The power of motivation for innovation has been in focus for research for the last decades. In this post Susanna Bill shares a personal experience of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation to explain why communities of practice need to be managed carefully.

Thank you dear reader for clicking on the Innovation Psychology Blog. You are one of the many readers that contribute to making this blog the second most read one at This was presented to us during a meeting in September and we were very proud and excited about it. The blog is after all not very old and innovation psychology is still a somewhat vague and undefined topic. We immediately initiated a discussion on how to become the most read blog including using social media and inviting guest writers.

I however, left the meeting feeling a bit uneasy and as I tried to nail it down I realized it was motivation. Knowing that we have so many readers turned me on and it worried me, especially since I immediately felt a need to figure out what the readers liked and produce more of that. My motivation for writing, the want to share my thoughts and reflections about innovation psychology had been “contaminated” with an externally imposed urge to please the reader. In other words my intrinsic motivation for writing was facing the fierce competitor of extrinsic motivation to adapt the writing in order to get acknowledgement from the community.

Throughout the years I have used considerable amount of time trying to figure out what was good for me. The “right” education to get the “right job”, the “right appearance” to get access to the “right networks” and so on. Some years ago I realized that it was not a very successful strategy – in the end I felt lost, confused and frankly did not deliver very high quality work – and have since worked hard to understand and allow my intrinsic motivation to steer the way in work as well as in my private life. The fact that I became so competitive and focused on beating the no 1 blog annoyed me since that to me had little to do with intrinsic motivation.

What I enjoy doing the most, when I immerse myself completely and forget about time and place is when the process itself and not the result becomes the goal of the activity. As you may know from my previous posts I love cooking and when I enter my kitchen I immediately fall into a focused and creative flow. Earlier this fall I auditioned for the Swedish version of the TV show Master Chef. As I prepared for the audition cooking all my favorite dishes, I suddenly did not enjoy cooking to the same extent as I usually do. I worried that I would make mistakes. I did not trust my gut feeling about flavors any longer and constantly checked recipes that I knew I knew by heart. I became so focused on getting into the show that I forgot the one thing that makes my food taste so good: the sheer joy of creating it. In hindsight a clear battle of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.

In one of their many jointly written articles John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid show how instrumental communities of practice are for creating knowledge in an organization. The interesting thing with communities of practice is that they tend to be informal and organic with members and knowledge moving in and out of the community independent of active involvement of the management. Formal structures on the contrary tend to suffocate the power and energy of communities of practice, when management force rules, behaviors and award system that are irrelevant to the informal characteristics of the communities. To me this is another way of expressing the issue of intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.

I do not think it is necessary to choose either or. And I do think that the kind of feedback we got is actually good because it encourages you to continue, especially if you are entering unknown territory and worry about if it is a good idea or not. I do however think that from a management perspective it may not always be good to explicitly acknowledge that which co-workers contribute with their intrinsic motivation. Instead leaders should work with setting conditions so that intrinsically driven informal structures of knowledge creation and knowledge sharing are enabled and empowered.

When writing this blog post I was inspired by

  • Brown, J. S and Duguid, P (1991) Organizational Learning and Communities- of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation

By Susanna Bill

About the author

Susanna is the former Head of Innovation at Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications. In 2009 she founded Sustenance AB and since then shares her time between advising corporate leaders in how to make innovation happen by strengthening the innovation capabilities of their organizations, and pursuing a PhD at the department of Design Sciences at Lund University, focusing on the social processes that are beneficial for the innovation capabilities of self organizing teams. Susanna is a sought after speaker and panelist and the moderator of Innovation in Mind conference.