Team Motivation

Teams, as well as individuals, experience setbacks and obstacles.  Managers would like to see our teams successfully overcome them, rally together and creatively move on to the next step. 

And sometimes what we want is not what we get. As managers, we get sensitive to the mood, the temperature, of the team as a whole.  Are they running hot, excited?  Perhaps a good thing, perhaps too much of a good thing brings risk of burnout?  Are they cool and calm? This might not be a bad thing if there are long careful pieces of work in progress, or it might mean people feel disconnected.  The team temperature in this sense is not simply the sum of the individuals. One perky person plus one morose person doesn’t cancel out.  It’s more like mixing colors where each input affects the outcome of the whole.  

When I perceive that the mood has gotten grim, I make it a top priority to address it. There’s no morale button to push, as morale and motivation are emergent properties of the complex system of organizations, teams, individuals. That’s probably why some people seem to quite resent “mandatory fun” and other bribes. They sense that someone is trying to feed a free pizza into a vending machine slot and get back three months of team spirit.  Almost always, interventions need to come at a more systemic level.  

The basic recipe for team motivation is doing good work, that is coherent and that matters to the business, and that gets noticed and rewarded. 

The critical service a manager can perform for her team is to provide the linkage and transparency between the business and the team so that this formula can be in place. In one direction the manager communicates the linkage between business goals and the everyday deliverables of the team. This is sometimes hard to see for non-customer-facing teams but there should always be some way in which the team’s output is quantifiably related to larger outcomes. Once we know why the work is going on, addressing its frustrations or shortcomings can be more productively tackled.  

On the other side, what a team is actually doing may be opaque to higher levels of management. The day to day metrics of work may be too fine-grained to be useful or lacking in business context.  A manager must  be a storyteller, interpreting what is going on, clarifying the challenges, and placing the work in the context of value to the business. As the team’s manager it’s likely that I’m the one most committed to telling this story and in the best position to interpret for my team. How teams are recognized and rewarded varies a lot among organizations but it’s more likely to happen if the value of the work is well communicated.  

Providing that transparency and information flow is usually necessary  – except in some rare cases like skunk works – but not sufficient. There are times where, nevertheless, teams get stuck, adrift, or frustrated. Some of the proximate causes of this can be effects of seemingly arbitrary higher management decisions, overwhelming requests from stakeholders, “rain of anvils” of multiple incidents or other short term emergencies, and team resource shortfalls. Cutting corners and rushed work demotivates many, and causes a loss of pride in their work.                  

Go too far down the spiral of too many challenges without recovery time and we might see a collapse of the team’s ability to deliver through burn-out, attrition, or not enough of a critical resource.  To preserve the future productivity of the team, some recovery time is a must.  A manager of mine would say to individuals that needed time off, “I’d rather have your great work for the future than sacrifice that for you to be here this week.”  With the work of a team, it’s a manager’s job in this circumstance to create some protected space. This could take a number of forms: a space to vent frustrations without penalty, pushing back hard on intake of new work, “swarming” on a persistent problem to knock it down as quickly and permanently as possible, are some of the possibilities.  A common problem dragging down a team, particularly one with operational responsibilities, is a constant influx of support needs and small emergency requests. Rotating people in and out of the help desk role keeps everyone from trying to do it all the time, and gives people not in the role a time for some uninterrupted work.   

Too often, the systemic problem is a mismatch between what’s asked of the team and the resources they have. The backlog builds and we never catch up, which is demoralizing. What’s slowing the team down? Ask them and they’ll almost certainly tell you. If there are unclear or changing requirements, inefficient deployment processes, or a lack of training, they’ll let you know. Excessive WIP, or extensive coordination needs with other teams, can cause output to drop catastrophically even when people are visibly working hard. Seeing these issues addressed, even if in small bites, can lift the mood of hopelessness and create a snowball of further improvement. 

I’d like to recommend a team off-site meeting for these kinds of situations but in every distributed organization I’ve been in, the timeline for budgeting/approving/scheduling/planning was so long that if a team is struggling, it’s going to be too far away for practical help.  Perhaps, using that opportunity to create a celebration that we’ve worked our way out of the morass is a way to go.  

Nevertheless, coming up with a way to track and internally celebrate team accomplishments is always a good idea and particularly so when a team is under repair. Looking back and seeing how far we’ve come shows more powerfully than anything that we really can conquer the next challenges as well. 

Climbing Out of the WIP Trap

Excessive work in progress, and too much multi-tasking, slow teams down and keep them from reaching their goals. Addressing WIP is a critical management task in any development paradigm. 

One agile approach involves a kanban board, and a limit on the number of simultaneous items that can be “In Progress” on the kanban board.  Parallelizing work as much as possible, and  team swarming on tasks can take the WIP limit down to one – with gains on communication overhead and multi-tasking losses. 

But these strategies often fail when the work is not completely confined to the team.  When the work depends on external resources that the team does not control, the pattern often becomes – start a task, wait for resources, put it on a queue of pending tasks, start another task until there’s an interrupt from a prior task or that task become blocked – until the people trying to get work done are overwhelmed with context switching and with the overhead of tracking it all. 

Let’s name these tasks that are waiting for external resources something different from WIP, “work in flight” lets say, as they are somewhere in the air waiting to land somewhere.  How can a team that’s highly dependent on others even hope to get this situation under control? 

  1. A partial solution is to separate deep work time from task management time.  This doesn’t really solve the problem but it can relieve overwhelm on an individual level.  A manager can help by supporting individual time-management efforts by no-meeting days, or reinforcing the norm that ICs can decline meetings that will damage their productivity 
  2. Redefine tasks so that units of work are completed at handoff points. For example, a design proposal has gone on to the compliance team for review. Lacking control over their work queue, the task may be considered done.  It may be a challenge in this model to keep sight of delivering business value rather than stops along the way.  However, this creates clean context switches that may keep you from the psychological toll of unfinished work
  3. Invite others inside the box – get a resource from another team temporarily embedded with your team, or schedule a mini-project for in-depth collaboration on a time critical issue. There may be creative collaboration avenues available, if the organization is not extremely silo’d and inflexible. 
  4. Make one person, perhaps a technical program manager, “air traffic controller” for work in flight. Such a pattern might look like:  Engineers work on tasks until blocked, turn over resolving the block to the TPM, and let the TPM know when they can pick up more work.  The TPM can track what tasks have been returned to the backlog to be picked up again, without interrupting the current work.  

Structurally, this WIP problem is an argument for creating cross-functional teams that include all the roles necessary for project success.  If you can effect change on a structural level, consider adding technical writers, program managers, designers, and testers, among others, to an engineering team.  

The 50 Person Threshold

Right around the addition of the 50th person, something often goes awry in a startup company.  Between 30 and 50 people, I’ve seen it happen that the group loses the ability to feel like one team – to cluster in a room or a Slack channel and include everyone in the conversation.  Teams and roles become more divided, and just around 50 people a threshold effect happens.  Not everyone knows what decisions are being made any more.  The “why” of a decision becomes something harder to discover.  And all of a sudden, every piece of information comes with an invisible tax of figuring out who needs to know.   

What can happen at this point is that the self-directed, fast-moving engineering team can become a little less certain of what they’re doing. Each person is still doing roughly the same thing but with less ability to see how it fits into the whole.  And from the top, it becomes much harder to see the details of the decisions being made and why people are doing what they’re doing. 

At this point, there’s still all the start up energy, the intelligence and enthusiasm for the mission, the desire to do something excellent together, but suddenly it can become hard to trust that we are all doing the right things. Compared to the “good old days”, an immense amount of energy flows into internal communications.  

I’ve seen organizations stumble at this point by putting in damaging amounts of process but it seems to me that the right path is to refrain from controlling the details of every leaf of the tree.  Rather, build the structures and cadences of communication that allow people to discover for themselves where their particular contribution and talent fits into the big picture. The roadmap becomes a guiding document internally, and perhaps for the first time, so does the org chart. 

One management tool that becomes more important is process documentation, not to be a straitjacket but to help inform and socialize, this is how we do things here. The patterns you’ve chosen for development and deployment, for handling customer problems, for when and whether to publish information, and others, reflect the values and core concerns of the organization. The more they’re shared, the more the detailed decisions can be trusted to be the right brushstrokes to paint the picture – and the more all the new people that your startup would like to include can join in and make quick and independent decisions with confidence that they’re doing the right thing.  

Should Managers Code?

Judging from the job descriptions I see for management roles, a lot of people think that a “hands-on manager” should be making pull requests and writing production code.

Even managers have a finite number of hours in the day, and need to choose where to focus their time and attention The small slice of code they could be implementing will come at the expense of bigger picture work – building relationships with stakeholders, explaining the relationship between business problems and the work the team is doing,  being available to listen when someone is having a problem, and all the other bits that go into the sensemaking function of a manager’s job.  

It’s perfectly understandable that those activities hardly look like “work” from the point of view of an individual contributor engineer.  Many of us who have moved from engineering roles to management struggled with that at some point –  how do we  measure our own contribution when there are no lines of code to count and JIRA tickets to close?  The problems headed off that didn’t happen, the employees that didn’t leave, the introduction we made that blossomed over time into a cooperative relationship  – we can’t see these clearly at the scale of a day or a week.

 But it’s something of a red flag when senior management doesn’t appear to recognize management as a discipline itself that needs time and thought to flourish. Mapping out where we’re going and making sure we have the tools to get there is not a part time task, especially in a large organization,. How do these managers have time to code?  The things they are leaving undone invisibly slow down their teams more than the velocity of the features they ship.  Then, the code and tasks that they’re involved with visibly block other engineers when their attention isn’t present. 

But it’s more complicated than that.  Managing a technical team does come with some responsibility to understand what work is being done. Being able to do the work yourself is not the bar but being able to provide meaningful feedback to plans and to individuals as they grow is necessary . Managers, too, have to keep growing in technical understanding, and learn more about engineering – even as they hone the craft of management.  Even when we’re not first line contributors to new tech, the technical empathy that we develop pays off in the relationships we can build with our teams.  

What are some good ways to keep technical skills fresh without writing code for new features? Careful and critical reading of the design documentation that your team is writing is one important element. If there are areas where the decision-making is unclear, that’s an area to dig in. Pair programming often has a teaching function, and that’s just as valid for a manager as for a new hire.

A different approach is to write some code that’s not on the critical path. Maybe there’s some tools you need for yourself, data analysis or reporting.  Struggling through those can help develop technical empathy.  Another way to do this is to write some test code. You’ll see the internal workings of the pipelines your team uses without slowing down necessary releases.   

Every now and again I pick up a personal coding project. This quickly reminds me how much skill and practice I’ve been missing as I’ve concentrated on other things!  

All these things help me keep a technical oar in the water, if only to remind myself of how hard the engineering work can be. Hopefully those experiences will keep me from eliding the critical details that go into appropriate designs and accurate estimates. 

Change Management and Motivation

A while back, I posted about Peter de Jager’s  Seven Questions of Change Management.   My  old post is here  and here’s an updated link to de Jager’s own words.  I’ve continued to apply them especially when change doesn’t seem to be going so smoothly.   I have to say, 2020 has provided me with lots of opportunities to revisit these points.

Change can be exciting, but unwanted change, of which we’ve had more than enough recently, can sap energy and morale in your team.   Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, tells us that the old carrot and stick method of motivating people is flawed beyond repair, and he suggests three principles of motivation.  This new approach to motivation has three essential elements: Autonomy—the desire to direct our own lives; Mastery—the urge to get better and better at something that matters; and Purpose—the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

As I’m looking at motivation, and revisiting principles of change management, I noticed that de Jager’s first three questions line up with what we need to do to support purpose, autonomy, and mastery in times of rapid change.

“Why is this change taking place?”  is an invitation to connect the change with our purpose as an organization.  Does this change support our existing purpose or does it herald a change in direction?  The questioner wonders:  this change might be changing why I’m here at all.  Help me get connected again.

“What’s in it for me?” is a call to recenter autonomy for a person who may be losing some aspect of their freedom of choice in this change.   This change might disrupt choices the questioner has made before.  Help me regain a sense of agency, this asks.

And third, “What do I do Monday?” resets the feeling of competence we enjoy in our roles.   Where previously well-known skills may have to be adapted or changed, the questioner asks for direction for regaining mastery in their  position.

2020 has required us to be adaptable and patient, and we’re not done yet.  At best, supporting the motivation and morale of high performing teams is a crucial part of the job of a manager today. The alignment between these questions and the motivation that can so easily get crushed in times of rapid change is a new way in which this set of change management questions supports my continuing desire to help my team.  Also, I get a thrill when different mental models provide complementary ways of viewing the same information, and both patterns of thought become more useful with the synergy.

Looking back I realize it’s been almost 8 years since the first post I made on de Jager’s Seven Questions, and they’ve been an ongoing help to me.  So have several other things I’ve learned  from following along with Peter de Jager’s monthly webinar series.  It addresses change management and many many other topics, from project management to cognitive science to facilitation skills.   The series is available at .   The library of over a decade of past content is members-only but each new webinar is generously offered to the mailing list when it’s first issued.  Readers, I hope you’ll explore and enjoy what it has to offer.


Imposter Syndrome

One way to look at imposter syndrome is as an internal, self-generated  mental health issue — a plague of self-doubt and self-confidence that undermines one’s ability to work.

This feeling can express itself as a belief that we’re “performing” expertise  rather than being the experts. It often comes along with baggage of shame and fear, that one will be found out to be a “fraud” or unworthy of the position one holds.

Self-awareness of the limits of our own knowledge can be a good thing, in moderation.  But it can go too far.  Self awareness can become self-doubt, self-doubt can become paralysis.   If you’re experiencing this, you are not alone.  The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the IMPOSTER SYNDROME and How to Thrive in Spite of It is one of the more helpful resources I have found on the topic.  Despite the title of the book, not only women fall into imposter syndrome, but anecdotally, it does seem to be more common for women than for men.


Another side of impostor syndrome is to notice the ways in which the culture around us can create and sustain impostor syndrome.    How we recognize and acknowledge expertise in others plays a part.

It’s not uncommon for people to have internalized expectations of  how experts are expected to look and behave and be.   We might expect a certain way of dressing, or a particular gender.  So many things can come into play here – age, accent, education, race.   The sum of these can result in someone being judged as “not the expert you were looking for”.

The darker side of this is that people who have to prove their right to be in the expert seat over and over again do seem to be more likely to internalize those critical judgements and express imposter syndrome.

As I read Secret Thoughts of Successful Women I thought to myself that those thoughts and mistaken beliefs sounded familiar. In fact, I had seen statements like that before :

Just in case the text above the title is hard to read,  I’ll spell it out

She didn’t write it… but if it’s clear she did the deed… She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. (it’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family, other women) She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. (“Jane Eyre, poor dear, that’s all she ever …”) She wrote it but she isn’t really an artist and it really isn’t art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book.  It’s sci-fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning, Branwell Bronte, her own masculine side) She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly (Woolf.  With Leonard’s help…) She wrote it but ….

Joanne Russ showed how women’s writing has been repeatedly categorized as not art, as not looking like the the art and presented in the ways that critics expected – and thus could be ignored and forgotten in mainstream literature.   The  belittling tactics and disparaging remarks she catalogued were echoed in surprising fidelity in  Young’s work on impostor syndrome.

And this leads me to believe that a significant part of imposter syndrome – maybe not all but certainly too much – comes from internalizing the judgements of others that we soak up from the culture around us.  And we all hold a part in sustaining the culture around us, so we have a challenge – not to judge expertise by external, irrelevant markers.

When we do judge expertise by external markers,  subtly or overtly, it is toxic – it does harm – and we need to notice our own thoughts and assumptions  and resist at all costs.  Humans have been taking shortcuts to tribal identity as long as there have been humans, but we CAN do better.  We can look in ourselves for all the places we make these judgements and false equivalences between appearance and ability.    That’s self-reflection and hard work especially from those of us who have the privilege not to be on the sharp end of those judgements.  But it really will ease a burden on others trying to catch up and add their contributions.

Managing Burnout

Work on conventions can be intense and overwhelming at times. Schedule pressures, conflicts with others, and sometimes just the mismatch between what we aspire to and the real constraints we have can suck the joy out of our work.   If you feel like that, you wouldn’t be the first person to say “I’m just burnt out.”

Burn-out really is a risk of this work we do.    Yes, the occasional ups and downs can be managed by a weekend away from email or a chance to vent.  Sometimes going to another convention and just having fun there can give you new perspective.  But persistent indications like the following can do long term damage

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism, either feeling that you no longer care about your work, or that no one else cares about the problems you are wrestling with. Cynicism can also express itself as despair, or a feeling that nothing will ever be better.
  • Declining ability to be proud of your work, especially for things you are good at and used to enjoy.
  • A compassion gap – losing your temper, lacking patience with others, and even feeling angry a good deal of the time.
  • Physical symptoms of stress, however your body expresses that.

Action is important.  Don’t ignore burn-out but do try to act on it. Here are some things you can do:

  • Get support from others. You’ll find that many of us have experienced these warning signs of burnout before. Knowing that you’re not alone can be helpful in itself.
  • Time box the work.  Make it clear when you are available for your volunteer work but preserve some time that is just yours or your family’s that is not consumed with the convention.
  • If you feel like you’re constantly trying to do the impossible, perhaps you are. Talk with others to drop, delegate, or defer tasks until the work in front of you is manageable again.
  • Meetings can be a helpful way to get work done and get information you need or they can be a drain on your resources.   Ask for agendas, and communicate your needs  in advance so that meetings can be as useful as possible.

There are also things you can do that support your colleagues and help manage burnout for others:

  • There is no ribbon for “Tiredest Staff Member “. Don’t turn “who can work hardest” or who is doing the most into a competition.
  • When people express feelings of stress or anxiety about their work, don’t minimize those feelings or brush them off.
  • When you are able, work with your team within their stated work hours and work style preferences.
  • Post agendas for meetings you are holding so people know whether the meeting will be valuable to them.

Invest in robust issue tracking and knowledge management. Knowing that tasks and important information won’t “slip between the cracks” allows our brains to rest.

Here are a few resources that help fight burnout.  It’s not a complete list but some things that have been repeatedly recommended to me.

  • HeadSpace or other sources of guided mindfulness meditation.
  • How To Recover From Burnout
    Internet quizzes are not a substitute for professional opinion but a good one can give you some idea of what you can be asking yourself.
  • You don’t have to use the methodology in David Allen’s classic  Getting Things Done but a task tracking method that works well for your brain and your habits can make progress visible in useful ways.

I wrote the first draft of this post many months ago.  Over the course of 2020, burn-out has become a fact of life for many of us, and mental health issues have risen rapidly.  If you are reading this, and think you are burned out, please act on it.  Burn-out is dangerous to your long term physical and mental health. 

If your burn-out is leading you to despair and thoughts of self-harm,  you are not alone, and help is available.   The  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.

Thank You Note Culture

I’d like to live in a world in which people are good at saying “thank you” and even seek out opportunities to do so. Whether the medium of the “thank you” is a tip on the table, a fancy paper note, or a chocolate chip cookie, sincere appreciation of what we like is one of the best ways of getting more of those good things later on.

But when it comes to the paper — or even email — written kind of thank you note, lots of people freeze up. There might be lots of problems between the writer and the written word, but one of them is that once you’ve said thank you, you’re kind of done. And the obvious place turns out to be just the wrong place to start.

Dear Grandpa,
Thank you for the birthday present.

Now what? I already said thank you! It’s a thank you note! Am I done yet and can I play with the Lego now?

I tried out a three sentence thank you note template when my own kids got stuck, and it worked pretty well.
1. How did you feel when that great thing happened?
2. What good thing is going to happen because of it?
3. Thank you!

Dear Grandpa,
I was so excited to get a Lego set from you. I am going to have the tallest towers of anyone I know! Thank you for thinking of my birthday.

It worked for me today at work; filing off all the unnecessary details, the email basically said:
Dear J,
I really appreciated the extra effort you made reaching out in today’s meeting. You improved my team’s understanding of the problems you deal with. Thanks for taking the extra time!
Best regards,

My three sentence thank you note template helped me today. It gave me a moment to be mindful of my own gratitude, a moment to share with the recipient their positive impact on the world, and a frame that demonstrated the sincerity of my words of thanks. And that’s the world I want to live in.

What the heck is “Culture”, anyway?

“Culture” is such a useful word, and so hard to pin down. Often, when discussions of organizational or community culture come up, people get lost in a big long discussion of “what is culture”. A couple of years ago, I was reading a fascinating book Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation by Michael Agar, and I came across the following paragraph:

Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior, acquired and transmitted by symbols constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (I.e, historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as conditioning elements of further action. [Kluckhohn and Kroeber]

I had to put the book down, take deep breaths, and say “why didn’t I read this book 15 years ago?” because it moved “culture” from the vagueness of “I know it when I see it” to something I could clearly talk about.  In particular,  this definition makes it clear that “culture” is BOTH emergent from behavior  and the rules for the behavior, constantly in negotiation with each other.

So, culture is stories, culture is what we’re conveying when we say “That’s not what we do around here”, culture is the material objects we surround ourselves with,  culture is memory made public  …  all of those partial ways  of grasping at describing what culture is, and many more, are embedded and implied in that paragraph.

Since that day,  I have found myself going back to my notes and quoting this paragraph over and over again, and I’m putting it here because that will make it easy for me to find for the next 17 times I want to talk about “what the heck is culture anyway?”

Keeping Communications Clear

This weekend I learned a thing about management communications.

I’ve yet to see an organization that doesn’tt complain about how terrible communication is. If only communications were just one thing! There are (at least) three kinds of management communications. One is just the facts, please communications that say things like The deadline is Thursday and we are meeting at 246 Main St. Someone has to say these things, clearly, and be responsible for getting the word out. Another type is motivational messages. This team is great.  Look at that challenge we just overcame. I’m so proud to be working with you all. They may sound a little corny, but saying these things at the right time matters a lot. Thank you is one of those messages, and I’d love every manager to have a goal to say thank you too much. And last but most complex of all, change management communications.

I’m not going to rewrite a book about change management in the next paragraph but I do want to emphasize that change mangement communications are often about managing people’s negative emotions – distrust, fear of a proposed change, and often, we neglect to admit, actual loss suffered because of a change. Somehow, despite those things, we’re giving them a reason to retain their commitment to the process. As well, change management messages often need to open a space for listening to find out if we’re actually making the right change.

But what I learned this weekend is that these three kinds of communication do not blend well with each other. Specifically, what I saw was a just the facts message with a change management message tacked onto the end. The context made the change management message seem concrete and unilateral, and the pushback of those who felt surprised was sharp and immediate. If the change had been framed in a separate communication, I believe there would have been a better chance of it landing well.

My takeaway is that trying to put more than one of these communication intents into a single message is advanced communications skills, and if not done quite carefully may change the message to have unexpected consequences. Figure out which kind of message you need today, and do them one at a time.