Nicholas Lettford - May 2017

Teams: the magic of working well together – part III

If teams don’t work, but they are important – what then?

Just because small teams are more effective than big ones doesn’t mean that five people are all you need to run a company.

Often the problem is simply too big to be dealt with by only five to seven people, or the timescales are such that even if they could deal with it, the amount of work involved would take them several years to complete.

So what do you do?


Well, we could do what most companies do – you share the big problem between a larger number of poorly defined teams and thus ensure much wasted effort. To make matters worse, even if you think you have split the problem, you will often find the problem has been split sequentially. Therefore, there will be groups of people waiting for a team to finish and because they don’t want to sit around idle, they will start creating work which often clashes with the original team.

Alternatively, you could do something else that is not easy – such as split the problem into well-defined smaller pieces of work, each of which can be tackled by an independent team that is not reliant of sequential elements. For example, a small part of the problem would involve a team doing its own plan, build and testing, rather than a planning team, a build team and a test team.

Figure 7. Splitting the problem

A consequential purpose

A team needs to know that the sum of their activity (or lack of activity) has consequences and that their work will make a difference. As soon as teams have a real purpose, whose importance they understand, their work is driven in a compelling direction.

Occasionally this can pose some very controversial issues. Functional ‘teams’, like a Project Management Office or a Business Analysis team do not have a consequential purpose. That is not to imply their work isn’t valuable to the company – it undoubtedly is – but the functional department is not directly responsible for revenue or motivation, it only contributes towards it. Setting up functional teams and embedding team members in real, cross-functional teams help companies harness their employees’ efforts more effectively.

This thinking is not original as functional Project Management methodologies, including PRINCE2 and PMBOK, recommend ‘the breakdown of subdividing project deliverables and project work into smaller manageable components’. However, these methodologies focus on displaying progress within the project, not creating independent teams with limited but compelling goals.

A goal needs to be realistic and challenging, while the team’s actions must have a measurable impact on the goal, not just measure progress on activity. In order to achieve this, senior management needs to pay more attention to the set-up of the team. Investing the time upfront in working through the purpose and direction, sets a team up for success.

Self-organisation and autonomy

Over the last several decades, the dysfunctions caused by managers over specifying and controlling aspects of a team’s work in real time have been amply demonstrated to hurt both people and organisations

I have stated the work that needs to go into setting up a team correctly: far more effort, time and thought is required to properly define goals and bound teams than most managers give. The good news is that far less time, work and thought needs to be spent supervising the team than is currently devoted to it.

Unfortunately, many managers find it difficult to make this switch.

For example: A software development team knew that it needed to gain client feedback on each new piece of code it was churning out. The team’s manager insisted that nothing could be shown to the client until they had passed it personally. Since they were swiftly overloaded with work, very little was flowing out to the customer, which meant the team continued working in the dark, knowing full well that much of what they did would need extensive revision.

The productivity paradox

Self-directed employees achieve more than those who are passive. Ironically the more managers try to control their workforce in order to ensure productivity, the more passive employees become with the paradoxical result that productivity plummets.

Researchers at Cornell University studied 320 small businesses, half of which offered their workers autonomy and the other half relied on top-down direction. The businesses that offered autonomy grew four times the rate and had one third of the staff turnover.

Autonomy and self-organisation does not imply that managers should pack up their bags and go home. On the contrary, it relates to the initial set-up work in properly bounding a team. Teams need to know what comes within their authority and what does not.

Having discovered a potential customer is interested in a specific feature, should the team go all out to develop it? Is a team responsible for setting documentation standards for testing as well as coding?

Without defining the extent of a team’s sphere of authority and operation, the team will engage in what Don Reinertsen, in his book Managing the Design Factory, called running into invisible electric fences’ – a painful, demotivating and inefficient experience.

Ilya Prigogine, the Nobel Prize-winner, stated that the boundary is what defines self, and only within this can any complex system become self-organising. Software development teams are an example of a complex system.

So, create clear boundaries for the team and then allow them to self-organise.

Once this has been achieved, it is crucial that managers trust their teams and resist the temptation to tamper.

Bringing the outside in

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main

Undoubtedly, the same is true for teams. I have spoken about autonomous teams but they do not exist in isolation. They are part of a larger organisation and there are touch points and dependencies within the company that need to be thought about.

Let us imagine a software development team busy creating and pumping out working features. I have highlighted the dangers inherent in not involving the customer, such as developing features they don’t need and failing to develop their indispensable requirements. Thus a constant feedback loop is important but customers have their own businesses to run. If you were developing software to help brain surgeons operate it is probably best if you don’t drag one of the world best brain surgeons to your office for a weekly meeting. Scrum attempts to solve this problem by creating a ‘Product Owner’ – literally someone who represents the customer and works within the team.

This is what is meant by bringing the outside in. An external dependency needs to be incorporated into the team.

That said, customers are not the only external dependency to consider. It is not unusual for many teams to send out a stream of information to a Project Management Office, who then report progress to senior management. In such circumstances feedback flows black by the same route, creating a potential block to efficient work flow – the greater number of steps there are, the easier it is for misinterpretations and delays to occur. So, can the project management be brought into the team? Is there a role within the team for measuring and reporting that can flow directly out to senior management?

What other dependencies exist? Think about those who do something for or bring information to you, as well as those to whom you report.

External dependencies can range from integration to testing, maintenance to documentation or data gathering to sales. Of these, the ones that are essential for the team’s success can often find a measure of improvement by being brought into the team. If a software development team finds itself constantly bemoaning the stupidity of marketing who continually misrepresent their products, then it is time to bring marketing within the development team.

Getting the right mix

Have you spotted the potential flaw?

Teams perform most effectively when they are small but in order to be autonomous a team needs to have many different skills. Naturally this causes the team to grow, so how do we bring the outside in without creating cumbersome teams?

The answer lies within the team. Team members have to release themselves from the concept of ridged roles. In a cross-functional team it is seldom acceptable to say ‘I don’t do design, I just code’, or ‘I don’t understand finance, I just do integration’. Instead, whilst expertise in certain areas remains important, the whole team takes responsibility for project management, budgetary control and reporting. Typically team members embrace this enthusiastically and sometimes training may be required to help take on new responsibilities.

Scrum to the rescue?

Although not the only Agile framework to improve teams, Scrum was developed specifically for the working methods of development teams. For small teams it is the most popular approach today and it can be very effective with previously proposed solutions.

To describe how Scrum works requires longer treatment than can be given here but I will describe how scrum provides solutions to the problems I have discussed.

The Big problem and how to deal with it & A consequential purpose

Scrum is designed to break-down large problems. The backlog consists of numerous ‘user stories’, each of which represents the smallest manageable component that can build up to a function.

For example: As someone with an account, I want to check my balance online.

The backlog is prioritised, the team begins with the elements the customer is certain about, leaving the vaguer ideas or less essential parts until later. Each of these small features has a clear, consequential goal, which together are aligned to the overall goal. By the end of the sprint, I will either be able to check my balance online or I will not.

The team commits to deliver a number of these features at the beginning of each print and only working, demonstrable code is accepted at the end of each sprint.

Self-organisation and autonomy

The team is self-organising because it checks what it can or cannot commit to at the start of each sprint. It measures progress in daily scrums and it reviews the team’s methods of working in a retrospective at the end of each sprint. This progress helps the team maintain discipline and is designed to stop the legendary ‘death march’ at the end of a traditional IT project, since the team controls its own progress and has continual feedback between senior management and customers.

Brining the outside in

Scrum focuses on the customer by creating the role of ‘Product Owner’ designed to bring the customer’s concerns to the heart of the team. In Scrum teams it is normal to also own testing, integration and project management within the team. A word of warning – although the role of ‘Product Owner’ exists, it remains essential that Scrum teams do not forget they have a collective responsibility to bear the customer in mind. Remember the diction stated at the beginning of this article: teams that are externally focused succeed; teams that are inwardly focused fail.

It’s not rocket science

It’s true, effective team management is not rocket science. For a start, rocket scientists have a hard time getting it right.

Setting the right shared objective is not an easy thing to do. It means making choices and choices means letting go of all the things we are not going to do. It involves everyone committing when they may have very different internal goals, opinions and motivations.

It is also high risk.

Wrongly identify an objective and your team will be pulling in the wrong direction and problems will get worse. To add insult to injury, it could be some time before you are able to identify what is wrong and correct matters.

This epitomises the strength of having teams focused in short bursts towards very specific goals. It is also why it is harder to do this with larger ‘strategic’ problems. The answer is to pay attention to the process of the team’s working – every team, from a development team to a senior executive team, needs to set its objectives and measures and review them at regular intervals. Remember, objectives should be externally focused – the goal must contribute to the overall value flow for the customers and company.

Nicholas Lettford - May 2017

Teams: the magic of working well together – part II

Genuine teamwork in most organisations remains as elusive as it has ever been

Earlier I said that almost everyone agreed on the major characteristics of working in a team. Most likely, you agreed with the points made. Yet even though the concept of ‘team’ appears simple on paper, in practice it often doesn’t work.

How many team have you been on that left you feeling excited, energised and knowing you were achieving valuable work? How many left you feeling frustrated, unsatisfied or discouraged? Did you dread team meetings? Did you see your hard work discarded when the project was cancelled or delayed, or perhaps even worse, launched with a ton of problems that made you ashamed of it?

If you recognise the first question and can’t fathom where the others are coming from then you are in a lucky minority.

Teams don’t work

When Tom De Marco and Timothy Lister began analysing IT development project histories they found that of the 500 they studied, 15% failed, a number that increased to 25% for large projects. The reason? What scuppered the projects was not technological failure, rather it was a combination of ‘soft’ problems: lack of motivation, communication failure, high staff turnover… In other words, the project didn’t fail, the team did.

Why do teams fail?

Many factors go into such a statement, from human behaviour to the external support systems (or lack thereof) set up by the organisation. We’re now going to look at some of the most important and common factors.

Improperly bound teams

Richard Hackman, Edgar Piece Professor or Social and Organisational Psychology analysed and interviewed 120 senior teams. All said they had set unambiguous boundaries, yet when asked a very simple question, ‘Who is on your team?’ fewer than 10% could agree on who the team members were.

Deciding who should be on a team is essential. Often a team is created before there is clarity about which skill sets are required but deciding who should be on a team is essential. Teams need to be formed with regard to the task in hand and that means being remorseless about selecting those with the right skills or the potential to acquire them. People should not be on team ‘because they would be offended otherwise’, ‘because they have always been involved in project X’ or ‘because they are lovely’. Nor should they be on the team if they are unable to commit to it. That’s a tough call which might mean excluding someone who knows a great deal about the subject but who hates teamwork and acts as a ‘derailer’ of other people’s ideas in team meetings; or someone with the perfect of skills but who is already working on three other projects.

Even more commonly, teams don’t agree on what they are supposed to be doing. Repeating a mission statement parrot fashion is easy but it is much more difficult to ensure that this goal is a challenging purpose, focused on challenging actual measurable results and that every team member understands what they are subscribing to and how this will translate into their day-to-day activities.

Both of these components are part of ‘bounding’ a team.

Let’s take a racing car team as an example. Who is the team? Is it the driver? The pit crew? The design team for the car? The people gaining the funding and sponsorship?

If you made ‘winning the race’ the team’s purpose, you might have to include all of those people in your team because the purpose has become so large that it incorporates the total value flow.

However, to create a functioning team, you need to define your objective better. Perhaps something like ‘those responsible for getting the car over the finish line on the day of the race’. That would exclude those building the car and those gaining funding because, as critical as their roles are, by race day their job is done.

Only once the objective is set can the team become properly bounded – only those necessary to achieve that specific objective can be included: the pit crew and the driver.

Big problems require big teams

This sounds sensible, doesn’t it? If one rower can row a boat at 2 knots then surely ten rowers, can make it go at 20?

And yet, ‘common sense’ is often wrong.

Take a look at the world record times over a 200m distance race.

Boat World record
Women’s single 7 mins 8 seconds
Women’s pairs 6 mins 51 seconds
Women’s four 6 mins 15 seconds
Women’s eight 5 mins 54 seconds
Figure 4. Rowing world record times

As you can see, eight women row faster than four but not by much. A lot of effort has gone into gaining 21 seconds. The physics explaining this is fairly simple. When you add an extra person to the boat you gain their muscle power and force but you also gain their extra weight which, adds up to extra drag on the boat.

You might think, at least we are getting faster – even if we are getting faster in a very profligate and expensive manner.

Adding resources is frequently seen as the most sensible, if not the only, way to tackle a problem. The reality is that large groups come at an increased cost which can often make the project go slower, rather than faster.

Research consistently shows that teams underperform, despite all the extra resources they have. That’s because problems with coordination (caused by dependency) and motivation typically chip away at the benefits of collaboration

In his book, The discipline of Teams, Jon Katzenbach writes;

‘Virtually all effective teams we have met, read or heard about, or been members of have ranged between two and 25 people’. This is because the coordination costs between large groups of people quickly escalate to levels which are unsustainable. As large groups inevitably break down into smaller sub-groups, the risks that their goals become misaligned increases, leading to wasted effort or worse, impeding one another. This is often surrounded by an increasing number of processes, layers of management and coordinating bodies, making it progressively difficult to make decisions, as seen in the figure below:

Figure 5. Complicatedness vs Complexity

Keep the team small

The right response is often counter-intuitive to the common sense we feel we know. In his 1975 book, The Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks wrote a sentence which was so fitting it has turned into a principle of software development, called Brook’s law: adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

As the graph below shows, beyond a certain value, more people on a project increases the time it will take because of the additional complex inter-relationships that must be managed.

Figure 6. Shows time taken versus number of workers for tasks with complex inter-relationships like software

There are many people in many organisations who have read this in dozens of management textbooks and nodded wisely. Then those very same people continue to create over-sized teams that fail and throw the wrong type of resources at a large project in the futile hope that this time it will somehow be different.

If we want our teams to do more at a lower cost we need to free them from the weight and baggage of being oversized to allow a more creative and brilliant solution.


In the third and final installment of this article we will explore some of the best solutions to common team problems.

Nicholas Lettford - April 2017

Teams: the magic of working well together

None of us is as smart as all of us.

Teams have existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, are the subject of countless books and have been celebrated through many cultures and countries. Most people believe they know how teams work, as well as the benefits that teams offer. Many have had first-hand team experiences themselves, some of which were rewarding and others a waste of time. Yet, the potential impact of a single team as well as the collective impact of many teams, on performance of large organisations is woefully underexploited – despite the rapidly growing recognition of the need for what teams have to offer.

The purpose of teams

In most of the modern world there is hardly a job description that doesn’t demand ‘team focus’ or a ‘team player’. Actually, so much of our working lives are centred on teams that it’s worth asking whether we really need them.

Teams become important when:

  • Intense creativity is required
    One person can come up with a brilliant idea, but only a team can build on the idea quickly, solving challenges to bring the idea to reality
  • Fast learning is essential
    An individual can study alone, but a team permits different members to become experts in specific areas
  • Many people need to buy into the idea/work
    Someone – often the leader – can have a great vision, but in order to move everyone with them, they need to ensure wider engagement. People working in teams around a shared objective become ambassadors for the idea.
  • Different specialisms are required to solve the problem
    When the problem is larger or more complex than any one person’s knowledge, different experts need to work together

A team needs to solve something external

The purpose of a team must always be built around a problem and a problem requires the team to have an external focus. This should be obvious but it is often forgotten.

Teams that are inwardly focused fail, whereas teams that have their eyes on the larger objective succeed.

Is a team the right tool for the job?

Nowadays we are often pre-programmed to believe that teams are the way to solve problems larger than the individual, but the reality is we don’t always have to use a team.

Often the perfect unit to tackle a problem consists of a group of people led by a single leader with individuals taking responsibility for specific areas. We wouldn’t call such a group a team according to the fairly strict definition we will get to shortly.

For example: ten people who have similar backgrounds and skills are not a team, even if they are grouped together as a ‘department’ by the organisation. A group of senior department heads who meet once a month to exchange top-line figures is not a team.

However, if you or your organisation is certain a team is the right tool for the job then you ought to pay some attention to what this ‘team’ business looks like. Below is a list of which working solution provides the best fit for tackling the different types of problem.

When to work alone or in other types of group When to build teams
For simple tasks or ‘puzzles’ For highly complex tasks or ‘problems’
When co-operation is sufficient When consensus decisions are essential
When minimum discretion is required When there is a high level of choice and uncertainty
When fast action is needed When high commitment is needed
When few competencies are required When a broad range of competencies is required
When the organisation credits individuals for operational outputs When the organisation rewards team results
Figure 1. When to build a team

When teams work they are able to produce something special, something magic. This goes far beyond the functionality of a group of collective experts and enters into an emotive and unpredictable world of creative genius. This is why, for all the difficulties and failures we will examine, it is worth striving to harness the power of teams.

What is a team?

A small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, set of performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.
A team is a group of people working together to achieve a common purpose for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.

There are many subjects that cause divided opinions: Isn’t camping great? Is dark chocolate nicer than milk chocolate? But, the theory of teams is not one of them.

Hundreds of authors have written on the subject but few disagree. I have chosen four representative ‘business specialists’, who have recently written well known books on the subjects and are generally accepted as experts. In the following table I summarise the most significant points of their definition of ‘teams’, before going on to examine each point in more detail. It is useful to note their similar views even when they use slightly different terms.

Hackman – Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make Them Great
Have to be bounded
Have a compelling direction
Need enabling structures
Need a supportive organisation (external)
Need expert coaching
Katzenbach – The Discipline of teams and The Wisdom of Teams
Have a common commitment and purpose
Have a common set of performance goals
Have complementary skills
Are small in numbers
Be mutually accountable
Have a common working approach
Larman – Scaling lean & Agile Development
Have a shared responsibility
Have a set of working agreements
Have a shared work product
Have interdependent work
Be respobsible for managing the outside-the-team relationships
Have distributed leadership
Sholtes et al – The Team Handbook, 3rd Edition
Have a shared responsibility for outputs and results
Have a commitment to a common approach to working together
Have a shared work product
Have tasks that are interdependent
Collectively manage their relationships across organisational boundaries
Figure 2. Features of a team

Team features

Having a shared purpose

Sometime this means a shared work product: the literal production of a working solution or prototype. It doesn’t have to be tangible, the team could just as easily be working on a roadmap or a relationship, but each team member needs to be contributing towards the clearly defined, shared purpose.

A compelling direction

Compelling refers to both the importance of the task – it must be real and matter to the organisation’s overall success – and that it should be timely: teams work best with a measure of urgency. The direction covers not only ‘where’ the team is going, but ‘why’. Note that this is not the same as a leader with a vision. Indeed, a key feature of teams is that leadership is distributed throughout the team.

Complementary skills / interdependent work

A direct effect from one team member’s expertise or work should be visible within the shared work as a whole. In general, teams involve collaboration across multiple skill sets and functions to achieve the desired result.

A shared responsibility

Team members are held accountable as a group and individually for the shared work. It is this that allows teams to become more than the sum of their parts. It also means that teams must have a measure of control to be able to successfully achieve the outcomes.

Measured performance goals

A team must create a concise series of performance measures which will allow them to judge their progress and ultimate success or failure. Without being outcome-oriented, a team cannot achieve. It is important when considering performance goals the team gives thought to the leading indicators that contribute to outcome and not just the outcome measures. It is great to have a clear outcome, but we really need to tune performance around metrics that help us understand progress and direction too.

Teams build over time

Just as acorns need time to develop and grow into oak trees, teams need a chance to become teams and build their performance over time. However, once settled, it is best to allow them to continue together – something which even the best organisations struggle to appreciate.

In 1965 Dr Bruce Tuckman produced the now famous model of how teams evolve over time.

Figure 3. Tuckman model

Forming: team members do not know each other very well and can be impersonal, guarded and polite. They are also waiting and watching for how things will unfold. There is high dependence on leader for guidance and direction. In addition, there is little agreement on team aims other than received from leader. Individual roles and responsibilities are unclear.

Storming: team members vie for position as they attempt to establish themselves in relation to other team members and the leader, who might receive challenges from team members. The result of this is that the team may lose members and face difficulties.

Norming: agreement and consensus largely forms among the team, who respond well to facilitation by the leader. There is task focus and issues are confronted. Roles and responsibilities are clear and accepted and big decisions are made by group agreement.

Performing: the team is more strategically aware; the team knows clearly why it is doing what it is doing. The team has a shared vision and is able to stand on its own feet with no interference or participation from the leader. There is a focus on over-achieving goals, and the team makes most of the decisions against criteria agreed with the leader.

To achieve their full potential teams need time to run through this cycle.

Tuckman’s principles are true for any team, from product designers to senior executives. Some types of work or tasks require a team method of working more than others – and software development is towards the top of the list.

Undoubtedly, you already know how many problems occur if all design attributes have to be decided at the start of a project and presented as written requirements, or delays that can occur if the testing is held off until the very end of the project. To tackle these problems, new methods of working were designed.

Given the challenges faced by business in general and software development specifically, a collaborative and dynamic response is required – and that response is best delivered by a team.


In the next installment of this article we will explore why teams don’t work and the key barriers to their success.

Nicholas Lettford - March 2017

Motivation: carrots, sticks and… – part III

Work on knowledge worker productivity begins with asking the knowledge worker themselves: what is your task? What should it be? What should you be expected to contribute? What hampers you in doing your task and should be eliminated?

Removing the barriers to motivation

Even when people buy into and understand your goal, their natural enthusiasm can still be eroded by barriers that hamper their ability to complete the task. When a company does not appear to care about eliminating these barriers, or even worse, insist on placing them in an employee’s way, the resultant demotivation is truly destructive.

In 1968 Frederick Herzberg, then a psychologist, published his famous article One More time: How Do You Motivate Employees, which described his Motivation-Hygiene theory (also known as Two-factor theory). In it he suggests that the factors involved in producing job satisfaction (motivators) are separate and distinct from the factors that lead to job dissatisfaction (hygiene).Furthermore since separate factors need to be considered it follows that these feelings are not the opposite of each other.

Figure 1. Motivation-hygiene – the factors involved in motivation

The theory states that motivator (or growth) factors that are intrinsic to the job are: achievement, recognition for achievement, the work itself, responsibility and growth or advancement. The hygiene (or dissatisfaction-avoidance) factors that are extrinsic to the job include: company policy and administration, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status and security.

Given that hygiene factors result in levels of dissatisfaction, it follows that they are more important to motivation when they go wrong then when they go right. For example, people who have a lovely desk space and office environment rarely walk around all day being grateful to their company. They may be thrilled when they first get the job, but soon the office is just the office. Yet move in a further 50 staff, get rid of the meeting rooms, squeeze up the desks and take away their cherished spot by the window, and you’ll find they’ve become deeply unhappy.

Thus highlighting the fact the avoidance of dissatisfaction is just as important as the encouragement of motivator satisfaction.

Do you have the right working environment?

The environment we work in and work with affects the culture of an organisation. Take open plan offices, they were intended to remove hierarchical barriers, promote casual communication, and stimulate discussion. But like other radical ideas, they turned out to have a few flaws and unintended consequences.

Work should drive the environment and not the other way around. This doesn’t just apply to the physical layout of the office, but the other cultural factors that constitute the work environment, such as: Do people make personal phone calls? Do team members interrupt each other during meetings? Does your office allow flexi-time or does it insist on exact time keeping? I am not trying to make a judgement call on which behaviour is right. I am simply pointing out that such cultural questions have a tangible impact on how people work. Some people prosper in confrontational environments, others are miserable.

In my experience, our working environments need flexibility such as quiet spaces when we need to concentrate on intense, creative work or plenty of meeting areas for when we need to brainstorm ideas.

Do you have the right tools for the job?

Some jobs require specialist tools. It’s as simple as that. If you employed an electrician, it is true that they could strip wire with their teeth and turn a screw with a coin, but the job would go faster if you furnished them with wire strippers and a screwdriver set.

This should be obvious, but there are plenty of companies that treat their IT departments as if they had no specialism whatsoever. Consider companies that refuse to give dual monitors to programmers because they take up too much space. Take developers using a ten year old version of an IDE because it still works or departments that use a second-rate CRM package because it came free as part of a software bundle.

These are false economies, not only in and of themselves, but because they make people’s lives harder and signals to staff that their work is not really valued, which undermines workmanship and natural pride.

Are your schedules realistic?

Anyone who has been asked to work to a schedule that cannot be met knows the misery this causes. There are times when we need a ‘sprint to the finish’ and it frequently draws phenomenal reserves of energy from the team because of their sense of satisfaction and joy in being able to deliver the project at all. But this cannot be sustained week after week as such efforts are sprints and not marathons. Eventually they become counter-productive causing people to misuse their time at work or burn out.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t have a schedule, rather that its purpose is to honestly forecast when work can be completed, taking into account known limitations, and not to create a false milestone based on optimism.

Do you give people responsibility and hold them accountable?

Holding people responsible for things they have insufficient control over is demotivating. But many people find that one of their foremost demotivating experiences comes from seeing people not being held accountable for their actions (or lack of action).

This is where holding responsibility within the team provides an answer: the team and each team member commit to the goal and their share of the task; the other team members then hold one another accountable. To sustain this behaviour at the team level requires that it is seen throughout the organisation. Politicking, scapegoating and credit-stealing at the board level sends a clear message to those lower down the hierarchy about how to behave.

A good example of this is the Scrum stand-ups. At the daily meeting, team members announce what they’ve done so far, what they plan to that day, and what things are impeding their progress. The following day each member provides an update on progress by providing answer to the same questions. During the stand-up it is okay to say: I haven’t finished the feature I was working on because I found a bug that broke the build and had to spend all day fixing it, but not: Oh I haven’t got around to that yet.

Are you measuring the right thing?

Tell me how you’ll measure me and I’ll tell you how I’ll behave

The act of measuring has an impact, which can be positive or negative. This phenomenon is known as the Hawthorne effect or observer effect. The term comes from the factory where various experiments on productivity were carried out and describes the type of reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed.

At the factory managers wanted to see if their workers would be more productive in higher levels of light. During the project productivity rose, but fell after the project ended. The hypothesis was that the change itself was immaterial – it was the effect of focusing attention on the workers that made them briefly more productive. In other studies at the factory, intense measurement was interpreted as a lack of trust, which had a counter-productive effect causing workers to slow down because they feared they might be laid off.

Demotivation that sticks

From time to time, a company can be doing everything right, but an individual refuses to engage. What then?

Highly motivated organisations can carry a few demotivated individuals. The individual may have personal issues that draw their attention from work. Such demotivation is usually temporary. If the organisation handles it sensitively, when the person does return to full capacity, their loyalty and depth of commitment will be increased.

Alternatively, a demotivated individual may be struggling with their role, method of working or a mismatch with the company’s expectations. In the case, appropriate training and development might help, or a move to a different job inside or outside the company might leave everyone happier and more productive. There is nothing wrong in understanding this. If the team’s capacity to succeed is threatened then it is the responsibility of the team and a manager to try to deal with the problem. Having an interest in motivation and the team does not mean group hugs every morning and refusing to criticise. The practice of holding one another accountable can include a formal system of review and even dismissal.

Using the traditional system of carrot and sticks makes it easy to motivate behaviour, but it is not easy to ensure the outcome is the one you wanted. Furthermore, motivating individuals is to some extent a dead end because at the most important level people motivate themselves.

A company’s motivation works best at the macro level: its purpose, culture, environment, and the freedom teams have to operate within it. Motivation is a virtuous cycle, join a highly motivated company and you’ll catch the culture. Unfortunately, demotivation is a vicious cycle and just as catching.

Motivation is a major contributor to success. Motivated teams work more creatively and productively. Motivated organisations have lower costs and high profits – they harness the talents of people working for them rather than hobbling them. Finally, I’d like to add that although success is motivating, it is certainly not a pre-requisit.

Nicholas Lettford - March 2017

Motivation: carrots, sticks and… – part II

Everyone is motivated by different things, unique to themselves. Motivation is as individual and personal as who you find attractive, your favourite film or your favourite brand of chocolate. Furthermore there are levels of motivation that we will never express or explain to professional colleagues. Motivation is a complex subject that may well be too difficult to get right in aggregate.

So what do we do differently?

I believe that most people are already motivated; after all they have self-selected to work within your organisation. So an organisation’s true challenge is to remove any barriers that block people’s natural drive and enthusiasm and to help people channel their motivation in the right direction. This flow of motivation is not the sole responsibility of the individual or the manager, but is their joint and shared responsibility.

So companies should examine how their tools and environment help or hinder people’s ability to get the job done, rather than spend time trying to motivate people or certain types of behaviour

People are already motivated

Given the complicated systems of punishments and rewards that we construct to ensure people behave a certain way, this may seem like a rather bold thing to say, so let’s begin with two fairly non-contentious statements:

  1. Humans are social beings
  2. Humans are more than the sum of their physical needs

Most people would agree that human beings have a desire to contribute towards something they believe is meaningful. Where the term ‘meaning’ is a construct based on the social group of which we are a part.

We want to do something that matters and ‘what matters’ does not have to mean solving world poverty. If our social group is convinced that extravagant holidays imply status then we may devote lots of energy to having luxury holidays in far-flung places. If our social group thinks that having a well-kept garden is important then we will devote ourselves to achieving that.

The social group also determine how we measure our contribution towards the purpose. I might be hopeless at playing football but if my teammates view me as a lucky mascot and insist I am necessary to their success, then I will probably continue to attend practice sessions and games.

Most people now derive much of their sense of self and well-being from what they do at work and how they are regarded there. I am not saying that work provides self-respect but that work provides a highly regarded outlet for our natural desire to participate in a purpose larger than ourselves. Most people who work want to do their work well.

Perhaps it’s easiest to see the truth of this by looking where the opposite is true. In Victorian Britain prisoners were forced to do work, not to pay for their upkeep but because it would teach the prisoners the value of hard work. An example of this was working on the Crank. This was a large handle in their cell that a prisoner would have to turn thousands of times a day. This could be tightened by the wardens, making it harder to turn, which resulted in their nickname of ‘Screws’. As you can imagine this completely pointless labour was much loathed.

Figure 1. The Crank, Source

A meaningful purpose – is everyone committed to it?

Since most of us want to work towards a purpose that matters, it is important that this purpose is fully understood and shared by the individuals within a team. I’ve discussed why you can’t motivate the individuals directly, but you can ensure that they understand the overall purpose of the team and decide whether they want to buy into it or not.

Commitment to an overall purpose motivates us to do the things that we want to do (like work creatively), but also the things that we don’t want to do. There is compelling evidence that attachment to the overall organisation can enable people to think beyond their own narrow group within it, such as when a head of department sacrifices some of their budget for the good of the company. Similarly, attachment to the team enables people to think beyond their own individual motivation and take on work that is dull or personally distasteful, for the good of the team.

The organisation’s purpose and commitment

In a better organised world, we would rarely find ourselves working for the wrong company. The purpose, values, culture and environment of an organisation ought to be the kind of matter that is brought up and discussed in an interview. However, most of the time such questions don’t even get a look in. Instead, the interview focuses on skills and domain knowledge. If the purpose of the organisation exists at all, it is slipped in as a statement on a sheet of A4 paper. Yet knowing whether this is the kind of organisation you want to work for is often the most important component in an individual’s motivation.

The purpose of an organisation should directly drive the purpose of departments and the teams within them. These should be understood and presented as a nested series of goals to all employees. Otherwise an organisation risks highly motivated teams creating conflict and issues by pulling in opposite directions.

The team’s purpose and commitment

In business, as in life, the most effective motivator of all is probably the admiration and respect of your peers, or its counterpart the fear of disappointing them or letting them down. Because this feeling is so natural, organisations need to work hard to ensure it is harnessed effectively, clarifying what is your true team. Functional divisions are a by-product of the fact that you may care more about what other developers think than about what the testing member of your cross-functional team thinks.

There is a strong link between the motivation of an individual and how the team functions collectively. For example, in a closely bound focused sports team, individual players create opportunities for one another. Being substituted for another player is disappointing, but despite the disappointment, players often downplay their own ego for the success of the team. When this does not happen and the individual players are focused on showboating, it tends to spell failure for the team.

Frequently we assume that just announcing the purpose is enough but a statement can be misunderstood or understood differently by different people. Also new or dysfunctional teams might not connect to the group’s purpose, so spending time exploring the purpose as a group is time well spent. By questioning, testing and refining purpose as a group, you may be surprised by the new thoughts and insights such an exercise throws up.

Getting the job done: what, who and how


Once we have our purpose, it’s time to do the job to be done. Earlier I mentioned the idea that your contribution being valued by others is motivating, even if there are few objective signs that your effort is making a difference. That said it is preferable for your contribution to have a direct impact. In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes a state of intrinsic motivation where the challenge of the task is in balance with the skills of the individual. If the challenge of the task is too easy, it becomes boring and the individual will probably not do it well or stop doing it. If the task is too difficult, it leads to anxiety and eventually the individual will give up.

Figure 2. Intrinsic motivation – balancing the challenge of the task with the skill of the individual

The perfect balance or flow is, being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. You whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

Perhaps you have occasionally experienced this state of mind in your work. Not only is it productive, the state is motivating, which means that there needs to be significant effort devoted to thinking about the skills of the individual and the challenge of the task. I have said that motivated teams will take on tasks they do not value for the good of the team, but as you can see this is not a good long term strategy. Even when the best state of flow occurs, it is easily broken by interrupting people with phone calls, emails or cups of tea, or by demanding that they switch tasks.


Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the Job done

Whilst this principle is sound, the reality of building the environment and support is far more complex than it seems and requires the involvement from everyone. As I have suggested above, the purpose of the team leads to the ‘what’ of work, so it’s good to have involvement from individuals in framing that purpose.

Some companies go further by encouraging their employees to have a greater say in ‘what’ they do. Google is famed for this as it allows its employees a percentage of their time to do with as they please. Gmail and Google Docs are just two of their products that were created on these so called innovation days. Although there is obvious mileage in the concept, the problem is that a day a month, or even a day a weeks is an entirely arbitrary period of time. If these are periods of work that deliver growth and value, why not do them all the time?

If an ‘innovation day’ is not firmly embedded in the company culture, the concept results in the opposite effect to that intended, becoming demotivating. It is depressing to work on a personal project, only to find it repeatedly ignored by senior managers who are required to sign off further development time. If the company does not clear real space, then what could be more demotivating than being expected to get a week’s work done in four days, in order to deliver extra value to the company on the fifth day?

Tom Demarco suggests in his book Slack that nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship depends on ensuring employees have enough time around their usual work to be able to develop new ideas and fully tested prototypes. People working flat out the entire time end up using an innovation day to get their filing done or slope off to the pub. Both of which are examples of what might happen when businesses import the idea of innovation days, without being prepared to sign up to the philosophy behind them.


Since the team is the unit that is most affected by the addition of a new member, it makes sense that they have a say in the membership decisions. Giving the team the responsibility of being part of the candidate selection and interview process promotes the team’s effectiveness as it allows members to hold one another to account and the team’s high standards.

In my experience this does not tend to a false harmony but I do recognise the need for vigilance and balance in maintaining the diversity required to keep the team healthy and effective in the long term.


Stop telling people what to do.

It’s difficult to ignore the inner voice telling us that we know best, so we often give into the temptation to tell another person what to do, especially at work.

Most people would agree that the best way to engage their creativity and enthusiasm is to point them to the objective and allow them to achieve it in their own way.

It is common to approach work by identifying the path we want the team to take. We might have more experience in a particular area and genuinely want people to avoid re-inventing the wheel, but by taking this approach, we risk compromising the team’s confidence and problem-solving ability.

When you provide a ‘ready-made solution’, you rob the team of the space for curiosity, creativity, decision-making and mistakes. You end up with a demotivated team and forgo the possibility of discovering an even better solution. Depriving your team of the opportunity to make mistakes also deprives them of the opportunity for learning, which is an integral part of creating a motivated and high performing team.


In the third and final installment of this article we will explore removing the barriers that block people’s motivation.