(Boosting) Morale in Engineering

The recent article by  Jessica McKellar titled “This Is What Impactful Engineering Leadership Looks Like”, and the question “Any suggestions on how to inspire my team?” published on Everwise, prompted me to reflect on what impacts morale in Engineering teams.

At the risk of appearing to deflect my responsibilities as a VP of Engineering, I will assert that morale in Engineering is driven primarily by company culture. Consequently, in order to boost morale, my first priority is to focus outwards and educate the company leadership on how to create a culture that fosters productivity in Engineering.

In my experience, engineers, like most people, are motivated by a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Unrealistic deadlines imposed by the business teams, or constantly changing priorities, for example, will sap the moral of any team, no matter how capable, or charismatic, its leader.

Consequently, the answer to “How do you motivate your team?” is that I first eliminate everything that demotivates them – which is at least half the battle. Then I make sure that we employ the proper tools and methodologies, so that we are efficient collectively as well as individually. Only on rare occasions, do I metaphorically stand on a soap box and deliver a rousing motivational speech”.

ENGINEERS ARE SELF MOTIVATED

Does anyone really think that a professional football player needs a motivational speech before stepping on the field on Sunday? Heck no! He’s been waiting for that moment all week, all year! The rah-rah speech from the coaches or team captains that ESPN shows us, is just for the cameras. Said another way, if a player needs this pre-game sideline speech in order to go all out on the field, then he’s in the wrong business, and I certainly wouldn’t keep him on my team.

Well, it’s the same for Engineers.

“FIRST DO NO HARM” – ADDRESS THE COMPANY CULTURE

This list of “morale killers” will appear to be self-evident. Yet, I see these mistakes perpetuated over and over.

  • Imposing unrealistically aggressive schedules for releases – whether on purpose or not
  • Frequent (i.e. more than every 6 months) changes to the corporate strategy that nullify the existing product roadmap
  • Asking the Engineering team for an extra-ordinary effort to deliver a feature to win a major deal, only to fail to win the deal … more than a couple of times
  • Excluding engineers from customer meetings
  • Failing to publicly recognize accomplishments – whether collective or individual

One of the most counter-productive pattern is to purposely impose an unrealistic deadline based on the illusion that it will motivate engineers to work harder than they normally do. This pattern is ill informed for the following reasons:

  • Engineers may work longer hours when required, but it is unlikely that they will produce their best work during these long hours. It could even be counter-productive if a higher proportion of bugs is introduced.
  • Sustained long hours do not foster creativity, nor attention to details
  • The most aggressive schedule is accomplished by setting a realistically aggressive schedule at the onset. Just like a sprinter has to set progressively aggressive times as the season progresses, each release schedule has to be aggressive, yet achievable.
  • Unrealistic deadlines are rarely met. As a consequence, even if the team delivers an amazing product in an incredibly short amount of time, on release day, we all feel like we failed (since we did not meet the crazy deadline). It is hard to build on top of failures.
  • On the contrary, by setting realistic deadlines, and ensuring that we hit them, we build confidence in ourselves. Furthermore, our internal partners (e.g. Marketing, Sales), as well as our customers also start trusting us and our dates. Success beckons success.

PROVIDE THE PROPER ENVIRONMENT

Not only are Engineers driven by success, we also care about the products we build. We want to ship products on time, we want our users to be thrilled by the product and we want the company to grow. Consequently, my only job is to remove all impediments to these fundamental motivations. I thus focus on:

  • Providing clear strategy and tactics
    • Why are we doing what we are doing (vision, product roadmap, business context) as well as what are our immediate priorities.
    • Ensure that each team member has 1 –  and only 1 – top priority
  • Expecting, and nurturing, a culture of results and forward-looking attitude. Focus on the challenge at hand, rather than laying blame.
  • Making post-mortem reviews actionable: by deciding what we will do differently, and better, next time (rather than on an exhaustive list of things we did wrong) – and following up to ensure that we do do things differently the next time around
  • Making it “our team” rather than “my team” – by encouraging collaboration and ideation from everyone, particularly when it comes to development methodology. Adoption of best practices will be all the easier that recommendations come from peers.
  • Making it easier, simpler to ship products by creating product-focused teams, and limiting meetings to those that are determined useful by the team
  • Stimulating productivity by encouraging maximum use of tools and automation … and minimum number of meetings
  • Fostering team work by encouraging, even requiring, open and timely communications (good & bad news alike). Emphasize empathic cross-team communications (e.g. “be aware that the changes I had to make to the API have subtle implications for your component …”)

ALSO NURTURE THE INDIVIDUAL

In addition to removing impediments to productivity, and providing the right tools and environment for the Engineering team at large, one, naturally needs to address each individual’s motivations

  • Clarity of role: it must be made obvious to each engineer how their contribution feeds the success of the Engineering team and the company – both tactically and strategically
  • “Personalization”: understanding what drives each person in the team (technical, managerial challenges), how they prefer to communicate, their work style, etc
  • Responsibilities: ensure that everyone in the team is challenged to the best of their abilities (to the extent possible given the needs of the organization)
  • Personal rapport: team spirit is built from common aspirations, but also from one-to-one personal relationships, including with the VP of Engineering

Morale is a complex feeling that’s is not easy nurture in a team. It is much easier to destroy it, than to boost it. By removing the “morale killers” – typically originating from the company culture, one can bring a team to a level of enjoyment and productivity where only a little more effort brings a virtuous circle of improvement, when team members themselves drive further improvements.

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2 thoughts on “(Boosting) Morale in Engineering”

  1. Nice post. “Only on rare occasions, do I metaphorically stand on a soap box and deliver a rousing motivational speech”: it does work and helps boost employee morale. It’s not only sugar coating and making you feel good about yourself. That’s what TED talks have been promoting. More and more tech CEOs (Quora/Twitter/Townhall live Q&A) expose themselves to their employees and share their leadership thoughts. Passion told with a story is a great catalyst for change within small and larger groups. Unfortunately, most execs forgot about that little power of theirs, under utilize it or in the worst cases, and that’s very often, ego gets in the way. Well-written piece, I am sure it resonates with many engineering teams.

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