Critical Path Newsletter
I Know My Role, I Know My Project, But What’s My Motivation?
Phil Spector is trying to complete the Let It Be album, but the lads from Liverpool are on the outs. He gathers them together in the studio and says: “Paul . . . you’re the voice and the face of the Beatles. Without your charisma, the group would still be hacking out Twist And Shout six times a night to bored Krauts in Hamburg. Instead, you guys are the Number One act in all of rock’n’roll! Why is my contribution important to the project?
Listen fellas, I know you got problems, but think of the music! You guys are the Beatles, for chrissakes! Four distinct personalities combining to make the perfect pop group!
“George . . . you make your guitar gently weep. You’re the sound of the Beatles. No one sounds like you—you’re a true original. Guitar, sitar . . . you’re a unique influence in modern music.
“John . . . you’re the heart, the very soul of the Beatles. You’re passion and intelligence elevates these songs into the realm of the sublime. Yoko’s right—you’re truly an Artist in every sense of the word.
“Ringo . . . you’re the drummer.
This is the part where everyone groans at the mediocre punch line. But take a second look - this story offers real insight into motivation and leadership.
Consider it like this - Phil Spector, the "manager", assigns all teams members a role - but he fails to paint a compelling vision for Ringo, one of the team members. Sound familiar?
Whether it's the co-op who sits beside you or a senior architect in an offshore office, in this difficult economic climate people need to be reminded why their contribution is important and meaningful. And whether they vocalize it or not, once team members are assigned a role, they need some questions answered before they will offer their best work.
Some roles are action-packed - the architect who is guiding the whole team towards creating a new product, or the lead QA who has quality targets and deadlines to meet. For other team members, it’s less obvious. A junior QA assigned to a small feature, or a developer working in a remote office – they need to know why their contribution is making a difference too.
It’s important to stir up a sense of responsibility to the project. For QA, you might tell them that the customer has been very picky when it comes to quality in the product, and remind them that they are the last line of defense for shipping a top quality product. For remote developers, you could remind them that because of their participation in a different time zone, the project is like a relay race, making continual progress throughout the day and night.
Why am I on this task?
People want to work on what they're good at. Sometimes, they don’t even realize what they’re good at.
I remember when I was a developer, I was asked to work on a legacy codebase, a real mess of code that had been patched since the early 90s. My manager explained that he thought I had great organizational skill, and that if anyone could refactor and clean up that code, I was the one to do it. Not only did this give me the enthusiasm I needed to complete the project, but I learned about a strength I never realized I had.
What’s in it for me?
Team members don’t always work on the “glory” parts of a project. Not everyone will get a chance to design a new real-time operating system or test a state-of-the-art medical device. A lot of the time, there is “grunt” work to be done.
But a good manager recognizes that what might seem like grunt work to one person might be an exciting opportunity to learn something new for another. Bug fixing and localizing a legacy C# product is not every developer’s dream, but for a C++ developer, it might be the chance to finally learn about C# and get it on his resume.
Maybe the code is not very challenging, but the subject matter is cool, like an online hockey web portal. Or maybe the project is very demanding, but the rewards are great, like slaving over a network security solution, and subsequently being recognized as a “security expert”.
No matter what the task or project, if you look hard enough, you should be able to help your team members see all the rewards they’ll reap by giving their full effort.
What’s the point?
Even if I understand why I was chosen for a task, what’s in it for me, and how the task is vital to the project, I still may wonder – what’s the point of all this? How does my day-to-day work contribute to the company’s big picture?
It takes a while for day-to-day tasks to catch up to new business decisions, and the link between someone’s immediate tasks or project and the newly unveiled company direction might not clear.
For example, a contact of mine works for a company whose vision changed to become the number one creator of mini-games for Blackberry. When he was then assigned to work on an internal tool that didn’t seem related to games or Blackberry at all, he was justifiably confused.
Whenever possible, you need to show how the work at hand will benefit the company vision, and ultimately the employees, in the long term.
Whatever the role, whatever the task, it’s important that the vision and motivation provided along with it be as honest and genuine as possible. In most cases, the bug you fix today is not going to send a rocket to the moon, and the feature you test tomorrow is not going to cure cancer. So don’t exaggerate – the point is simply to help others see the importance of what they’re doing in an honest and genuine way.
Famous actors have no problem shouting at the director “What’s my motivation for this scene?” Your team members, on the other hand, may never ask you these questions directly. But if you are proactive about providing motivation and vision with each role and task assignment, they may never need to.
“Paul . . . you’re the voice and the face of the Beatles. Without your charisma, the group would still be hacking out Twist And Shout six times a night to bored Krauts in Hamburg. Instead, you guys are the Number One act in all of rock’n’roll!
Why is my contribution important to the project?