June 17, 2013, 1:28 PM — No matter where I go, IT managers ask me, "How can I motivate my technical team?" I love that they ask that question, since it tells me that as an industry, our managerial maturity is improving. Fifteen years ago, I was more often asked about process.
The short answer is that you can't motivate your team. Motivation is an internal emotional state, and you can't crawl into someone else's soul and make them motivated any more than you can make someone love you.
Fortunately, I have a longer answer: You can create conditions under which people are likely to find their own motivation. You can offer people an opportunity to be motivated. With geeks, the best way to offer that opportunity is to master the motivational power of problem statements.
We geeks love problems, and problems at work, presented clearly and with specifics, tell us how we can win at work. Not only do we devote our careers to solving problems; we are dependent on problems. Without a good problem statement, we don't really know what to do. Just think back to the last conversation you had with a nontechnical stakeholder asking for something that didn't make any sense to you. You probably blurted out something like "What problem are you trying to solve?" or "What goal are you trying to achieve?"
The most elegant thing you can do to motivate geeks is to define a problem that your team will want to solve. You do this not with annoyingly vague and emotional mission statements, but with clearly articulated and achievable goals. For example, you could start by saying, "We need to reduce the costs of software testing while improving its effectiveness."
But to make that statement motivational, you need to take one more step that turns it into something geeks will find intriguing or exciting. You can do this easily enough by focusing on one or more of these four qualities or actions:
Value: We geeks love to know that our work provides measurable value to an organization. That knowledge justifies our faith in technology's ability to drive progress. With that in mind, you might say, "We need to reduce the costs of software testing while improving its effectiveness. Reducing the post-release call volume by 10% will lower our costs by 5%."
Difficulty: We love to tackle hard (but not impossible) problems. Simple things are boring, but juicy problems are a joy. Generally, constraints make problems difficult. Therefore, for example, "We need to reduce the costs of software testing while improving its effectiveness in time to test the June 1 release of the product."
Learning: We love to learn. Most geeks like the challenge of engaging with new ideas as long as they have the time and resources they need to master them. This could lead you to say, "We need to reduce the costs of software testing while improving its effectiveness by adopting the most up-to-date testing methodology and tools."
Competition: Yes, we love to compete with worthy opponents for pride and bragging rights. This instinct can be tapped by saying something like "We need to reduce the costs of software testing while improving its effectiveness to make our June 1 release the highest-quality software the company has ever introduced."
When you invite your team to engage in the joy of solving important problems, you create an environment in which their natural motivation can flourish.
Paul Glen, CEO of Leading Geeks, is devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. His newest book is 8 Steps to Restoring Client Trust: A Professional's Guide to Managing Client Conflict. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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