Making projects happen

by jsalvatier3 min read31st May 201121 comments


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Judging by the number of upvotes, Brandon Reinhart's analysis of SIAI's financial filings is valuable to quite a few people. Similar analysis' of Alcor and the Cryonics Institute would be quite valuable. There has been talk of more work on condensing LW content and placing it on the wiki. I'm sure lots of people would like to know about the literature on low dose asprin. People seem to want a front page more accessible to newcomers. Will these projects get accomplished? Some of them, but probably fewer than optimal. I think we can do better. 

I would like to look for ways to channel group willingness to contribute to a project into focused individual willingness to work on a project.

Observations about the problem space

The following is based on discussions at the Seattle Less Wrong meetup.

Many people would get a moderate amount of benefit from such projects, but only a small number would end up putting in the hard work to make them happen. 

The people most enthusiastic about a given project may not be the best people to work on the project. Perhaps they have very time consuming jobs or have a hard time being objective about the topic (e.g. someone who gets especially emotional about Cryonics) or have too many other projects already or perhaps they are intellectually motivated but not emotionally motivated by the project which might make it difficult to Get Things Done. 

Trying to generalize too early is a risk here. Going out and building fancy tools or otherwise trying something elaborate is probably not a good idea at first. Better to try some concrete trials first and learn from those experiences.

Sources of motivation

There are three major potential sources of motivation: Money (the unit of caring), social status (Karma, kind words etc.), things (pizza, books, cookies, pony pictures).

  • Money
    • Transfers of money (the unit of caring) are often much more efficient than transfers of other goods.
    • Extrinsic rewards (especially money) can reduce intrinsic motivation. 
    • Large monetary rewards can also make relationship between the project contributors and the project sponsors less social. 
    • Many Less Wrong people are high paid
      • Less likely to be motivated by small monetary rewards
      • Have more money to contribute to projects. 
      • Not all Less Wrong people are high paid. 
    • There are services for collecting donations (link).
  • Social rewards
    • Praise 
    • Karma
    • Social status
  • Things
  • Social pressure
    • requests
    • progress monitoring

Different motivators may work better for different kinds of projects. For example, money might be a counterproductive motivator for social projects but a great motivator for setting up a website.

How have others tackled this?

This is a problem others face as well. How do other similar groups and communities ameliorate it?

  • Intrinsic motivation
    • Conferring social status on those who do valuable work
  • Sprints: several people get together in a single place and work together on a project for a couple of days.
    • Main draw seems to be Fun
    • Frequently used by Python projects
  • Competition/bounties (McKinsey survey of prize literature)
    • Provides social and/or material rewards
    • Sometimes used on LW (link 1link 2link 3).
    • Work seem well for some larger open source software projects (link 1link 2link 3), though some fail to get off the ground at all.
    • Poorly arranged prizes can induce wasted effort
    • Judging quality can be a serious issue especially when monetary rewards are involved
      • potential for social conflict
      • some people are better at dealing with social conflicts than others
      • pre-designated arbiters more likely to be trusted than others

Miscellaneous observations

  • Working groups or otherwise close contact sometimes increase people's motivations via peer pressure.
  • Personally requesting someone work on a project can increase their motivation to do so.
  • With certain kinds of motivation you often get people agreeing to work on a project and then getting slightly stuck and delaying it indefinitely. (Patri Friedman has given one reason why this might happen)
  • Different incentives might work better/worse for different kinds of projects. 
  • Monitoring project progress could help motivation (it might also have other benefits, such as knowing when to rethink the project or to find another person to work on it).
  • Splitting up a project into a number of small clear tasks that individuals can pick up and complete decreases the costs of working on projects. The very fact of announcing, specifying and taskifying a project can induce interest. 
  • Open projects (Wikipedia, open source projects) are often primarily worked on by a small group of highly dedicated contributors.
  • Want to encourage quality
  • sometimes something is better than nothing 
  • sometimes drafts and large output volume is useful for future work
  • People most interested in the results of a project are not always the people best suited to do the project. 
  • High visibility projects 
  • Increase interest in working on projects 
  • Completed projects give social rewards to completors 
  • Completed projects serve as templates for future related projects
  • Quantifying aggregate interest (both in terms of number and intensity) is useful for deciding what projects are most important 
  • Aggregating what skills potential project contributors have is useful for determining what projects are possible

In the interest of Holding Off On Proposing Solutions, please take a moment to try to identify features of the problem space that I have not mentioned before reading the comments. Please mention any features you notice as well as any potential solutions or parts of solutions in the comments. I have some ideas, and I will propose them in the comments.

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