11x engineer project management

21st century companies increasingly understand the correlation between employee job satisfaction and company success. Job motivators are a component of job satisfaction and can be divided into two categories, extrinsic and intrinsic:

  • Extrinsic motivators such as compensation and job title are concrete, rewarding behaviors that lead to successful outcomes.
  • Intrinsic motivators like personal growth and responsibility are abstract — there is reward and virtue in the work itself.

Research confirms that while extrinsic motivation undeniably correlates with increased job satisfaction, intrinsic motivators, especially in tasks requiring creativity, are far more influential.

Inspiration is the most virtuous intrinsic motivator. Inspiration is inherently abstract, and while difficult to define, we know it when we see it. In fact, this post was inspired by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who said: “When you want to build a ship, do not begin by gathering wood, cutting boards, and distributing work, but rather awaken within men the desire for the vast and endless sea.”

From a goal (building a ship) Saint-Exupéry defines the greater purpose: to explore and conquer the world’s oceans.

Inspirational Opportunities Within Software Development

The absence of inspiration on the job is an unfortunate result of progress. Workplace innovations in job specialization and organizational structure produce peak efficiency, but at the cost of producing work with purpose. A medieval blacksmith completing monotonous work in harsh conditions acutely understood the importance of each rivet and plate on a piece of body armor.

It is uncommon to find a software developer with the same focus during a bug fixing phase. Companies with exceptional culture deliver inspiring messages through their core ideology and leadership philosophy, yet inspiration is the motivator least fostered by project managers and other team leaders.

There are many situations where project managers must inspire, beginning with project initiation. Planning and starting a project focuses on who, what, how, and when: team resources, budget, deliverables, roles and responsibilities, and timelines. Little time is reserved for the benefits of project completion. As vocal leaders on the front-lines of projects, project managers must first communicate the greater purpose for undertaking the effort.

With this knowledge the team will understand why completing the project is essential, no matter the obstacles. Defining the greater purpose fits well at initiation, when the project is viewed from a high level; but inspiration is necessary when one is consumed with the details.

Inspirational Project Management

Project management is necessarily details-focused. It is not uncommon to spend hours or days investigating, discussing, and debating a single screen or sub-feature. Driving issues to resolution becomes a war of attrition. We can become narrowly focused, choosing the most functional solution that may not work best for the end user.

As development progresses and the team faces obstacles, don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. When working through increasingly difficult or lingering issues, remind the development team of the greater purpose and use it to guide decision-making. There is more satisfaction in resolution when the impact to the user is understood.

It is tempting to keep a project’s greater purpose front of mind, but development teams are increasingly agile, meeting daily and communicating even more frequently. Development teams own their experience and are self-motivated by other factors. Repeating inspiring messages at every turn will reduce the efficacy of the message. It is more meaningful to follow King Henry V “once more unto the breach” than join the crew of monomaniacal Captain Ahab’s Pequod.

This fact reveals the single biggest differentiator in leading through inspiration: it is most impactful when the stakes are high. When delivering a difficult message, rejuvenating a flagging objective, or encouraging a dispirited team, leading discussions that focus on the why can provide the motivation necessary to turn a negative situation into an opportunity for success.

Leading through inspiration is a valuable motivator in the project manager’s toolbox. It introduces the value of success, expands the lens when focused on a specific issue, and creates opportunity out of a challenge. More importantly, it leads to increased job satisfaction. What is more inspiring than leading a team to success and happiness?


About the 11x Engineer

The 11x Engineer is a series of essays on exploring the benefits, challenges, and other considerations of working within a community of high-skilled, mission-driven people delivering business transformative software in short time frames (Headspring’s value-based delivery being an exemplar of this model). We call this approach to amplifying results 11x Engineering. Articles in this series are dedicated to the art of maximizing the value of your projects through passion, drive, talent, and humility.

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