Forcing Functions — Learning When To Use Them And When To Avoid Them

I keep hearing about “forcing functions” lately. Here are some of the ways in which people are using them:

  1. As a way to increase motivation:
    “Crack the whip on occasion — but do so in an understanding way. […] Arbitrary deadlines and bad-if-imaginary consequences may provide the necessary forcing function” — Alex Vartan.
  2. As a way to better define a problem:
    Operating costs can be viewed as a forcing function that requires you to clarify your priorities. — John Eden.
  3. As a way to reduce distraction:
    “Board members are also a good forcing function to keep the company focused on execution. In my experience, companies without any outsiders on their boards often have less discipline around operational cadence.” — Sam Altman

My opinion is that in situations such as (2) and (3) forcing functions can be very beneficial but there are situations such as (1) in which they’re detrimental.

In the 1st situation, the forcing function plays the role of an extrinsic motivator. Scientists have researched the effect of extrinsic motivators on creativity in the past 50 years and their conclusion is that extrinsic motivators “undermine autonomy and thus lead to suboptimal outcomes such as decreased intrinsic motivation, less creativity, and poorer problem solving” (Deci and Ryan — The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior).

Dan Pink’s summarizes these findings nicely in his TED talk.

Dan Pink: The puzzle of motivation

If all we know about motivating behaviour is that we need to apply the right forcing function all our motivation problems will look like extrinsic motivation problems. (“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” — Anonymous)

Takeaways:

  1. Knowing how intrinsic and extrinsic motivators work is critical to solving motivation problems effectively and obtaining optimal results (I recommend reading Dan Pink’s book: Drive and if you want to go deep, check out Ed Deci’s Handbook of Self Determination Research (Deci is one of the leading scientists in the field of human motivation and his work has been the inspiration of Pink’s book).
  2. As a generic heuristic, avoid extrinsic motivators in complex problem solving situations that require high levels of autonomy and creativity.
  3. Make sure that forcing-functions that start-off as constraints to better solve problems and focus don’t turn into motivation devices. (e.g: the board in situation (2) starts off as a constraint for focus and ends up as a perceived threat to autonomy which in turn will decrease motivation. — e.g: “Why do we need to focus?” Because we have a board that wants us to focus.)

Thanks to Vladimir Oane, Andrei Soare, Vlad Berteanu, Cristi Strat, Mircea Pasoi, Rodica Damian and Eliza Bivolaru for reviewing drafts of this piece.

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