On Developer Motivation


As is usual for these types of posts, I’d like to preface this blog entry with the caveat that the thoughts, situations and anecdotes below are not meant to specifically call someone out or as a backhanded or passive-aggressive way to express discontent. These are simply the accumulation, amalgamation and distillation of my many experiences in the matter with different teams, contexts, and management.

The Motivation “issue”

Throughout my career I have observed and experienced many times management incorrectly assuming that lackluster team productivity or “not firing on all cylinders” is caused by an overall team-wide lack of motivation. The mistake is that lack of motivation is not the cause, is a symptom, at best. Sometimes it’s not even a lack of motivation, but a case low morale – which is not the same. The majority of times not much time or effort is devoted to trying to find the root cause of the perceived “slump” and very often hasty measures are taken that end up causing more harm than good.

Root Causes

There are a plethora of possible reasons why a developer team productivity is not as good as it should or as is expected. Some of them have nothing to do with the team itself at all. Sometimes is the lights in the room, gloomy facilities, unbearable process overhead, terrible customer management, mediocre pay, distrust in upper management and so forth. Sometimes it can be a team issue but not directly related to the developers. For instance: adversarial relationship with management or product owners or subject matter experts, lack of competent equipment, bad scope management, “shit umbrellas” that become “shit crop dusters” and other such issue. And although possible in theory, I never experienced or saw a case where the developers, as a team, were lacking motivation to the point of being a problem.

How Not To Address Team Motivation Issues

The most common way an organization can mess up a team while trying to remediate the situation is to assume they know what the root cause is. If an organization forgoes clear and direct communication with team members for the sake of time, might as well grab that “motivation” budget, light it up and throw in the trash can because it’s not going to do any good. Other common forms of making matters worse are (in no particular order):

  • Plastering “war rooms” with motivational posters
  • Offering meaningless incentives ($25 gift certificate each if we reach a 400 point burn rate! or Friday coffee and doughnuts on us!)
  • Threat of more work (we are going to be working on weekends unless you can burn through those items)
  • Forcing the team to read motivational books
  • Pep talks

just to name a few.

How To Address Team Motivation Issues

In case is not clear by now, the single most effective way to deal with team motivation issues, in my opinion, is clear and open communication. Talk to each of the team members and listen. But also ask them questions, ask them for feedback, ask them for possible solutions and involve them in the process without burdening them. After listening to the team:

  • Create a list of things you can do immediately and which ones will take time to address (if it’s an organizational or cultural issue) and create a time table together with the team.
  • Make sure to maintain the communication channels open
  • Show that you really are working/progress on fixing things
  • Don’t stress over it, that stress will get subconsciously passed to the team
  • Be honest and transparent with the team at all times

Motivation, much like any other group issue or dynamic, can be best fixed with both good communication and concrete actions, not with posters, pep talks or $25 gift certificates.