Matt Van Horn

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Carrots and Sticks

March 22nd 2012

“I’m not sure if management wants to use these numbers as a carrot or a stick”

When our engineering director said that to me, in my head I heard the red alert sound from the original Star Trek. It was my WTF detector going off, again.

The numbers we were discussing were potential metrics for measuring the engineering teams performance. That’s right, once again a small management team came up with the brilliant idea of trying to measure programmer productivity. Surely, this little startup team could do what no one in the past 50 years had been able to manage. And once they had their measurements, they were going to be able to motivate their team.

Because that is what carrots and sticks are for, right?

For motivating donkeys programmers.

The numbers they plan to use are irrelevant. For the record, it looks like we’re leaning towards Ron Jeffries ‘running, tested features.’ This is just as likely to be gamed as any other KPI, and was originally intended as a window providing transparency, not a carrot or a stick.

The real problem is the idea that you are going to be able to move that number through some kind of reward/punishment program. Software developers just don’t work like that. Study after study has shown that programmers are intrinsically motivated to a very high degree. This means they like working, for rewards that are linked to the work itself.

Another thing about programmers is that they are creative. In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” he talks about how external rewards actually lead to poorer performance on creative tasks. Alfie Kohn wrote that “at least two dozen studies over the last three decades have conclusively shown that people who expect to receive a reward for completing a task or for doing that task successfully simply do not perform as well as those who expect no reward at all.”[1]

So if this kind of approach to motivating a development team is all wrong – what is the right way to motivate them?

Like any good developer, I’m going to start by unpacking the requirement a little. Why would management want to motivate the development team? The simple answer is that they want to get more done. This assumes on the face of it that the team is not delivering at 100% capacity. A second less obvious assumption is that whatever the delta between capacity and output, it is related to the developer deciding not to work hard, and not the management style, working conditions, or any other factor.

The minute an intelligent team member sees you discussing carrots and sticks, the clear message they'l take away is that you think “the team is an underperforming bunch of slackers.” This is not likely to motivate them to deliver incredible work.

I think the biggest impediment to programmer motivation is the lack of an interesting problem. Paul Graham, in an essay on great hackers, talked about nasty little problems being ones where you don’t learn anything. When your day is filled with problems like that, it is like the life force is being sucked out of you. A common problem with managing developers is presenting them with a solution to implement, rather than a problem to solve.

The difference between interesting and nasty problems is often one of framing. Suppose you’re looking to boost gross revenue to look good to investors.

If you have a decent team, and you tell them “We need to increase top line revenue” then you are likely to get back a lot of questions on how you are measuring revenue, a bunch of suggestions on how to improve it, ways to identify your big-spending customers, reports on your best selling products, and potential tests for verifying whatever implementations are decided upon.

If you tell them “give out some incentive credit to all our members, and get it done by Wednesday” you’ve reduced it from a potentially interesting problem, to several nasty little problems, involving your legacy accounting and purchase systems.

Once your team has an interesting problem, the next factor affecting productivity is giving them the autonomy to solve it. Good teams need autonomy over what they do, when and where they do it, who they do it with and how they do it. Presume that your team wants to succeed, and that they want to get as much done as soon as possible. Then get out of their way and let them do it.

Of course, life is not perfect, and there will always be things that limit how much much freedom the team has. I think of this as friction in the system. When you have parts that rub together, you need to compensate by adding lubrication. For developer teams this can take several forms. My favorite is learning opportunities. Have a budget for conferences, big and small, near and far. When a team member is getting down because of the friction, send them to a conference that they want to go to. Great programmers get recharged by learning. Other kinds of recognition are nice too – take a developer to dinner, and talk to him or her. You’ll likely get some insights into what makes them tick, and the recognition of effort will not be missed by them. Personal recognition of effort is worth much more than money to a good developer (once a certain baseline compensation is met – we don’t just work for praise).

In short, treat your developers as the creative human beings that they are, and not as beasts of burden that can be motivated by carrots and sticks.

Because if they really were mules, they might wind up kicking you in the head.

[1] Harvard Business Review Sept/Oct, 1993


This post on Weaponized Metrics is another good take on the subject.

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