Dave, what’s bugging you so much right now.”
“Why? What am I doing that’s bugging you.”
“Working with you is like reading the last page of a novel first.”
I sat nursing my beer for a quiet, long minute pondering this. I mentally read the last page of a novel and thought I knew what Dave meant. Eventually Dave broke the silence.
“When I bring an issue to you, you immediately tell me the answer. 99% of the time you are correct. So I then go spend all of my time looking for a solution that is better that yours. But I only find it 1% of the time. This is incredibly unsatisfying to me.”
I think he may have added something like “fucking demotivating” but by this point I totally groked it. We had an awesome dinner discussing what over the last 25 years we have regularly referred to as “the last page in the book problem.”
Today, I try hard not to start by telling the answer immediately. The CEOs and entrepreneurs I work with need to learn how to get to the answer. And their answer, in many cases, will be better than mine since I don’t have enough context or information to be right 99% of the time like I did when I was the president of Feld Technologies. But even more importantly, a great CEO knows this also. His team doesn’t want to always hear the answer first. Sometimes they do, or need to, but often they want to be able to talk openly, collect data, and come to it over time.
This brief moment has had a profound impact on how I work. While I despise Mr. Socrates (the guy who just asks question after question after question and never expresses a point of view) and don’t emulate him, I definitely ask more “guided questions” when presented with a problem. I tell more stories to try to give examples of how others have solved the problem. And occasionally, when I realize the CEO is asking for the answer (e.g. when Bart Lorang, in the middle of a board meeting, says “Brad, just tell me the fucking answer – I know you know it.”) I tell the answer. But in the back of my mind I always remember that part of learning the answer is figuring out how to find it.
I’m sitting on my balcony on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking Miami Beach thinking about motivation. Specifically, mine. I’m deep into writing the first draft of Startup Communities and – with Amy – decided to plant myself in a warm place for two weeks as I finished up this draft.
We got here late Monday night. Today is the first day I wrote any words on the book. I procrastinated as long as I could and finally opened up the doc in Scrivener and started writing after my run today. I pounded out a solid hour of writing before shifting gears, responding to some email, and writing a few blog posts. I know that I can only productively write for a max of four hours a day before my writing turns into total crap so I’ll be happy with another hour today. I’ll then consider myself fully in gear for four hours tomorrow.
While I was on my run, my mind drifted to motivation. I kept repeating one of my favorite lines – “you can’t motivate people, you can only create a context in which people are motivated.” I’m pretty sure I heard that for the first time from Dan Grace when we were both working with the Kauffman Foundation in the 1990’s and it has stuck with me.
It felt particularly relevant today. There is no external force “motivating me” to write this book. I’m doing it because I want to, find it interesting, challenging, and think it’ll be a useful thing for the world. It’s a cop-out to say I’m “self-motivated” especially since my run on the beach capped off two full days of procrastination where I kept very busy on other work, but didn’t do the specific thing I came here to do. After two days in the environment that I needed to be motivated, I finally settled down and started doing the real work I had come here to do.
If you generalize this, it plays out over and over again every day. The great entrepreneurs I know work incredibly hard at creating environments that are motivating. They don’t pound away at the specific task of “motivating people”, rather they pay attention to creating context, removing barriers, being supportive, putting the right people in the room, and leading by doing. All of these things create a context in which people are motivated.
It could be as simple as a warm day on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking the beach, which I know is an ideal place for me to write. Or it could be an awesome office environment with incredibly challenging problems. Or it could be a set of people who are amazing to spend time with. In any case, the context is the driver of motivation.
Ponder that the next time someone asks “what do I need to do to motivate you?” Or, more importantly, consider it the next time you are about to ask someone “what do I need to do to motivate you?” The answer might surprise you.
At a talk I gave recently to a room full of first year graduate business school students, I was asked “what motivates me.” Before I answered, I felt compelled to explain what intrinsic motivation is and used the following example to describe it.
“Tonight, I’ll spend about 90 minutes talking to y’all. I’m doing it because I enjoy it and I learn from it. While I hope it is useful to you, that’s not the reason I’m doing it. While I hope you have fun, learn something, and enjoy our time together, I won’t feel better or worse if you do. In fact, since my goal is to learn from everything I do, I’d much rather you give me feedback about things you think could have improved our 90 minutes together.”
I then went on to explain that I’m motivated by learning. I’ve decided to spend my entire professional life learning about entrepreneurship and have decided that my laboratory is “creating and helping build software and Internet companies.” I derive enormous personal pleasure from the act of working with entrepreneurs, helping create companies, and learning from the successes and failures.
Over time, I’ve expanded the range of things that contribute to my learning. During the past four years I’ve spent a lot of time with first time entrepreneurs through the creation and development of TechStars program. As part of that, I decided to try to codify some of what I’d learned. That led to me writing Do More Faster with David Cohen, which led to another opportunity to learn, this time about the process of creating, publishing, and promoting a book.
In each of these cases, I’m intrinsically motivated. I hope that TechStars is a success. I hope that every company that goes through TechStars benefits from it. I hope that the book that David and I have written is good. I hope that it is well received. I hope that people learn from it. But none of these are why I spent enormous amounts of time and energy on each activity.
I spent the time and energy because I continuously learned from my experiences. And I deeply enjoyed the activities I was involved in. Sure – I had plenty of difficult moments (or days), lots of things that didn’t work, and plenty of things that I felt I didn’t do nearly as well as I could have. But I learned from each of them.
I recently was in a conversation with someone who was clearly extrinsically motivated. He approached me as though I was extrinsically motivated. He kept thanking me for what I was doing for him and then asking me what he could do for me. I finally stopped him and explained the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. I told him that I had no expectation that he’d do anything for me – that I was spending time with him because I hoped to learn something from every interaction I had.
While I’ve presented this as an absolute (e.g. you are either intrinsically or extrinsically motivated), I know that it’s a spectrum for almost everyone (including me). But I think it’s important, and very useful, to understand which end of the spectrum someone is on. Don’t assume everyone is like you!
One of my blog readers – Boaz Fletcher – sent me an awesome video this morning from RSA Animate. It’s 11 minutes long and is a fascinating lecture by Dan Pink about The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. I love the RSA Animate format – an artist animates the talk on a giant whiteboard in real time.
In this case Pink takes on the question of “Does More Money Motivate Higher Performance?” In the first few minutes he shows that while this works for tasks requiring mechanical skill, this does not work for tasks that require even rudimentary cognitive skill. In fact, in these cases there is an negative correlation between greater monetary reward and increased performance. It’s counterintuitive, but the talk illustrates it beautifully with several examples that will appeal to any technology entrepreneur.
There are several deeply insightful points including the notion that we crave autonomy and mastery in addition to simply making a contribution and getting rewarded economically for it. Furthermore, if the “profit motive” gets unmoored from the “purpose motive”, bad things happen.
Ultimately Pink makes a good case that as managers and entrepreneurs, we need to get past the ideology of using carrots and sticks to motivate people. Grab 11 minutes and learn something important today.