December 24, 2009

Agile Tenet #5 – Motivated Individuals

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 9:43 am
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Five employees Fifth in a series of posts examining the Twelve Principles of Agile Software and how each of these tenets can (or can’t) be applied or adapted to technical writing.


Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

The part of this tenet that really resonates with me is trust them to get the job done. Abby Fichtner recently posted a link to Scott Berkun’s open letter to micromanagers, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I think that Scott’s opening lines are absolutely brilliant:

Owners of thoroughbreds never stop their horses during a race, every ten seconds, to remind the horse and jockey how to run, where the finish line is, or that it’d be a good idea to finish first. Why? It would slow them down. Only an idiot would do this.

I once worked for a micromanager who wanted me to track a dozen different milestones for every single topic that I wrote, and send her a daily report on my progress. After working for several years for managers who wanted a simple weekly “my project status is green/yellow/red.” status update, I found this new system to be highly demotivating. I felt like my new manager didn’t trust me to do my job, and the constant status updates had a definite negative impact on my productivity.

I’ve usually been lucky enough to work for managers who checked in on me every so often to ask “Is there anything I can do to help? Need anything? No? OK then, carry on.” I am a trained professional, perfectly capable of planning and executing my work by myself. I understand my manager needs to report to upper management, and as long as they let me know what they need from me, I’m happy to provide it. But I don’t come to work to write status reports, I come to write user documentation.

The other, more difficult part of this tenet is Give them the environment and support they need… The physical environment is relatively easy to provide: powerful computers, comfortable chairs, a variety of caffeine sources in the break room, etc. What is harder to quantify is the cultural environment of an office and team dynamics. Over time I’ve come to recognize that there are three types of employees that can severely negatively impact a team:

  • Incompetent employees who create problems for their coworkers
  • Lazy employees who cause more work for their coworkers
  • Toxic employees who cause morale problems for their coworkers

When I say incompetent workers, I’m not talking about people who are lacking in skills. Skills can be learned. I’m talking about people who present themselves as being experienced, senior-level employees, but they’re fooling either themselves or their employers, because they are incapable of working at the level that they claim.

I once had a project updating documentation that included examples of SQL for querying and modifying the database. I knew enough about recent database schema changes to know that the examples would no longer work, but didn’t know enough SQL to be able to correct them myself. I asked the product manager for help. Over the next several weeks he put me off, sent me the existing examples that I had told him were wrong, sent me old examples that worked against the old schema, and generally did not answer my questions. It finally became clear to me that while I didn’t know very much SQL, he knew even less. And wasn’t about to admit it. Finally his incompetence became so obvious that the company had to replace him with someone else. And I was able to get more accomplished in two weeks with the new product manager than I had been able to accomplish in several months working with the old PM.

I read a quotation that has stuck with me “Meetings move at the pace of the slowest person in the room.” I think that you can also say the same thing about teams. Incompetent employees slow down the team because their coworkers have to spent time cleaning up the problem worker’s messes and solving the problems they create rather than doing their own work.

The best example of the lazy employee can be found in the comic strip Dilbert: Wally walks around drinking coffee all day, but never seems to do any work. I suspect that we all have at least one Wally in our offices. I’ve worked with several over the years. Team members notice when someone shows up late every day, takes an hour and a half for lunch, then disappears for 45 minutes every afternoon to go pick up coffee at Dunkin Donuts. (And we also notice when managers continue to tolerate this behavior.)

If you’re a slacker, there is nowhere to hide in an Agile environment. You have to stand up every day and tell the team what work you accomplished the day before.

The third type of employee that can negatively impact a team is the toxic employee. And these are the hardest to deal with, as being toxic is less a matter of behavior and more a function of personality. A toxic employee may be a pessimist, constantly complaining about things. They may be combative, constantly arguing with people. They may spread malicious gossip. And sometimes the most brilliant people in an organization can be the most toxic, because of their arrogance.

I once worked with a writer who made enemies faster than anyone I’ve ever met before. She had usability training, and came into the company with lots of good ideas for how to improve our product, but she had no idea how to present her ideas effectively. It wasn’t so much what she said that caused her problems, but that she presented her ideas as criticisms, and often in a very insulting manner. For example, she invited herself to the UI team meeting and proceeded to give a presentation about what was wrong with their design. She wasn’t a member of that team, and hadn’t told the team leader that she would be attending, or that she wanted to provide the team with input. She just showed up, took over the meeting, and effectively told the team that they weren’t doing their jobs correctly. She was the sort of person that sends you running to the self-help section of the bookstore searching for books about how to deal with toxic coworkers. (I found strategies that saved my sanity in the book The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout.)

I know this is a deeply heretical statement (especially when so many people are out of work through no fault of their own), but some people need to be fired. It is the only thing that will make any change in their behavior. Poor workers need to be taught that their behavior is not acceptable. Managers need to coach problem employees. Give them a short probationary period to correct the problem, but if there isn’t drastic improvement, fire them. Some people cannot hear the message that they need to change until it costs them their job.

Sometimes firing someone is the best thing for both the team and the problem employee. The bad team member will get the wakeup call that they must make changes in order to remain employable. And the team will be more productive without the problem employee dragging them down.

Build teams of motivated individuals. Then give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.


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