Guide to Motivating Technical Teams

Whether you’re setting up the next hackathon or leading a diverse cross-functional team, it’s important to know how to keep your team motivated.  And no, the occasional reference to Dr. Who will not do.

Technical teams may be made up of everyone from the just-out-of-college app whizz to the CIO. The nature of many projects means we have to engage with technical experts at every level—you might be a techie too.

Managers who regularly lead technical teams (as opposed to creative teams or sales teams) learn strategies that support their operational success. Whole cultures can be embedded in organizations around teams; so much so that new leaders needing to step in and run projects and operations find themselves struggling to connect (and motivate) the team and meet them where they are.

Technical specialists are often key project resources on the team, especially since technical work now touches more and more industries. Learning strategies to address different skill sets can be an important tool for any manager.

Why Tech Teams are Unique

‘Technical’ covers a wide range of skills from software developers to system testers, network architects to telephony specialists, database analysts to security experts – and more. It’s impossible to define a typical technical team, due to the wide range of skills and experience levels on any team, but there are some features that are common enough across technical teams to warrant a mention.

Richard Turley and James Bieman, at Colorado State, defined 5 core competencies for software engineers: they are team oriented, seek help, help others, use prototypes and write/automate with code. Those are great skills that any technical team member should aspire to and might already have. Additionally, tech teams in general, it could be said:

  • Love a good problem: By the nature of what they do, technical experts are often problem solvers. We see that through the culture of the hackathon and other technical challenges. In and of itself, solving problems can be motivating. Framing your project challenges in such a way that they can be used to bring out the best in people is a good team-building activity.
  • Test to kill: Technical teams often break things in their development and staging environments because it helps mimic what could happen in a live product environment. For example, businesses employ ethical hackers to try to break their security protocols and get access to sensitive data. The attempt to break a feature (especially if they succeed) can cause friction between the dev team and a manager when the latter isn’t familiar with testing practices. Be sure to spec out all the requirements for testing well in advance so your technical experts can plan accordingly.
  • Are task-happy: Some technical teams can be heavily task-orientated. This can be a huge advantage in project work as they are used to task lists and methodically working their way through activities to reach a clear and defined conclusion. However, we’ve seen it also cause problems when the project changes direction quickly. Communicate often to make sure all issues are captured and that new tasks are added as needed.
  • Are secretly creative: There is more than one way to configure a server or write a line of code! Technical teams are often highly creative and critical when it comes to generating solutions. However, we’ve also seen a desire to innovate have a negative impact on projects because a change hasn’t been documented thoroughly or extra features are added at the supplier’s cost when they weren’t requested in the first place (you’ll hear this called gold plating). Encourage creative problem solving, but set boundaries so that everyone knows how far they can go. Give technical experts the chance to put forward solutions and officially add them to the project plan with the correct approvals and changes to documentation if required.

There are certainly more nuances than what are listed above, but these are common skills and scenarios found on technical teams.

What type of environment is motivating?

Everyone is motivated by different things. What spurs someone into action in one situation won’t work at all for someone else, or even the same person in a different environment, which means that you can’t rely on one motivational technique to boost the productivity of your team (technical or not).

Instead you have to create an environment which is motivating in different ways to different people. This video with Jennifer Bridges, PMP, is a helpful discussion on general motivation tips for project teams:

There are many great names behind complex motivational theories like Maslow (the hierarchy of needs), Herzberg (hygiene factors) and McGregor (the theory of X and Y). However, there are some common themes that you can take away from all the theories and apply to your project environment.

  • You won’t get better results with more pay. Money does not motivate people, whereas lack of money can demotivate them, so make sure your team members are paid adequately and within the market rates for their skills.
  • Involving people in decisions which affect them helps to motivate them. People generally like being able to choose how to get things done. Telling people what to do gets you compliance (sometimes), but not motivation.
  • Align your work to the values of the team – or hire people with values similar to the organization’s values to begin with. People find it hard to get motivated when they don’t believe in what they are doing.

These tips will help you create an environment that has the right conditions to motivate your technical teams. Now let’s look specifically at:

10 Carrots for Tech Teams

Okay, motivation is more than carrots and sticks, but too often managers default to a simplistic, one-size-fits-all approach. It’s worked for them for years, so what’s the problem? Well one, people are not robots. Yes, even the technical team members, who, many of them, might be have the occasional robot figurine on their desk.

Two, the world of work is changing. Not only are new generations of team members bringing new technologies and ideas to teams, but the nature of how we work has changed too. Top-down management is less effective than it used to be, replaced increasingly with collaborative ways of working.

What this means in practice is that you must diversify your motivational strategies to meet these new challenges. Here are ten ways to shake off old patterns and find new ways to motivate:

  1. Reward Results

Technical project work has peaks and valleys (like a lot of jobs). Reward your team’s results, not how many hours they spend at their desk. Frequently, tech teams are the last ones at the office, due to the demands of technical work such as being on call during the project’s go-live times. Some are coding at home on the weekends or making runs back to the office to check that the installation on Friday is still in good shape.

As a manager, your job is to get results, not to clock watch your team. Measure their contribution and that elevates your workplace to one where they are trusted colleagues.

  1. Delegate

Delegate work to your tech team so they have the opportunity to take on non-technical, managerial tasks as well. This broadens their skills and shakes up their routines. Remember that this won’t work for everyone – some of your technicians will be happy to stay in technical roles and aren’t interested in moving into management positions. Even so, you can empower your team learn to delegate in turn, so they have more time to focus on what’s really important.

  1. Demand Solutions

You’ll probably have heard the saying, “Don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions.” Put this into practice with your team. It will motivate your team to think through issues and invite hem to come up with their own ideas for solving problems. Remember to praise the effort that has gone into the thought process even if you don’t act on their solution.

  1. Treat them as Experts

Your technical team are experts in their field so treat them as such. Talk about them as experts to boost their reputation internally. Encourage them to contribute to industry debates, publications, conferences and so on, and to share their knowledge internally too. Ask the more senior team members to mentor junior colleagues and encourage everyone to share lessons learned.

  1. Communicate

Communication is important at all levels on projects, and it’s a motivating factor when it involves the explanation behind decisions. Knowing why something is happening helps people tackle the work with a sense of inclusion and understanding that is far more motivating than simply being told what to do.

Researchers from the University of Sheffield in the UK found that not discussing problems adequately within the software engineering team caused more issues than disruptive events such as not drawing up the budget correctly. The lack of discussion created problems like false confidence in the solution and the refusal to make sensible contingency plans – all of which you’d want to avoid on your project.

  1. Avoid the Naysayers

Step away from the troublemakers! You know the ones: the people who constantly have negative things to say. Keep the complainers away from your team or they’ll bring you all down.

  1. Take Advantage of Errors

Unless the error is as a result of downright sloppiness, stop dishing out warnings for mistakes. Start looking at them as opportunities for improvement. Hold retrospectives and ask the team member who made the error to present the situation to the team in a non-judgemental environment. Let them talk through what happened and then discuss as a team what you can do to prevent that from happening again.

Put those suggestions into practice so that the same technical errors don’t crop up on other projects in the future. Adopting the principle of pair programming, where two developers work together on the same task, could help avoid problems in the future.

  1. Use Their Skills

Individuals perform best when they feel the work is challenging, and that’s certainly the case for technicians. While it’s wrong to stereotype all technical people, you’ll definitely find people on your team are motivated by applying their technical skills to solve problems. Conversely, being underutilized is a demotivating factor.

Cycle tasks so the burden doesn’t always fall on the same person. Find ways for your technical resources to stretch their skills on a range of projects and problems.

  1. Foster Innovation

Because it’s in their nature to explore innovative working practices, your team might not think their fantastic solution it’s a big deal. Look out for those moments of innovation and reward anything that is adopted as the new project best practice. If you get better results as a direct consequence of something that a team member has changed, celebrate it! They might think you’re weird for making a big deal out of something they take for granted but secretly they’ll be pleased that you noticed the improvements they have made.

Remember to apply some rigour in recording what has happened and why. You won’t always need a ticket but when you do get one raised retrospectively to maintain that audit trail.

  1. Help Them Handle Stress

Stress can be the unwanted consequence of working in a technical environment. Some dev teams foster a culture of stay late or die trying. But for other teams, the nature of the work is such that system maintenance must be done outside or normal business hours and your team may be on call to deal with system crashes as well as trying to get your project work done.

In a nutshell: watch for burnout.

Researchers from Carleton University in Canada investigating the social nature of agile software development teams found some team members were highly stressed after a whole day of being ‘on’ and engaging in collaborative interaction, especially when they were working with the same peole every day. If you notice one of the technical team struggling, step in to find out why and work with him or her to adjust their workload or to develop techniques to help them manage the stresses of the job.

A project environment that is too laid back, on the other hand, helps no one as there’s no pressure to get anything done. You run the risk of your project resources getting lazy and missing the few deadlines that you have. Find a balance between a highly stressful environment and one that is so stress-free that the only thing that happens is procrastination. Planning work effectively, delegating tasks to the right people, sharing status updates in real time and ensuring everyone has a clear view of the project’s vision are straightforward things you can do today to manage the stress levels on the team.

Creating an environment where everyone has the same view of the project and can manage their work effectively from the same workspace makes it easy to track progress and support your technical teams. handles resource allocations, task management, status reporting and more, leaving you to get on with motivating your team.

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