Bubble-Wrapped Projects

by Dec 17, 2019

Just like today’s parents all-too-often micro-manage, bubble-wrap, and helicopter parent their children – today’s project leaders too often micro-manage, bubble-wrap, and helicopter parent their teams.

We want children – and projects – to have successful outcomes, and we all do our best to remain focused on the finish line.  However, experiencing a failure – like a child getting bullied at school, or a project going wildly over-budget – can convince us that the here-and-now needs to be not just monitored, but rather, controlled very closely.

The problem with this approach?  We deprive our project teams of the three things that actually motivate them: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

And we instead find ourselves motivating with carrots and sticks.  And the constant pursuit of juicer carrots and bigger sticks not only burns out project leaders (and turns out entitled and ill-equipped children), it just doesn’t work.

To Push or to Pull?

When people are internally motivated, each person’s internal motivation creates a pull that drives them to perform.  When people are externally motivated, the source of the motivation (which is often the project manager) must create the push for performance.  When a drive to perform is present within each of the numerous team members, as opposed to originating from a single external source, the likelihood of a fantastic result is orders of magnitude greater.

To motivate employees – especially those who work beyond basic tasks – providing three key factors increases performance and satisfaction:

  • Autonomy — The desire to be self-directed.
  • Mastery — The urge to improve our skills.
  • Purpose — The desire to do something that has meaning and is important.

These motivators, documented in Daniel Pink’s book Drive, originate from the 1971 research of psychologists Harry Harlow and Edward Deci, and have been reinforced in numerous studies, including a follow-up study by MIT researchers in 2017.

How do we keep our focus on internal motivators and escape the carrots-and-sticks trap?  Here are a few questions we need to ask ourselves…

Autonomy: “What Problem are we Trying to Solve?”

To create and foster an environment where individuals are motivated by autonomy, by the ability to self-direct, we need to make the desired end state very clear. And to unlock our team’s ability to think clearly and collectively as they progress to an end state, towards a solution, they need to understand: “What problem are we trying to solve?”.

To contrast – the creativity of individuals and teams is suppressed when they are assigned highly-detailed tasks.  When the nature and character of the lines on the page – and the time and space allotted for laying these down – are fully specified, there is no room for individual choice of direction.

To be clear, much of the work that is required within project execution is task based.  And the more highly-detailed these tasks are, the more predictable the outcome.  And the more predictable the outcome, the more successful the project!

So, how to balance a project’s need for predictability against the opportunity to provide an extremely high degree of motivation to our team members?

First – when the project’s problems do not yet have solutions, ensure the team members that will execute the work are engaged.

Second – automate task-based work to the greatest degree possible.

Third – recognize that ongoing changes to the project’s constraints, assumptions, stakeholders, etc. require a constant revisiting of the “what problem are we trying to solve?” question.

Mastery: “How Do I Recognize Performance?”

The research prompted by students’ attitudes towards failure has revealed a very interesting result: when we believe we can get smarter, we understand that effort makes us stronger and are therefore able to overcome setbacks and failures – consequently leading to higher achievement.  This attitude, called a Growth Mindset, ultimately means that our ability to learn is directly connected to our decision to learn.

As project leaders, we know that projects seldom execute without encountering difficulties, and we need our teams to be resilient: to lean into hard tasks, to overcome setbacks, to embrace change with a can-do attitude.  The belief that challenges encountered are not endpoints but are instead merely obstacles is the belief that underpins a Growth Mindset.

By encouraging the individuals on our teams to pursue individual mastery, we are gifting them with the ability to overcome setbacks and failures, and we’re increasing the likelihood of project success.

In the context of project execution, the best way to encourage the pursuit of mastery is by identifying metrics that matter.  These are performance measurements that are relevant to project success and are directly related to the individual’s activities.  These metrics should be identified by the individual performing the work and tracked and reported by the same.

While metrics need to be individualized to the person and project, here are a few ideas that might get your creative juices flowing:

  • Amount of time spent in meetings
  • Ratio of time spent producing work to time spent checking work
  • Number of safe work observations
  • Number of new ideas produced and shared

And, to avoid the carrots-and-sticks trap, our response to performance against these metrics is critical:

  • When the individual encounters setbacks and failures, the project leader must respond with support.  Setbacks provide both a coaching opportunity and an opportunity to revise project organization and processes.
  • When success is achieved, the individual should then create new metrics – because the goal isn’t to achieve the metrics themselves, but rather to have ongoing opportunities to pursue new skills.

Purpose: “Who Cares?”

As sales and marketing experts tell us: we take action to solve an immediate problem, and after the problem has been solved, we stay in action to realize a benefit.

Your project team all started their workplace journey because they had an immediate problem that needed to be solved.  For most of us, that problem is a need for a paycheque that is then exchanged for food, shelter, clothing, etc.

After the problem has been solved, the people on your team want to be motivated by something greater.  They are looking to pursue a vision – to follow a leader that has created a compelling story about a new and better place to which the team will travel together.

As a leader, it’s your job to give your team something to care about.  To cast a vision, and to make sure it is a vision that matters to your team.  Only then can your team members choose to adopt the vision as their own – and to see their efforts as having a purpose.

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