How to Keep a Team Motivated

What motivates people? Many people devoted their careers to find answers to this question. I faced the same question in a project recently and here is what I did about it.

First, let me give you a brief background. I was parachuted into a project which was experiencing issues with meeting delivery objectives and had significantly over-ran its budget & schedule targets. Among some other issues, one of the fundamental problems in the project was team motivation. What made this project atypical is that the individual team members did not lack motivation and they were not in apathy. However, the project lacked a unified team motivation. As a result, days was spent fighting fires and a new fire emerged almost everyday.

Now, let’s take a look at what motivates people at work. Frederick Herzberg, in his classic Harvard Business Review article (October 1987) shows that sense of achievement is the top motivator by a good margin. The second place goes to recognition.

With this observation, I decided to tackle the motivation issue in two steps and focus on the top-two motivators I mentioned above:

1) Immediate resolution to get things back on track and put out fires:

Sense of achievement is only possible when the objectives are clear and agreed upon. My first action was to get the team together and define the immediate goals of the project. Once we defined them and achieved consensus, we had a team objective. Next step was to identify the actions to get things back in order. Many team members already had ideas and we collectively chose a short-list of actions to take. Everything else was put aside either because they were unnecessary left-overs from earlier tasks or because they did not directly correlate with the objectives of the project.

The above approach touched both motivators:

  • Sense of achievement by defining goals and, therefore, confirming that the tasks helped the team meet its collective goal.
  • Recognition by using the ideas and acknowledging the achievements towards the goal.

As a result of the first step, the team met a very aggressive business milestone within three weeks and established confidence among the company executives that the project could be salvaged.

2) Eliminate future fires & keep the team marching towards a unified objective:

The next stage was to create a sustained motivation level when the adrenaline rush was over from step 1. While there was a sense of relief to meet a challenging and high-profile milestone, there was more to do to complete the project. For continued success, the team needed to know and believe in a shared vision and the way to get there. We achieved this as follows:

  • Created a milestone-based project plan and assigned each major milestone to a project team member. This created a sense of ownership, which leads to a sense of achievement when they are done.
  • Ownership clarified responsibility and accountability. As they are done, recognition goes to the owner and the team that made it happen.
  • Access to information (i.e., communication) was spread to all levels of the project team. The earlier approach was to streamline all communication, both incoming and outgoing, through the project manager. The approach we took was to involve the full team in all incoming communication and help them communicate to outsiders their areas of responsibility.

Currently, the second step is proving to be very successful, both among the team and among company executives. Critical milestones are being met, and the project is showing signs of a healthy recovery and a motivated project team.

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