We want project teams that feel connected, where the team members are personally invested in the progress and success of the project, where you feel drawn to get to work in the morning because there’s awesome kicking-ass to be done. This is important, and it’s not down to chance alone… it’s a function of the people on the team, the team culture, the organisation, and the project.
This blog post is about a simple way to use what’s already there on the team, and turn “wanting results” and “caring about the project” up to 11.
There’s more in-depth discussion below, but in brief here are the three things you can do to turn it up:
- Get your team to see the project in terms of tasks that get done — each one unambiguously and totally and finally completed.
- Celebrate each achievement actively and constructively by witnessing the achiever re-live the most significant moment of the achievement.
- Keep aware of motivational debt, especially on a distributed team, and take time during in-person gatherings to pay back the motivational debt through re-living the team’s achievements, and sharing the stories that make up the project’s mythology.
You can start doing this immediately, the next time someone on your team tells you about something they finished. And if you want a practical guide to help you grow the motivation and connection between members of your team, get in touch at email@example.com.
What do we celebrate?
There are times in a day when we feel that we’ve achieved something, something concrete that’s finished and done done (as we say on agile projects). Maybe fixing a bug, and getting into the next product release, or completing a complex roll-out. A great process allows for many of these “achievement checkpoints”, as often as possible; tangible evidence of progress, a goal, a specific desired situation to strive for — and then time to stop and breathe before starting the next task.
So, my first point is, we should design a process that helps people have these points of achievement, each one specific and measurable. Each one is also an opportunity to celebrate, because we want team members to feel accountable for the work they’re doing, and one way to look at accountability is having someone else who cares deeply that it gets done.
“Oh, if you’d been there… you should’a seen it!”
There’s a special moment talking about what we’ve done, when we get to see if someone cares. It’s about how someone responds when you say “Hey, I just fixed bug #12345”. What happens next is critically important for the culture of the team, and the project. This simple exchange makes the difference between an average project, and one that grows a rich emotional life of wanting the project to make progress and succeed.
What can you do if you’re a on a team with someone who DID something? Or you’re their manager or project leader? Your job is to witness what happened, to see what they did. To do that, you help them re-experience the crucial moment of their task, in front of you.
We’ve all heard someone say “You should have been there!” or “Wow, I wish you’d seen it!”. It’s not just a turn of phrase; it’s also expressing a need to be seen in the moment of achievement. How you react to a team-mate doing something worthwhile is of critical importance in how they feel about it. Multiply this across all the actions of a team, and this is a significant part of the team culture.
The same thing applies to the low points of a project. A project leader earns a team’s trust by confronting disappointment and failure. Accountability swings both ways, and while it’s sometimes uncomfortable, we want to trust that elephants in the room will get pointed out. We want to know that unpleasant but important subjects won’t get brushed under the carpet, but will be seen and properly dealt with.
Four different ways to celebrate
How we choose to respond to a team member’s achievement makes a big difference to how they feel, and whether they think their contribution to the team is appreciated and recognised. Consider two axes, active ↔ passive and constructive ↔ destructive
Most people who have good team relationships lean towards the passive-constructive style.
“Hey, I fixed bug #12345”
“Great, congratulations. That was really important to the project. Well done. Good job.”
This sounds nice and encouraging doesn’t it… and while it doesn’t hurt, it is wasted potential — an example of what I call creative negligence. It doesn’t actually engage with what’s been done, so it doesn’t do anything for accountability or motivation.
The passive-destructive style is one that you might recognise from overworked managers who are so focused on keeping things running, they forget to really listen to the people they’re managing. I recognise this from my own career as a software team manager, when I found myself stressed and busy.
“Hey, I fixed bug #12345”
“Cool, that’s great. Now, about the system refactoring we’ve been working on…”
When I have answered like this, maybe my mind is on something else. I’m not really listening, and that’s got to feel really frustrating for the person who wanted to tell me about what they finished.
“Hey, I fixed bug #12345”
“Great… one more feature to test and get through UX testing. Oh man, the test suite is going to take even longer to run now. Another day, another 100 lines of code to maintain…”
I hope you don’t do this! But maybe you recognise the tone from someone you’ve worked with in the past.
“Hey, I fixed bug #12345”
“Oh, cool, I’ve run into that bug and I’m glad it’s been fixed. What did you have to do to figure it out? Uh-huh… Ah, so it was when you realized that you could reuse the FooBaz class that you knew how it was going to work.”
This kind of answer allows you to fully connect with what it was like to do the thing, and to give your appreciation of the qualities your team-mate embodied in doing it. Think of children telling how they won some sports match or a board game like Risk…
“Yeah, it was when I invaded Australasia… I didn’t think I was going to win that one, but I rolled two sixes in a row and totally took over.”
You probably don’t hear many conversations like this at work, but this is what we need to do more of. It’s a skill that can be trained and practiced and refined.
Finding the moment of achievement
How do you know what part of the task was the crucial moment, the moment that the other person has a deep desire to be seen in action? It’s not always obvious, even to the person who was working on it. Sometimes we need another person to help us see when we were at our most daring and effective.
There are clues. If you’re telling me the story of an epic web-service roll-out, I’ll be listening for your level of engagement with the story, the excitement in your voice and in your breath. If we’re face to face, I’ll see it in your eyes and the openness and aliveness in your body. We’re all aware of this, at some level. And managers and leaders particularly can benefit from training to heighten their awareness of how voice and physicality reflects the level of engagement.
It’s different for everyone, but there are things we all have in common. The question is, how does this person look and sound when they have that “yeah!” moment, that “aha!” moment?
Follow your curiosity about what happened moment by moment, and ask what they were telling themselves at the time. Try not to make assumptions about what made the moment click. You’re explorers together going over what they did, finding the moment that they felt the most alive. Sometimes it’s like a tipping point, or a weight being lifted, or a light bulb turning on. Or there’s no metaphor at all, just a moment of perfect clarity where it all comes into focus.
There’s a lot that can be learned and practiced here, and I’d recommend managers and leaders who want to get faster and deeper into this to find a coach who will help them can find their own way of exploring that moment of achievement with the people on their team.
Motivational debt and distributed teams
When your team is all in the same building, there are plenty of opportunities to celebrate achievements spontaneously and naturally during the day. But on a distributed team this is harder, because the active-constructive response needs to happen in real time, not over email or in the comments of a bug tracker. And it needs to happen over a communications medium that includes voice tone or facial expressions, not just text chat or irc. It will take some effort, but it’s possible to have a significant impact with a small investment of effort.
It may be enough if just one person gives an active-constructive response, while everyone else can be passive-constructive, and that’s still pretty good. So, one quick Skype call to celebrate a task completed, followed up with constructive acknowledgement in irc or instant messaging.
Even so, we can expect a distributed team to fall behind on having an ideal amount of celebration. We might notice a lack of depth to the accountability team members have, fragile motivation, a weak drive to make the project a success. I call this falling into motivational debt. It’s like technical debt, which happens when a project hasn’t been consciously refactored and simplified. Motivational debt happens when we haven’t truly celebrated in a while. And like technical debt, the effects are subtle and have that same turgid quality of walking through quicksand.
Teams that work together in the same building can pay off their motivational debt at group events, such as a party to mark a product release. Take some time to tell the mythology of what led up to the release, tell the stories, and take a moment to re-live the significant events, to see and be seen in the moments that mattered.
For a distributed team, perhaps there’s no opportunity to meet up after a release. But there will be an opportunity at some point, perhaps a planning meeting or a development sprint. Reserve some time to consciously catch up with the backlog of celebration, and give the whole team an opportunity to see and be seen in moments of achievement.
Not just a theory, here’s the research
Martin Seligman, 31st most eminent psychologist in the world, recently finished his book Flourish, and presented it at the Royal Society of Arts along with a talk about the research he’s done on what makes people happy and motivated and fulfilled. You can hear the whole of his talk here at item 6, Flourish. The important part for this blog post is from 15:06 to 16:45. Here’s what he says.
Eight years ago Shelly Gable and her marital counseling friends from UCLA said “Let’s not look at how people fight, let’s look at how they celebrate together.” So, they asked the question “What do you say to your spouse when she comes home with having been promoted at work?”
So, imagine: active ↔ passive, constructive ↔ destructive. By the way, this doesn’t come naturally at all, so what I used to do, until I read this literature, was passive constructive, which is “Congratulations dear, you deserve it.” That has no effect on relationships.
The drill sergeants that I work with, and I’ll tell you about them in about ten minutes, do active destructive. “You know what tax bracket that’s going to put us into?”
And passive destructive is something like, you know, “What’s for dinner?”
Active constructive is “You know, I’ve been reading the reports you wrote to the corporation, and the one you wrote on the pension plan last month is the single best fiscal report I’ve read in my years in business. Now please re-live what happened with me: exactly where were you when your boss told you you would get promoted? And exactly, verbatim, what did he say? And why do you really think you were promoted?”
And it’s a script that goes on. And what we found was that love, commitment, and loyalty go up when couples are taught this. And it’s self-maintaining, it turns out. If you do this at work, people like you better, etc.
Although this research is about creating better marriages, the same applies to our relationships at work. If you want to explore more about the correspondence between work and intimate relationships, check out The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship by poet and executive orator David Whyte. It’s a beautiful book. What would change in our work and home lives if we make a point to celebrate actively and constructively?