Agile Forest

Find your path to agility with Renee Troughton

I posted recently about my fascination with online role playing games and how some of what intrigues me is around the area of incentives.

This has had a bit of attention in the Agile space with Daniel Pink covering off motivation in his book ‘Drive’ but for the quick versions you can see his TED talk or checkout an animated version.

The general gist of motivation as explained by Daniel is that if you reward people based upon speed of task completion, the stronger the reward the more likely to have an inverse productivity effect. The reason? Work where any element of innovation is required, ie the solution path is unknown, is stifled by rewards.

Now Daniel says that this is due to the fact that a reward or incentive is promised. I wonder what the impact would be if there was just a push from a time perspective – ie rather than encourage a reward, try and get it done faster by saying the last team got the candle test done in ‘x’ seconds and put a big huge clock in the room counting it down.  I think that the same problem would occur, but would this be because the time pressure is stifling innovation or because the challenge itself is creating a human instinctual reward – “If I do it faster than that last group then it shows that I am smarter and if I prove I am smarter than I feel better.”

Daniel says that you are better to remove reward systems and replace them with innovation systems eg FedEx days to create motivated employees.

So how does this fit into online games? What motivates millions of gamers to play? Well naturally it is fun. FedEx days appeal to many because they are fun. Is it purely that simple? Make work fun and you have fully motivated and engaged employees? I’d say fun goes a long way to motivated employees but it isn’t the whole story.

There are many different elements of gaming that is not fun. ‘Levelling up’ being the one that comes foremost to mind. When you start playing the game, as with real life, you are an inexperienced virtual person. Through learning and using your skills you become better. Completing missions or ‘quests’ would earn you experience. Defeating creatures would also earn you experience. Each time you levelled up the experience required to complete the next level would increase.

Back in the ‘ol days of online gaming levelling up pretty much was a majority of the game, taking half a year to get one virtual player to the maximum level possible. There was a lot of push back from players and consequently this has been slimmed down over time to a few weeks to under a month assuming a player focussing 25 hours per week. (Sounds familiar – waterfall to iterative anyone?)

Individual’s rarely cheered or got a thrill when they completed a quest or defeated a creature. But levelling up was a big reward. Other players in the area would congratulate you, your virtual family (guild) would congratulate you, you would also receive a new skill or an improvement on an existing skill. This is likened to getting a very small promotion frequently. In Agile, quests would be like ‘done’ stories, where as levelling up would be more like a release or maybe an iteration showcase.

The second ‘grinding’ element of online games occurs once you reach the maximum level and begin having to save money to buy clothes or other virtual related items, for example, vehicles or mounts. This element reflects a capitalist life all too much where you must complete the same monotonous quest every single night in order to receive money. This sort of re-occurring capitalist related behaviour is already starting to be phased out of online gaming and replaced with ‘weekly quests’ or slightly random regular quests in order to be more engaging.

The last of the less motivating elements of online games is around a concept of ‘raiding’ and ‘downing bosses’. ‘Raiding’ involves getting together with a bunch of other people, usually from your virtual family, and working as a single unit to defeat a complex non player character (boss) that is a few levels above you. This often involves working in teams of 5,10, 20, 25 or 40. Like software development, the larger the team, the greater the complexity required to herd cats. Conceptually you can think of ‘downing bosses’ as a large point Story and completing all bosses in the dungeon as an epic or release. Bosses can take anywhere from a few hours up to sixty hours for the whole team to complete. Whole dungeons of bosses can take a few to several months of work to complete.

I remember fondly one particular boss that required utmost perfection. Not just of defeating him, but defeating those that came before him. The less you failed, the higher the rewards. It was an interesting concept and probably is the key tie to quality. But for this boss we spent around forty hours before he was finally defeated. The way that he was coded meant that each person had a role they had to fulfill and in order to defeat him it required everyone to fulfill their role at the right point in time with 100% perfection. Because getting together as a huge team took quite a lot of logistical effort we probably only spent eight hours a week on this fight and consequently it took five weeks to progress. A five week epic. And what happened when he was defeated? Riotous cheering amongst every team member. It went on for minutes. The high lasted for days. When was the last time you cheered at the end of completing an epic? When was the last time you were on a high for days for doing an iteration?

The complexities are the same. Working together as a whole team to get a particular outcome. So why is the engagement so different between the two? What is the reward in online games for such an effort? It often isn’t about the gear or financial rewards you get, it is about the bragging rights, it is about the sense of achievement. We can’t compare apples with apples here when we deliver a Story. No one else in the world is delivering the same Story to be able to say ‘Hey we delivered As a Call Centre Operator I want to see the all the products that my customer has in a single view, have you done yours yet?’ or even ‘We did it in 8 days, how long did it take you?’. We need to make sure Story completion is regarded as an achievement.

So how can we make work more fun and more rewarding looking at online games:

  1. On demonstrated skill improvements make a big deal. Go out of your way to congratulate those that made it.
  2. Go out of your way to celebrate a release to production and epics being completed. I’ve seen release parties for Waterfall. I don’t think I have ever seen this for Agile, we need to do it more.
  3. Regular, repeatable activities that require no level of innovation are not fun. Effort needs to be expended to switch it up more or vary the activity somewhat to keep an employee engaged and motivated.
  4. In a Kanban like system where we aren’t celebrating at regular timed intervals. This means we need to concentrate harder at celebrating success when an epic is completed.
  5. Challenge has to exist but not so much that a person feels overly stressed. Getting this balance is important, challenge encourages the need for innovation; innovation makes the mental part of ourselves feel rewarded.

Lastly let me leave you with this one thought. What if we weren’t paid an annual or fixed salary. What if we were paid on the Stories that we delivered as a team as a percentage of the Story’s actual returned value? What behaviour would it drive? There would be potentially lots of really bad behaviour out of this, but the one thing I can’t take my mind off thinking is that finally we would focus on real value. The metrics we would have to predict value would be a lot more thorough. Daniel’s findings suggest this would be a dreadful thing as tying a financial element to the work will have a negative effect, but if you have a fixed definition of quality and no time restrictions would it really not empower innovation? To me it would still drive innovation because we would be directly tied to ensuring that our delivery will result in optimal outcome of value for the organisation.

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9 thoughts on “Making it not just a job – what is motivation?

  1. robertdw says:

    There is one serious problem with making reward contingent on the value returned – many projects are not so much value _adders_ as they are value multipliers. So many variables are outside of the control of the team.

    For example: let’s say the team is delivering a new tool to keep track of a sales campaign. The tool can be fabulous, but if the sales team can’t do their part, it’s useless. Or the sales people may be great, but changes (or lack thereof) to the product being sold makes it uncompetitive, so sales don’t go up.

    Then there are the projects that are about avoiding a future cost. For a real-world example, considering overhauling an invoicing system to be faster and more streamlined because projections of future invoices show that the existing process will be too slow. How do you measure the value of avoiding a pothole?

    If you’re going to reward based on value, then the best way to do it is by company-wide profit sharing. Everyone works to supply value – everyone should share in the rewards.

  2. Agreed Robert. For it to work the releases have to be so small that timewise you know the change you make and the outcome you had can be tied to the change. It really wouldn’t work at a project layer, but should be do-able at a Story layer. It would require good metricising to also establish trends but yes things like the GFC could never be countered for and hence we will probably never see it happen.

    Not sure on the company wide profit sharing, seems somewhat like a bonus plan and they definately dont work.

  3. robertdw says:

    Bonus plans and profit sharing are a little different. Bonus plans tend to be variable in size, often contingent on achieving a goal, and differing between groups.

    Profit sharing is just that: take some of the company’s profit, and divide it equally amongst staff, in much the same way profit is allocated to shareholders as dividends.

    1. Hmm and yet I hate what shareholding has done to the world. The almighty drive for profit at any cost – especially at the cost of people. Do you really think shares have done much good?

      1. robertdw says:

        Well, investment from shares stopped being dependent on dividends almost 30 years ago, when the major investors switched from price/dividend to price/earnings (Why? How is the amount of money a company _earns_ relevant to an investment strategy if they don’t pay out dividends to match?? Whoops, that’s a different rant).

        One major reason why shareholder-driven management doesn’t work is that the shareholders have nothing invested. All they want is the profit – and they’ll walk if they don’t get it, which leads to short-term thinking. Employees tend to be more invested, personally, financially, and emotionally, and they value other things besides just increasing profit by a percent or two – less pressure on short term thinking.

        (Lack of profit sharing can go the other way, too – for example, the US auto industry, with pension-plans that aren’t dependent on the company performance becoming liabilities that aren’t funded. Of course, employer-funded pension plans are yet another rant. I’ve got dozens. :)

  4. ken says:

    Renee, I need to cook on this some, but I did not want to lurk around without saying thanks for the post. I watched the RSA Animate reference and purchased Daniel’s book to go deeper into his thinking, but you have given me a lot as well.

    I have often challenged conventional wisdom regarding financial incentives, as my teams have seemed as happy to work a little longer for pizza and beer if they know we are doing something great. They have been inspirational to me and build tremendous obligation in me to want to find ways to help them… I think that is the way things are supposed to be.

    With regard to your finishing question, I think about how great it would be if we could follow Daniel’s other direction and make the money question no longer an issue for people. I attempted that several years ago with my sales force, and that did not work out very well. As I think about it, though, I suspect it had more to do with my incomplete assessment of all the variables involved than that salespeople only “eat what they kill”. (sorry for the metaphor, but that’s what they say…)

    Kind regards,
    –Ken

    1. Thanks for popping in Ken.

      I have pondered many times about what you are proposing regarding taking the money question out. I casually think of it as being like Star Trek post the civil war when replicators were created (gosh I sound so much more a geek than I already did with the MMORPG references). The value proposition in Star Trek was no longer tied to money, but was of human enlightenment – a beautiful abeit buddhist view. I certainly would love to live in that world but it is so incredibly revolutionary. What did you do to take the money out?

  5. ken says:

    In our case, I worked on so many different incentive models before I tried straight salaries for business developers. Most salespeople say they want something to help drive them, and straight salary means they will get lazy…

    Two factors that I think could override everything are some transcendent purpose (which David mentioned) and company culture (which I don’t remember him saying). Once in a while you find a company whose products seem to sell themselves, whose people seem excited to come to work, who are always challenged and who can productively fight with each other, always into better outcomes.

    Together, I could see culture and transcendency taking the money out of the equation, or at least putting it to the side. If you could have both of those, and an income that allowed you to earn, save and invest enough for a good life… that sounds ideal to me. (I can wish, right? Beam me up, Scottie.)

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