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What makes a company fun to work for? Well, I’ve worked for startups that had pinball machines, open bars, and hammocks. That was fun! I’ve also worked for startups and larger companies that had none of those things, and I enjoyed working for some of those companies even more. The most fun I’ve had was working on a challenging problem with a great team, having the freedom to try new things, sometimes to fail, ultimately to succeed, and building something great that matters.

A company culture is a set of patterns of accepted behavior, and the beliefs and values that promote and reinforce them. The right company culture will set the stage for high-performing individuals and teams. When the culture is wrong, then the other stuff doesn’t matter. Not only will it be a poor performing organization, it also won’t be any fun. As Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

So, what leads to high performance? It depends on the task. For simple, mechanical tasks, an extrinsic reward, like money, can result in better performance. For complex, non-repetitive tasks that require problem solving, the research clearly shows that extrinsic rewards don’t work. So how do we motivate an engineering organization that requires complex problem solving to a high level of performance? It’s all about intrinsic motivation.

Richard Ryan and Edward Deci have published extensively on intrinsic motivation. It turns out that intrinsic motivators lead to better performance for complex, non-repetitive problem solving tasks. They describe intrinsic motivation as “doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequences”. Simply put, people are motivated by the work itself rather than an additional reward.

In his 2009 book, Drive, which is largely based on Ryan & Deci’s research, Dan Pink argues that it takes 3 things: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the urge to direct our own lives. Mastery is the desire to get better and better at something that matters. Purpose is the yearning to do what we do in the service of something bigger than ourselves.

Not only is this finding backed by research, it makes intuitive sense. It’s why talented software developers will spend non-working time contributing to open source projects for no money. They’re motivated by the autonomy of choosing how to do challenging work, the desire to sharpen their skills, and the opportunity to contribute to important software projects that are reshaping industries.

Here’s an example. Netflix might be best known for it’s innovative products, such as it’s original DVD-by-mail service and it’s current streaming video service. It’s also well-known for it’s innovative technology, particularly in the area of cloud computing and microservices. But their most important innovation might be the Netflix culture. They value integrity, excellence, respect, inclusivity, and collaboration, but what makes Netflix unique is how much they:

  1. encourage independent decision-making by employees
  2. share information openly, broadly, and deliberately
  3. are extraordinarily candid with each other
  4. keep only highly effective people
  5. avoid rules

You can see autonomy, mastery, and purpose reflected in these points. Fun is an expected result: “with this approach, we are a more flexible, fun, stimulating, creative, collaborative and successful organization.”

The key to creating a fun workplace is to focus on autonomy, mastery and purpose. First, give your team a task and then let them find the best way to solve the problem. Don’t micromanage! Second, create opportunities for the team members to improve their skills to the point of mastery. A great way to do this is to offer skills-based events, like hackathons, or provide advanced, online training courses for the team. Third, create a sense of purpose by tying the work to something bigger. Contributing to open source projects or donating a percentage of revenues to a charity are great options.

It’s well worth the time to craft a great company culture. In my experience, ping-pong tables can’t take the place of a high-performing company culture, especially for engineering organizations.