Day 01: Incentives kill creativity. A Ted talk by Dan Pink that changed the way I think.

Today is my first day on  my self-imposed 365 days of Ted talks challenge and to mark the occasion I decided to kick off this journey with a great video  by Dan Pink titled ‘The Puzzle of Motivation.’  As someone who can struggle with motivation at times it seemed like a great video to kickstart this journey and put me into the right headspace. do incentives  work

 The core of this video is about motivation, problem solving skills and whether or not reward based incentives are as successful as society would have us believe. Dan uses the candle problem, which was  created by Karl Duncker some 70 years ago, to discuss the pros and cons of reward based incentives.

What is the Candle Problem?

The Candle Problem

Challenge: Fix a lit candle onto the wall making sure that no candle wax will be able to drip onto the table below.


  • One candle
  • One box of thumbtacks
  • One box of matches

Experiment #1

Dan talks about an experiment run by Sam Glucksberg from Princeton University that involved timing his participants to see how long it would take them to  complete the challenge.  Sam split the participants into two groups. The first group were told that there were being timed to see how long it would typically take someone to solve this problem. The second group  were told that if they were in the top 25% of people to complete the problem they would get a small monetary reward. Even better, if they were the fastest overall they would get an even higher reward.  Which group do you think solved the challenge the fastest? The incentivised group took almost 4 minutes longer to complete the challenge than the group which were offered no reward.

Experiment #2

The experiment was run a second time and this time Glucksberg placed all the items from the experiment in a way in which it would be significantly easier for the participants to solve the problem. In this scenario, the group that were offered incentives completed the task far more quicker than the group offered no incentives. Dan says that  if-then rewards work really well when  using “a simple set of rules with a clear destination to go to.”  Put simply,  reward based incentives narrows focus and should only be used for specific tasks as it doesn’t leave much room for out-of-the-box thinking.

Should incentives be used in the workplace?

Free thinking leads to innovation

I have worked in businesses where rewards were used as a motivational tool. Looking back I can now see that these practices kill creativity and innovation. Why would we take risks and explore new ways of doing things if the straightforward path had the reward at the end? If we explored new paths which were not successful we would be punished by getting no reward.  These new paths could eventually amount to a far greater success rate in both  productivity and revenue yet no one would ever know  as rewards stifle experimentation, innovation and creativity.

From a business viewpoint,unless the task is automated with no room for improvement, rewards based incentives should be used sparingly, if at all. I love the approach that many companies are now taking, which is allowing their staff to use some of their workday to work on anything they like.  The catch is that the project they work on cannot be a part  of their assigned tasks. This ‘down-time’ from assigned tasks is where innovation happens, just ask Google. Google  is popular for using this approach in their company. In fact, many Google tools which you probably use  everyday were  created in this ‘free-thinking’ time.

Key takeaway I learnt from watching Dan Pink’s Ted talk “The puzzle of motivation”

If and when the time comes for me to hire a team, I shall be following this approach. I want a team that is motivated by the work and innovation and not by monetary rewards.  Now don’t get me wrong, I believe in paying everyone very fair to begin with.  When hiring contractors for project based jobs I will give bonuses if I think its deserved, but bonuses and rewards are never the approach I use to attract contractors to my projects.   Fair pay and the project itself is the motivation I use.

Ultimately it comes down to being mindful that incentive based tasks could produce a different result than what you had anticipated. If a task you delegate is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require any specific creativity, then by all means add a little incentive. However if you require some innovation and outside-the-box thinking you are probably best to hold back on that incentive.

So whats the solution to the candle problem? You will have to watch the video to find out! It’s definitely made me question some existing beliefs. Do you have experience with rewards-based incentives? Let me know in the comments below.