SQUAD kick off, by Carolina Faria (2017)

Unveiling motivation

Motivation is a funny thing, something that apparently only people who are good at it can actually motivate others. It seems that it is a matter of instinct, something not tangible or that you can't write in an excel sheet.

And I agree with that.

Motivating people is more about the way we act, what we transmit to them. True motivation is not measurable it is connected to our beliefs and values.

This is very intrinsic and indeed very interesting.

I have been on a quest for motivation for the last seven months, since I started working as a Teaching Assistant at Porto Design Factory (look it up, it’s a cool place). I am connected to three programmes for design, business and engineering students. In these programmes, students work in international teams and develop projects for companies, for 6-8 months. Only a few each year are selected to participate and they get a chance to travel and develop a real project. Therefore, at first, it is very enticing and they are proud to belong to PDF and all that it entails.

So far, it seems pretty clear and fittable in an excel sheet:

  • Standing out in the class
  • Traveling and meeting new people
  • Working on a real project

This will stimulate different kinds of motivation in people, but the end goal is fulfilled: they are 100% into it!

However interesting it sounds, these students are all in different situations. Some get university credits, others do it because they want to, some work while they study, they all have different schedules, etc. Which means that as the new arrival rush washes off and the project starts to get tougher, it’s harder to keep them motivated.

So this topic has been on my mind for some time.

There is actually a pretty good TED Talk about this: The puzzle of motivation, by Dan Pink (TEDGlobal 2009). He explains extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic motivation.

Pink on extrinsic motivation:

Rewards work well for easy tasks where there’s a simple set of rules and a clear destination. Rewards by their very nature narrow our focus, concentrate the mind. That’s why they work in so many cases. So, for tasks like this, a narrow focus, where you just see the goal right there, zoom straight ahead to it, they work really well.

And on intrinsic motivation:

A desire to do things because they matter, because they are part of something important, because we care.

So, I think there should be right measures of the two, mostly intrinsic motivation to aim higher and some extrinsic to get the job done. The first can come by creating an environment of freedom, where people are valued and by giving them the opportunity to meet other inspiring people. The second can happen in having important presentations scheduled throughout the year.

The Design Factory feeling

Well, intrinsic motivation is already what we go for at my workplace, although, I don’t really call it my workplace, it’s my second home and, essentially, it’s a place that I believe in.

This is actually the feeling that we want everyone to have here. I guess this is common for all Design Factories. Before continuing, just a quick intro, Design Factories are:

innovation hubs in universities and research organisations in five continents of the world. Design Factory Global Network is on a mission to create change in the world of learning and research through passion-based culture and effective problem solving.

Which means these are places where different ways of learning are explored, being that in PDF all programmes should be team-based, interdisciplinary, international, going for impact and focused in the end-user.

If you are a PDF inhabitant — staff member, student in one of our programmes, professional in our start up incubator — we want you to feel that this place is yours. Your programme’s room, is your colleagues and yours’ responsibility. It is yours to decorate it, sleep in, prototype, but it’s also on you to keep it together.

As staff, we are there to facilitate your work process and other activities, as you use the house for anything that will benefit everyone.

As a former student and now staff member, I can say that I really feel empowered there, not only because of the space, its mindset and rules, but also because of the people and the relationship that this mindset promotes.

So the question here is not to go from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation — we are already there — but still I find challenges.

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

In his talk, Dan mentions the three keywords of intrinsic motivation:

Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.
Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.
Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Regarding Autonomy, think of higher education and open-ended projects.

Yes, I can understand the word: give people the space, freedom and responsibility to work in their projects. For better or worse it’s their project. Teaching teams are there to guide —give feedback and ask questions — but students need to figure out what directions to take. They will bump into walls, they will learn with their mistakes and embrace failure and ambiguity.
What I realized is the difficulty in giving autonomy while teaching a methodology. There can be balance brought by having little methodology, with deadlines and deliverables to add the structure. So, autonomy is within the deadline space and students figure out what is the best process for their project and do it. Here they have autonomy and ambiguity, but they don't learn much about methodology, I think.

When they have methodology, tools and deadlines, students don’t have autonomy to define their own process, which should be adapted to their specific project briefing and team dynamics. So, maybe we need to teach the methodology in a different way, without tools and deliverables.

This is something I haven't figure out yet, but the balance of autonomy and structure does influence motivation, because it influences the power you have on your own project.

Regarding Mastery, since they are either in the last year of their bachelor’s or already in the master’s, students bring their hard skills to the table. This usually means that they have a focus and are interested in developing certain skills within their area.

Regarding Purpose, this is not about the What, it is about the Why. This is not a goal, something tangible, the end product, but rather something holistic. It is why we do what we do. So, in these projects, it's the big Why that makes teams move together to develop the project. The reason for the project is what makes team members connect with it. I think that it is really hard to make things happen when this fails. I believe this goes hand in hand with owning a project. Feeling that it is yours, that you have a sense of responsibility and commitment, comes from connecting to it.

Some other ingredients on the recipe

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose seem to be the pillars of intrinsic motivation, however, I have been thinking of a few more.


If you don’t have a coherent message, people will not trust you. This may seem obvious, but quite often we are not 100% sure of what we are doing, and people around should always feel that the message and structure are clear.

Also, I believe that as we create and communicate a coherent message, it is very important to set the bar. In our case, although projects are open-ended and they may start with a very broad and ambiguous briefing, students must have an idea of how high they have to go, however diverse the result may be.


Going back to extrinsic motivation, this may seem contradictory, however having some sort of obligation is important when things get tough. Especially in open-ended projects, quite often you don’t know what to do, therefore having some extrinsic motivation ensures people don’t give up. In PDF, we have three presentations throughout the year, where all teams present their projects to a full audience of students, companies and media. I find this an amazing extrinsic motivator! Besides helping teams communicate their idea and get feedback, this makes them make decisions and define together what their project is about.

Add value

To build more on intrinsic motivation, receiving credits in university or getting paid by a company is not enough to motivate people in open-ended projects. Also, creating a place where you are free to be yourself sometimes isn't enough, because it works until teams need to work hard and make sacrifices. Motivation can come in small doses, such as pitching your project/idea to inspiring people and later work with their feedback in mind. Giving them tangible goals and empowering opportunities.

The funny thing here is that — whether we talking about presentations or meeting inspiring people — these events may seem to serve their own purpose, however, their actual goal is to help students learn and develop a better and better project.

I think this is one of the hidden truths of why these projects work: everything is about the students, everything that is done is for students to learn, evolve and make great projects. In the middle of all the ambiguity of the projects, what remains bulletproof, in my opinion, is the fact that students always come first and are the center of everything that goes on in here.

Final notes

Well, all that I have been talking about here is referring to my experience with education. But I think the same applies to business and to our personal life. When we start putting people first, trusting them and giving them the right environment to create, they are capable of a lot of lot more than what is expected.

Finally, this is me trying to figure out motivation, by spilling my thoughts onto my phone. This is not a recipe for motivation, it is a combination of ideas and reflexions. I am not an expert on the theme, I am just trying to figure it out and I have failed and learned a lot during these months.

So, what is motivation to you?

Now, I think motivation is empowerment. This is my current perspective, but I hope it will keep on changing with time.