Pulling Motivation – Stories from the Trenches

Ted Young posted and interesting tweet today: “@jitterted: Can you “pull” motivation? Hmm. Per @OlafLewitz #SFagile2012″

To which I responded “absolutely; sense, poke respond”. 140 characters isn’t much to explain what I meant, especially since I ramble sometimes. What I mean by “pulling motivation” is sometimes you simply need to sense something in a system or situation, poke the system to provoke a response and then respond to that reaction.

Here are some stories of the “push-to-pull” technique that I’ve used many times with varying degrees of success. And some outright failure.

1) At a large transition: some people were confused about what documentation to produce for requirements in a “post transition” world. We introduced BDD and one developer reacted with “holy cow, I wish I woulda heard about this last year!!” – and he’s running with it. Sometimes introducing a technique is enough and those who grok it will run with it. That can be quite motivating for people.

2) At a large transition: one team was really struggling. They were confused about why the transition was happening, thought Kanban was a way to micro-manage them and some other interesting (and complex) dynamics. I managed to take them on Agile Safari to a rolled up enterprise kanban board and to a peer team’s Kanban board. I simply showed them something another team was doing and they thought it was a great idea. The next day at the standup they had implemented 2 new visualization techniques.

3) at a small company: a small team was spending about a week and a half on regression testing. Many years ago they’d tried automating some of those test through the GUI and ran into a trap many teams do. They had too many GUI tests that were brittle and slow so they abandoned it. I showed them some alternate tooling and suggested picking 3 options and then do 3 time boxed implementations to get a feel of which one would fit best. They chose the same tool they used years ago with the reason that “they were all senior software developers and were experts with the tool”. I made the mistake of calling BS on them by saying “then how come we don’t have any automated tests?”. I tried another attempt by actually using a different tool and made some simple end-to-end tests and showed them. They chose to not use them and had a severe production issue a few weeks later that my tests would have caught (and they would have because I ran them for fun to satisfy my own curiosity). I soon realized I couldn’t figure out how to motivate or create a sense of urgency. After every release, they’d spend a week fixing the stuff that got broken and everybody, including the stakeholder, was ok with that so I gave up. I’m sure there was a way to motivate them, I wasn’t able to figure one out or if there was any real reason to change other than being fed up fixing the same problems over and over again.

4) at a medium transition: a mature shared services team had gotten started with Kanban after one worskshop with me. They simply owned it from the beginning, decided to do standups every other day because they talked many times throughout the day and given the transition, they came up with a proposal to management about where they thought they fit into the new landscape and what services they could provide and how they would engage. All from seeing the value in visualizing their work and having 3 standup per week. I think this story in motivation is an outlier given these guys were quite experienced and were already a small mature team.

Above all else the tool I use the most in my coaching is storytelling. Usually I’ll sense some frustration or confusion and I am careful in the language I use. During a long and terrible standup, I noticed people having multiple conversations, poor posture and generally the feeling of “a forced status meeting”. Someone had made a passive-aggressive comment like “15 min standups? Whatever….“. To which I responded to the group “I noticed you’re doing updates on all the work tickets on the board. Some other teams about the same size as ours were having long standups too and they decided to flag work tickets that need to be talked about and they only talk about those during the standup. I can show you their board and how they do it if you think it makes sense. It could help make these standups quicker.

I try to be a catalyst for change and sometimes I need to ‘tell’ more than I’d like. I find he MOIJ model (also see Gerry Weinberg’s post here) an effective tool to look at the system and figure out when and how to jiggle it to provoke a response. More often than not I find that leads to motivating some people. Change happens one person at a time and I’m happy if one person has an ‘aha!’ moment because sooner or later that is going to lead to more progress as it spreads throughout the rest of the team.