[My Reply] You Be the Manager: A Case Study of Unmotivated Developers

On Tuesday I posted a You Be The Manager scenario about a real group of unmotivated software developers. My reply to the original author was sent several weeks ago, and in retrospect I wish I had included some of the creative thinking many of you offered in the comments. If you haven’t read them I suggest you do; there are some exceptional insights into how to improve (or abandon) the situation.

I took a straight-on approach and offered suggestions for determining why these software developers are unmotivated, and how to start returning motivation to their dismal existence (I say dismal because spending 5 years on an ERP project sounds like the worst thing since hitting yourself in the head with a hammer).

If you’ve been a reader for any length of time you know I don’t condone working overtime as a general practice, but I’ve found that a couple times a year it’s necessary to work extra hours to hit a crucial deadline, and this is the approach I took in my response: that this project is in the final stretch and needs one last “push” for completion.

Here were the thoughts I offered the consultant faced with the scenario of the unmotivated software developers:

“No one wants to fail. If the developers sensed the project would not be completed on time they may have begun to mentally distance themselves from it. Even if they supplied the deadline, did they really believe they would hit it, or did they just spit out a date because they were forced to?

  • If they believed in the deadline at the beginning and started feeling behind, it surprises me that at least one of them did not start working extra hours. If this is the case, the the company/department might be an “8 to 5” culture. My immediate thought is that there are 1 or 2 leaders who set that pace and, if they were not present, the others may be willing to work extra hours to hit that deadline (assuming it was reasonable in the first place).
  • If they never believed the deadline, that’s a major problem. Why would they supply a deadline where they had no buy in? This rings of a lack of faith in their management, or their team’s ability to actually complete the work. After 5 years a lack of faith is not surprising, and it’s not out of the question that they simply made up a deadline to satisfy you.
  • If they feel like they aren’t able to move forward because of political or “people” issues, someone has to clear them out of the way, and fast.
  • Does the project sponsor have the respect of the developers? At a company I used to work for the CEO would stop in on a meeting every once in a while during a hard project, and explain why the project was so important to the success of the company. Having a high-level manager who the team respects stop by shows the team that this project has major visibility, and that failure will be noticed. Now, I am vehemently against motivating people through the promise of punishment, but if the team has no accountability and seems to be running on their own schedule then it’s quite possible they could use a little something to get them back on track. BTW – if there is no project sponsor that’s a major red flag and unmotivated developers are the least of your worries.”
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