Jul 21

Motivating Performance

tileAt what point must we be great?  Talent does make a difference.  “The top software developers are more productive than average software developers not by a factor of 10x or 100x or even 1,000x, but by 10,000x.”[i]  Imagine you are the direct manager of the top software developer in your organization…the first person he would notify of his resignation and the one responsible for replacing him, if he decided to leave.  What steps would you take to ensure he never left?

The most obvious place to start would be to ensure an appropriate compensation structure via salary and bonus.  However, that is a basic requirement to retention.  Someone this successful can leverage his talent to secure appropriate compensation wherever he chooses to work.  The total rewards package- vacation, health and welfare programs, tuition reimbursement, are important, but these really amount to “giveaways.”

Organizations routinely over-invest in employees who fill higher roles in the “hierarchy” rather than those who perform critical, strategic activities.    Not every job (or all work within a job) is strategic.  First, leaders must identify the work that is strategic- the work that is necessary in order to execute the company’s strategy and secure a competitive advantage in the market place (defeat the competition!).  This work exists in every layer in an organization.  If your strategic objective is to “win” by having the best customer experience, managers as well as agents play a strategic role.  Both interact with your customers and should be encouraged and incentivized to deliver exceptional customer service.  Managers who aim to drive optimal performance from their employees need to appeal to the core of what motivates their top performers serving strategic roles.

These motivators will vary from person to person, but here are some likely contenders:

  • Building transferable skills:  Those who lack the opportunity to gain transferable skills via learning new technologies or industry specific products will likely seek out other job opportunities that will afford them the ability to learn, grow and remain ‘current’ in their industry, profession and workforce.
  • Performing tasks that are intrinsically rewarding:  This is likely to be common throughout the not for profit sector where employees are filling roles within an organization that is dedicated to a cause with personal appeal.  However, work in the private sector can be intrinsically rewarding as well.  Pharmaceutical scientists in the private sector will often find their work toward curing illnesses to be very rewarding.
  • Feeling valued:  Everyone makes a choice every day about how hard s/he will work.  Managers who show respect and appreciation toward others are more likely to have employees who choose to perform at a higher level.  Employees who are included in organizational decision making report higher levels of feeling valued.[ii]
  • Sense of accomplishment:  Employees should understand their roles and their goals and how those have a direct impact on the success of the company.  This is linked to goal setting and visibility of accomplishments.  If employees do not know their goals, or do not believe they are able to accomplish them, their efforts may be misdirected.  Managers who provide SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, time bound) will be able to easily track performance and provide feedback about goal achievement.
  • Coaching and Development:  Highly motivated employees value the ability to continually learn and receive feedback on their work.  Organizations are increasingly creating and investing in ‘corporate universities’ Organizations today acknowledge the necessity and value in continually training the workforce- including those already bringing enhanced skills to the table.  In addition, providing a mentor (or allowing someone to serve as a mentor) will give employees the opportunity to facilitate the sharing of knowledge, expertise, skills, insights and experiences through dialogue and collaborative learning.[iii]
  • Quality of Life:  This goes beyond a good work/life balance, which everyone does enjoy.  In addition to having a job and a boss that are respectful of personal time and commitments, employees enjoy working with people they like, in a pleasant environment with technology that works quickly.

In short, employees want to enjoy the work they do and the people with whom they interact.  Successful people want to continue to learn and remain viable and competitive within the job market.  Investing in your key, successful employees- via training, coaching and equipment will yield positive results in the form in increased productivity, engagement and retention.


[i] Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Scientist, Microsoft.

[ii] “What Makes People Happy at Work?”  www.cbsnews.com; April 20,2011

[iii] http://chronus.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Five-Benefits-of-a-Workplace-Mentoring-Program.pdf

Jul 06

Boss as Captor 2: The Inmate Rebellion

DSC_7634A couple months ago, GhostWriterX guest posted an article named “Boss as Captor” on my blog. It enlightened us about the rampant problem with workplace abuse in today’s organizations. It discussed systemic contributors to this problem like lack of engagement, failure to build true relationships, and lack of guidance. Well, today, we are going to discuss what happens when employees can’t take it anymore and fight back.

In my project experience, corporations typically have a culture of uncovering problems and then moving quickly toward solutions. Very rarely, if ever have I heard a client ask me to help them uncover someone’s untapped potential. When I interview someone for a position in my group, I inevitably come to the part of the interview where it is time to ask about strengths and weaknesses. One of the lessons that I’ve taken away from Peter Block’s book, “Flawless Consulting”, is that it can be more rewarding for everyone involved to focus on gifts and possibilities, rather than on problems to be solved.

So, I ask the question a little differently. I ask the interviewee about his or her strengths. People like talking about these things because it is natural to be proud of one’s accomplishments, and it’s rewarding for me to hear them. I then bluntly tell tell them that I don’t like focusing on the negative so I don’t ask about weaknesses. Instead, I ask them to recall a situation where they felt their particular skill set could have been leveraged to provide massive value, but it wasn’t. This could happen because the person was purposely shunned, or because there just wasn’t enough investigation into all the things each employee does well. Not taking the time to study someone’s past successes so we uncover all their strengths, and then taking the next step to help them find innovative new ways to leverage those strengths leads to stagnation, both for the employee and for the company. People seem to respond well to this way of asking the interview question because it puts them in a state of mind within a future utopia. They imagine what “could be”, rather than what has gone wrong.

That is was Boss-Captors fail to do. They soak up every bit of power associated with being at or near the top of the organization chart and feel their sole purpose in life is to inflict control over others. They act as if their position makes them better than others or more capable. They make rules just for the sake of proving they can, rather than acting collaboratively with fellow professionals. They feel fulfilled when they are making “subordinates” do tasks, rather than helping them grow as professionals. They strive to be the final word on every decision because they don’t trust the capabilities of others. I’ve heard mythical tales of executives who thrive on making Human Resources Directors arrange lunch and staple papers in a specific way, while totally ignoring all the innovative content written on those papers. There is nothing wrong with preparing coffee. Baristas make an art form out of it and I also had my own roasting company for a while, but this simply isn’t what HR does. People need to be empowered toward innovation in the area where they have passion.

Rebellion happens when motivated “inmates” come to terms with their lack of fulfillment. They get clarity on what is happening to them, and they ask, “What gives this person the right to treat me like I am incapable when I am in fact skilled and powerful?” A corporate employee would want to retaliate just like an unjustly accused prisoner would. Some of them do nothing about it because they do not have a nurturing support system outside the workplace either, but some of them strike back in rebellion.

Evander Holyfield is one of the best examples of this idea. He was constantly told that he would never become heavyweight champion of the world because he was too small and didn’t punch hard enough, so he rebelled with hard work and an irrepressible spirit. Fast forward to 2014, and he is the only boxer ever to win the Heavyweight Championship 5 times. Compare this to the purported “Greatest of All Time”, Muhammad Ali, who won it 3 times. If you look at Evander’s website, the immediate thing you see before anything else is a collection of sayings that make you feel empowered. Check him out at http://www.evanderholyfield.com/. In any discussion about overcoming obstacles, his name inevitably comes up. I don’t use this example to convert you into a boxing fan, because that would be forwarding my own agenda like Boss-Captors do. I use this example to explain that there is great power in the human spirit, and that people rebel when we treat them like that capacity for greatness isn’t there.

Rebellion can take several forms. Some people break office furniture. Others steal staplers. Still others browse the Internet all day because their bosses are not helping them find innovative and interesting ways to use their skills. Some others break down emotionally and actually weep for the intense feelings of regret and unfullfilment they have. But the most powerful form of rebellion by far is this: they leave. Resignation is at the same time a liberation for the Inmate and a lethal blow to the Boss-Captor. Boss-Captors thrive on control. Resignation is telling them they have lost control, because the inmate has chosen to remove himself from the control-enabling structure. It’s much easier than it would be in real prison. Many jobs in the United States are at-will, meaning that the company can let the employee go for any reason or no reason at all, and same holds true for resignation. It’s just a matter of the Inmate defining the breaking point and leaving once it has been reached. Barry Katz once told me to “Never accept unacceptable behavior.”. It’s an idea that holds true in all walks of life including the workplace. We are not animals to be commanded. We are people with skills and abilities to offer.

The Boss-Captor is so entrenched in controlling the Inmate like a puppet of her whims, that she becomes shortsighted to the actual fragility of the control structure and is astounded when the Inmate resigns. In my travels, I’ve heard stories of Boss-Captors responding to the resignation with outright rude and offensive comments, giving the Inmate even more irrelevant tasks to complete in the last weeks of their employment, or even telling them to leave immediately. This is just like a last ditch effort that any wartime dictator would take when they feel control being taken from their grasp, and there is nothing left for them to do about it. They try to get in their “last digs”. What’s with all the negativity. How about the Boss-Captor take this approach? “I’ve obviously done something wrong to make this person want to leave, so let me change my ways and become nurturing, even if it’s only for 2 more weeks. That way, the company at least gets the best of this person for 2 weeks, and he leaves on a positive fulfilled note.”

Boss-Captors measure accomplishment by empowering only themselves. Imagine for a moment a sports coach who empowers only himself. The team would never win a game! For goodness sake, Michael Jordan’s coaches were not there to make him cater to their whims. They were there to help him tap into his very best skills and abilities, and as a result, fans around the world received a special gift every time we watched him play. The workplace is the same thing. In corporate cultures, we like to over-complicate things with big words, acronyms, and complicated hierarchies of power, but it all boils down to the same thing in the end. People aren’t different because they are working in a specific role. The same things cause them feelings of despair or aspiration as they would in any other walk of life.

“Coaching Questions: A Coach’s Guide to Powerful Asking Skills” by Tony Stoltzfus taught me that nurturing a client or a colleague like you would nurture your own child can create huge feelings of fulfillment. We should all strive for this. Like I’ve said before, people don’t turn into emotionless robots because they are working on projects. Let’s change the corporate world, so next time I’m writing about “Boss as Empowerer”.

The photo above is from Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland where visitors are not allowed to take interior photos, even though they sell the books that include professional photos. So I found a loophole. I went outside and took a photo pointing into the doorway. That’s my own personal rebellion!

Jun 30

The Latest and (Not Necessarily) Greatest

ali“The Latest and Greatest” is a commonly used phrase, not only in software development, but in other walks of life as well. The newest video game or vacuum cleaner are examples where this phrase is commonly used. People say this as if being the most recent automatically makes something the best.

There are a few issues with this approach, not least of which is the fact that “the greatest” is subjective. It is relative to an individual person’s expectations. What one person may think is the greatest, may be sub-par to someone else. For example, I own a smartphone. When I first bought it, I considered it the greatest, because it had the fastest processor and the sharpest looking screen graphics. Someone whose main objective is to have a cell phone with the best battery life would never consider my smartphone to be “the greatest”.

So, how does this translate to software projects? Software usually progresses through an evolution. New versions are released over time that attempt to accomplish several objectives. Here are some examples.

  1. To remedy features that did not work properly in previous versions of the product.
  2. To implement new features that address high priority client business needs.
  3. To keep pace with innovations in the market space.
  4. To act as an innovation leader in the market space.

With these objectives in mind, it becomes clear that several factors need to be weighed when deciding to create a new version of a product. These include:

  1.  How many clients are requesting the feature
  2. How much revenue they generate.
  3. Whether a set of features will fit well with a client’s strategic business objectives.

#3 is the area that potentially use more attention. So, when implementing a feature that 1 or more clients have requested, we are inevitably implementing a feature that some other clients did not request. Traditional wisdom suggests that we should suggest all clients move to the latest version of our product because it is the most feature-rich and the most bugs have been addressed. Furthermore, when these other clients hear that there is a new product version, they are eager to move to the “Latest and Greatest”, usually without sufficient research into the relevant benefits for them. Although it is seemingly counter-intuitive to forego additional revenue by not suggesting our clients migrate to newer product versions, it is also unethical to migrate a client into a product version that does not provide immediate value for them, or worse, removes a feature on which they have come to depend.

Fortunately, there is good compromise. The software product evolution typically happens in a series of major updates and minor updates. There can be a variety of different product versions with different features. We can still generate revenue in an ethical way through consulting services. If the idea is to help guide our clients to the solution that best fits their immediate business objectives, we can do this in a more targeted way.

We can use open ended questions to learn everything they know about their own business processes. We can then work together with them to determine which major or minor product version has the set of features that immediately addresses their business needs. This may not necessarily be the latest version, and it may not be any upgrade at all. However, in the interim, we’ve still been able to generate consulting revenue, and we’ve also been able to give our clients a targeted service rather than a generic upgrade direction. Everyone wins this way. Muhammad Ali touted himself as the greatest. He’s probably in most fan’s top 5, but most boxing enthusiasts would say Sugar Ray Robinson is the greatest of all time. Again, “The Greatest” is very subjective.

I think there are many processes that seem straightforward on the service, but can benefit from consulting engagements. Software upgrades are an example of this. On the surface, they look like easy decisions where we go through all the upgrade steps and give every client the latest version. Scratching below the surface tells us that even in seemingly straightforward situations, people need help seeing perspectives that they may have missed. Consulting opportunities are much more available than some would think.

Join me in my revolution of always scratching below the surface!


During my research for the best image to use in this post, I came across a great blog with the great image I used above! I want to give full credit to ClydeStyle. Check them out at:


Jun 24

Absolute Power

DSC_6508In some of my projects, I’ve noticed people both on the customer team and on my own team speaking in absolutes. They say things like, “We need to…” or “We must…” pretty often. Engagements are partnerships where people work together toward the common goal of creating value for the client. Engagements in their pure sense assume that all members of the project team have positive skills and potential. We look for the gifts that people can share rather than focusing on the obstacles they create that we need to correct. When we view engagements this way, we create an environment of collaboration where the piece of value each person provides is part of a synergistic whole.

Inherent in this idea is the fact that we all have choices. There can be various ways to create a solution, all of which have their own different sets of merits. Arriving at the best solution is not always a matter of right and wrong where we do one thing only if we totally discard the other.

During my projects, we have an established methodology that we follow. This outlines what happens during each phase of the project. For example, during the Kickoff phase, the members of the executive sponsorship meet the executives from my company (the vendor), we review a sales demo together, and we talk through all the concepts where there should be a unified understanding to make the engagement enriching for everyone. During the Testing phase, we accomplish very different tasks like ensuring that the product features work as expected, that the data in the final solution matches the original data in the source system, and that dashboards display in an acceptable amount of time. These things all have to do with structure. We need structure during our projects, but there is a difference between structuring the input activities and forcing the outcome by mandate.

There can be people from different levels of seniority and experience on a project team, but probability tells us that we will have more than one legitimate experienced opinion about what to do next. I’ve heard statements like this during some past projects: “The client made a requirements change now that we are about to deploy the final solution, so we need to go back and redo all our mockups.” This statement could potentially raise some eyebrows from other members of the vendor project team. In this example, one might argue that mockups are used as guidelines before any development is done to provide a general estimate of the final look and feel. They are preliminary guidelines that are not usually updated as the development effort progresses, nor should they be expected to be exact replicas of the final solution. There could be merit to both perspectives. The point is that using absolute terminology closes the door on other points of view, even if they have the potential to be complimentary.

Speaking in absolutes can be a power play that one uses to flex his project management muscle and to exclude any other perspectives. Even in the best circumstances where there is no intended malice, it still removes the element of choice, which is where all the creativity and innovation comes from. Choice is a basic human need, so ignoring it can demoralize the recipient and diminish her considerable experience and abilities. Those who are the most confident in their skills and abilities have no need for power plays. They revel in their ability to empower others around them rather engaging in absolute power.

If the idea is to generate the most value for the client, doesn’t it makes sense to entertain all feasible viewpoints? After all, if Gaudi had thought to himself, “I must design La Sagrada Familia traditionally because that is how all basilicas must be designed.”, we would never have the incredible innovation that we see pictured above. Resist the urge to exert absolute power! Your client will be better off for it, and you just might learn something new in the process.

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