Boulder Project Manager Meetup Wrap-Up: Motivating Team Members

Image credit: Steve Schoeffel

No matter what your role is or what your company does, we’ve all been there: required to do work that is dull, uninspiring, or repetitive. We all get through it, and understand it’s a part of our jobs, but that doesn’t make it any more fun to go through. The difference for Project Managers (PMs) is that it’s part of a PM’s job, life goals, etc., to keep team members motivated, excited, and inspired during those tough stretches. Actually doing this is no easy feat, which is why we chose it as the topic of the month for January’s Boulder Web Project Manager Meetup.

Every month Web PMs around the Boulder and Denver area get together to discuss, question, and learn through focused conversations or presentations from members of the community. January’s topic was Motivating Team Members and conversation focused around what we can do as PMs to motivate our teams: what’s been working, what hasn’t, and what new strategies we should be trying. Below is a summary of the conversation and some lessons learned.

Gifts and Rewards

One of the first topics was one of the most commonly used, and often effective, motivation tactics: gifts and rewards. Lots of PMs can tell you about the power of the candy bowl, or how far pizza and beer can go to keep teams happy and motivated. Getting team members a gift, especially if you know what they like, can be awesome - and definitely shows them you appreciate the work they are doing. As important as feeling appreciated is, is that truly a motivator? In addition, many teams now are no longer colocated, which can make providing gifts a bit trickier.

We also talked about the success and potential double edged sword of providing rewards. Rewards certainly can be motivators, but what behavior are you reinforcing? The group talked about You Earned It, an online tool that companies can use to devise their own reward programs, and allow all coworkers the ability to recognize and praise their coworkers.  This is awesome, and can certainly be effective, but it also has risks. If an employee is recognized for burning the midnight oil, that behavior can be reinforced, when really a company should be looking for ways to avoid having their employees pull all nighters.

A Team's Investment in the Project

While rewards and gifts can be great, and effective, the PM group and landed on the consensus that the best motivation might not come from material things at all. Teams that are invested in what they are doing, how they are doing it, or who they are doing it for are more likely to see value in their work and stay motivated through a long project. So how do you foster that type of motivation? It doesn’t have to be as hard as we sometimes think. One PM group member discussed involving the team in process decisions, such as how often they should meet and how they want tickets structured.

There is evidence of the motivational power of feeling like you are a part of an end product. One PM group member mentioned a book called “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” by Daniel H Pink. The author compares Microsoft’s Encarta and Wikipedia (the irony of linking to a description of Encarta on Wikipedia is not lost on me). Microsoft paid a lot of money to experts to create an online encyclopedia, while everyone thought the Wikipedia idea was nuts. But, when they gave people a sense of being invested in a final product by allowing them to contribute and shape the final product, they proved all too happy to contribute to Wikipedia.

Additional thoughts:

The conversation was comprehensive, with people throwing out many different ideas for and things to remember when motivating teams. Below are some additional highlights of the evening’s conversation.

  • The question "Does yelling at people work?" was asked. While there are examples of prominent businessmen yelling (such as Steve Jobs), the general consensus is yelling works as a motivator only in very specific instances, and should not be relied on.

  • There was a suggestion (I think a great suggestion) of schedule a party or celebration in the MIDDLE of the project. Good things and good progress happens all throughout a project, why wait until the end to celebrate that? After all, finding mini wins throughout a project is important to team morale.

  • It can help to truly identify the needs of each person on the team. While there is a common theory about humans having a common set of needs, each person on a team might have a different “need” from this set. Identifying what that is can help in determining how to motivate individual team members.

  • Find a way to gamify work throughout a project. Creating a friendly competition can be fun, especially if a team is working on repetitive tasks such as bug fixing. It’s not an option for all teams or people, but it certainly can be motivating when the situation is right.

Looking forward to the next Meetup

It was another great Boulder Web PM Meetup, with everyone walking out with thoughts and new ideas around motivating teams during long and challenging projects. We are all looking forward to the next meetup, which will be on Thursday, Feb. 20th. Corban Baxter, Creative Technology Director at Made Movement, will be discussing his work on Copper Mountain’s Sherpa App in his presentation “A Mountain of Challenges”

If you are a Web focused Project Manager in the Boulder area, we hope to see you on February 20th!

Becky manages digital projects from our Boulder, CO, office for clients such as Duke University, Volunteers of America, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Shure.

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