Friday, October 02, 2015

What Can Dog Trainers Teach Business?

Dan Pink started Ted Talks, and is the former chief speech writer for Vice President Al Gore. Here he talks about why contingent motivators are counter-useful for creative or slightly abstract business tasks, which he argues are the most important work that we do in the world today.

I would argue that last point, but it is no doubt believed by the kind of people who listen to Ted Talks!

Setting that aside, what is easy to miss in this talk is that incentives (what he calls "if-then" rewards) remain terrific performance motivators for simple tasks with simple rules and a clear destination to get to.  As Dan notes:

"Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus and concentrate the mind.  That's why they work in so many cases."

Dogs, of course, are not being asked to do creative or complex tasks requiring higher or executive thought, and the real problem most trainers face is both Attention Deficit Disorder up and down the leash.

So, what do dog trainers have to teach Dan Pink and the world of business?

I would suggest one answer might be found in the mechanics of both Las Vegas gaming and dog training.

In both cases, we know that if rewards are normally coming in a very mechanical and simplistic fashion -- do this and get that -- the task becomes quite boring and is far less fulfilling than if rewards are staggered and varied, with mild rewards interspersed with no rewards, and the occasional "jackpot" for very good performance.

Below, we have Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, noting that dopamine (i.e. pleasure) levels in monkeys and humans rises rapidly when rewards come less often and a "game-reward" frame is triggered.

How would intermittent and jackpot rewards be operationalized in the world of business?  I am not sure, but I have no doubt it could be come.

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