In a previous post, I lamented people who were rewarded for heroic efforts despite their earlier actions causing the problems in the first place.

A couple of people commented that these “heroes” usually didn’t intentionally cause the near-disaster situation. More often, they caused the situation by neglecting to follow a proven process or by simply not being proactive. I agree with these comments, and I believe that this points to a common problem. People tend to celebrate the visible, novel, and dramatic rather than the smaller, more important actions that keep things running smoothly.

Visible, Novel, and Dramatic

When I spoke at Agile Austin a number of years ago, one of the panelists mentioned that his team’s agile processes were working smoothly and his team was more productive than ever. However, several of his team members were becoming bored and unmotivated because everything ran too smoothly.

Around the same time, a friend on Facebook expressed frustration with the fact that people who lose weight “can brag about weight loss and exercise regimens and get praised by all, but a person talks about her workout and expresses pride, and they are met with sarcasm or daggers.”

This made me realize that people are rewarded more for the visible, novel, and dramatic in many areas of life beyond software projects.

  • Politicians rarely brag about money spent on maintaining existing roads and bridges; however, they’re quick to take credit for new roads and bridges.
  • A new, entry-level employee can impress co-workers by showing up on time and performing basic tasks competently; however, excellent performance is simply expected from a 15-year veteran employee.
  • The first responders to a terrorist attack are celebrated as heroes, but the multitudes of people who worked to prevent many other attacks live in anonymity.
  • A pilot who safely lands a plane with mechanical trouble is revered, but the pilots and other people who ensure thousands of safe flights per day are ignored.

This addiction to drama seems to undermine efforts to implement processes such as Embedded Quality that help projects run smoothly. Personally, I prefer to keep drama in the movies and out of my projects.

Overcoming Addiction

Is there any way to supply teams with the excitement and adrenalin rush associated with the visible, novel, and dramatic while still implementing processes and procedures that keep things running smoothly? It’s definitely a challenge, but there are some techniques that can help.

Celebrate Success

When a project goes smoothly because talented, dedicated people adhered to a good process, make that success visible. Celebrate the success publically and enthusiastically, and point out that the reasons for the success.

Create Positive Challenges

Talented, dedicated people crave novel challenges, so it’s important to provide productive challenges so people don’t fall back on the challenges of heroic efforts. The challenge might be to improve on the success of a previous project or it might be to learn a new skill, technical or otherwise. Any extra time or risk invested in team members learning a new skill on a project will pay dividends in employee motivation and skillset in the future.

Don’t Reward Unnecessary Drama

If a team is forced to work ridiculous hours to save a project due to failure to follow a process, thank people for their efforts and point out how the drama should have been avoided. Don’t celebrate the efforts as something to be emulated in the future.

You do need to be careful to determine the true cause of the drama, though. Every project can’t be perfect, and you do want to reward heroic efforts when they’re truly justified.

Feedback

I’m interested in hearing about other ideas for keeping teams enthusiastic and motivated when processes are running smoothly and efficiently. I’d love to hear about any techniques that you’ve tried and how they turned out.

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