We crave it so strongly, we’ll find ways to create some if none’s in sight.
Take the other day when a stoplight stood between me and home. Instead of staring at it, I turned right and dove across three lanes of traffic to make the first left.
While it felt good to move, I also wondered if I’d actually saved any time. I’ll admit that might sound a tad obsessive. But objective measurement helps us know if we’ve made progress.
After all, that’s why hordes of people bushwhack through overgrown trails and roam lonely city streets to catch and count Pokémon.
Of course these concepts bear out at work too. However, producing and measuring progress there usually faces more complications. The nature of software development environments, for example, holds up some of the smartest leads and managers.
Engineering managers are tasked with supplying predictability around deliverables while they may not control the process. With much of development work being invisible or unnoticed, knowing which actions bring out the best in a team can feel like divination.
Obsessing over how much engineers are getting done becomes normal. And so can fretting about interrupting an engineer who’s in the zone.
Thankfully there’s a way for these managers to stop obsessing about their teams’ productivity and make all the difference through their leadership. This approach creates workplace satisfaction, raises performance and consequently improves relationships with stakeholders. And it doesn’t require a degree in people stuff, just common courtesy and respect.
It’s called the progress principle.
Support meaningful work
Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer describe the progress principle and its implications for knowledge workers in the Harvard Business Review article, “The Power of Small Wins.”
“Of all the things that can boost inner work life,” the authors write, “the most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
Inner work life represents the sum of emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday. When inner work life hums because people make progress, execution follows and performance rises. This sets a reinforcing loop in motion.
And so taking concrete actions that support progress defines effective management. Even small wins enhance inner work life.
The actions that fuel a particular team may vary by industry and organizational culture, but some are universal. Amabile and Kramer’s study showed that on progress days, people “reported more positive interactions between the teams and their supervisors.”
Consider the following options for supporting meaningful work. Try one today and another tomorrow:
- Provide timely communication as a source for small wins. Describe expectations around performance measurement clearly, beginning with onboarding. Quickly share findings that underpin project impacts, such as related revenues and customer comments and practices.
- Protect those long, uninterrupted periods of time that engineers covet by attending meetings, resolving issues with stakeholders and choosing asynchronous communication like email for important but not urgent information.
- Tee up learning opportunities by allocating new and experienced staff to a project.
A version of Newton’s third law applies here. A manager’s actions facilitate meaningful work; they can also subtract meaning. So acknowledge ideas instead of overlooking them. Respect an engineer’s value by helping with the work without doing it; listen as she talks through what’s going on and offer useful analysis.
Because strides in meaningful work matter, the progress principle goes hand-in-hand with career development.
Jessica McKellar shows the way
Jessica McKellar, notable in the Python community and Engineering Director at Dropbox, explains in a First Round Review article how she pays vigilant attention to career growth and builds a productive development environment.
She leads engineers to uncover and recognize what’s meaningful by asking them to articulate which skills they seek to improve, desired technical and non-technical experiences and intended impact at the company. With this information she fits opportunities to people while inspiring their development.
The article sums up what’s behind McKellar’s strategy: “While managers can supply energy and do their best to keep spirits high, the most effective type of motivation springs naturally from well-matched projects and people…”
This explains why McKellar involves herself in Agile sprint-level planning for her team: to align assignments with career objectives. How does McKellar know her approach succeeds?
She makes progress in career development visible and watches the results.
Light up progress
Using the above input as a guide, McKellar detects and tracks activity patterns to target the problems team members enjoy solving. She shares her observations with engineers to decide next steps together, discussing career growth at least quarterly in one-on-ones. Recognizing engineers’ interests, she suggests, positions those professionals to act on them.
McKellar’s practice supplies an example of the visibility principle: a shared understanding of progress based on data leads to action and improvement.
While intuition plays an important role in guiding an engineer’s development, engineers appreciate objective feedback because it’s more actionable than feelings. By using concrete metrics, managers can better understand developer work patterns, facilitate meaningful conversations and provide specific direction for continuous improvement.
Making work visible facilitates employee recognition, especially in software development where important work is overlooked because it may not be glamorous or easily detected.
Measuring progress can also unveil capacity. For example, someone who appears stuck may have reached the top edge of his skillset. Revealing this situation identifies an opportunity to add meaning to work. The team levels up, expanding manager bandwidth for further purposeful investment in progress as well as self-development.
Making progress easier to see carries everyone forward.
Daily progress produces results
Management done right isn’t amorphous. It really comes down to two practical ideas: support daily progress and make progress visible with measurement.
When managers in software engineering focus on that work, they feel effective because they are effective. Motivated, happy people are the outcome.
- Teams engage. Job satisfaction soars for engineers because they complete meaningful work.
- Careers flourish. Managers gain confidence and clout as they take ownership of project status in stakeholder meetings.
- Performance rises. Stakeholders receive the business value they’re tasked with creating.
In the end, the entire organization benefits from the manager’s actions.