‘Intrinsic Joy’ Sparks Ideas Better than Cash

It seems obvious: If you want to boost innovation from a crowd writing and improving software code, just dangle a cash incentive.

When GitHub began offering matching funds to open source software users who snagged outside sponsors in 2019, it seemed to work well. The users eligible to be sponsored contributed far more “repos” (software packages placed and held in a repository) during the run-up to their payout than those who didn’t participate.

Yet, once paid, a sponsored user’s community-driven contributions and long-term engagement tanked, finds recent research from Harvard Business School assistant professor Maria Roche and colleagues. Essentially, the authors write, payment killed the “intrinsic joy” developers felt, a motivation akin to scientists making a big discovery.

“So often, money is the quick fix. Or you think it will work—that everything will be attracted to money,” Roche says. But as one developer told Roche, adding cash to the mix can sour the task at hand.

“He said, ‘As soon as your sponsor pays for it, even if it’s just five bucks, they’re holding you accountable to fix their problems.’ And he thought that was absolutely ridiculous because he’s doing this for fun. He wants to help others,” Roche recalls.

The paper’s co-authors include Annamaria Conti, an associate professor at IE Business School; Vansh Gupta, an analyst at Charles River Associates who participated as an undergraduate student at Cornell University; and Jorge Guzman, an associate professor at Columbia University.

When AI, open source, and incentives collide

The findings have implications for any kind of innovation drive stemming from crowdsourcing, a method of gathering information from large groups that has been around for decades but has gained steam during the past 10 years or so. People use crowdsourcing to solve problems, raise money, and share AI breakthroughs, the authors write.

Open source software—such as the popular content management system WordPress or the operating system Linux—gives users free access to the underlying code so that they can build on previous advances. Users typically share their innovations so that others may benefit.

In the fast-moving world of machine learning, many breakthroughs rely on open source tools, including Python libraries, the authors write. More than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies use open source products, the paper says, and GitHub is one of the major platforms where developers can collaborate and create.

And, how to structure incentives is an important area of research beyond information technology, with companies big and small debating the best ways to bring out creativity and productivity in their employees.

Test: GitHub’s sponsorship program

To parse how financial rewards help or hurt innovation, the authors examined data for some 100,000 GitHub users.

GitHub introduced the sponsorship program in May 2019, and more than 14,000 users qualified for sponsorship. Approved users could be sponsored by any other GitHub company or individual and could opt into the program. GitHub then offered to match the sponsorship for up to $5,000 for the first 12 months of eligibility, ending the match program on January 1, 2020.

The program began with a “beta” period from May to September 2019. In that time, “sponsorable” user contributions spiked, generating 27 percent more repos compared with those that weren’t eligible for sponsorship. Once the beta period ended, sponsorable users contributed 30 percent more repos than non-sponsorable users.

But once a user received their first sponsorship, their contributions tanked, with each sponsored user creating 16 percent fewer repos per month than unsponsored users.

“This is like any other incentive program and organization when they roll them out,” Roche says. “Even if they’re well-intended and people think they’re going to work, there has to be some way of testing them to see if they actually achieve what the intention was.”

Creating community matters

The decline points to something money can’t buy—belonging to community and a member’s reputation in it, something that we all crave on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, Roche says. Though GitHub is virtual, users are still looking to create community through joint norms and practices.

“If you have a strong culture and community, you can get so much more out of your people,” Roche says. “Then, you may not need these other really high-powered incentives—if there’s commitment to actually helping others and producing things for everyone else.”

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Feedback or ideas to share? Email the Working Knowledge team at hbswk@hbs.edu.

Designer’s note: Illustration created using stock images from AdobeStock/Retouch man, AdobeStock/Vali, AdobeStock/Summit Art Creations, and AdobeStock/vovan.

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