When I started managing, I noticed that one of the harder parts of coaching was keeping engineers continuously engaged with their work and projects. I wanted them to feel inspired, bringing their best selves to each problem they had to solve. Doing this was easy at the beginning: I’d just lay out the vision for their project or the impact it would make for their peers or the company’s success, and it was enough motivation to keep everyone energized.
However over time, the message became monotonous. They felt that their work was repetitive and not as fulfilling as it was originally, even if the problems were different. Depending on each engineer’s situation, I tried a variety of things to help them to find their inspiration again — taking time off, giving them 20% time to work on side projects or learn new skills, switching out their teammates so that they can work with some of their other friends. Nothing seemed to work.
Eventually I found something surprising that worked. Every week, we’d have a downflow meeting where I’d share cross-team updates, news from across the company, and any highlights I could share from the leadership and executive meetings. As part of my experimentation, I tried starting each of these meetings by sharing a video or article about something that was fascinating or an amazing feat of human ability:
- A live posthumous performance by a holographic Michael Jackson, starting a discussion where we analyzed how they might’ve handled multiple viewing angles, the lighting, etc.
- A VR gaming park that mixed VR with a physical arena, which launched a discussion on how the future may look like if we fully embraced AR and VR in our everyday lives.
- The classic short film “Powers of Ten™”, a powerful video that starts with a man laying on a picnic blanket on Earth and travels into space until we’re 100 million light years away, then back toward Earth until we’re looking at a proton that’s 0.00001 ångstroms wide. This started… a lot of different lofty conversations. 🙂
Something miraculous happened every time we watched one of these videos. The entire team would be energized, feeling a surge of inspiration. It usually didn’t lead to any major revelations or disruptive ideas, but it breathed life into the team’s daily monotony. Like most tools, I knew that overusing this would dull its effect over time so I tried to mix it up with some other tactics. However, this was certainly an easy and effective way to re-energize my team and help them to be their best.
We are all generally capable of more than we think. As children, we have boundless imaginations. However as we get older, we tend to set boundaries on ourselves and what we can achieve. Think about all of the times you tell yourself no or why something isn’t possible. Over time, we learn about the various ways that something can fail. We then pivot our decisions toward something that is safer and familiar. We lean on the tried and true techniques that have worked for us in the past.
The problem with this is that it causes us to aim lower and be less ambitious. If you want to achieve your full potential, you should push yourself to your limits and aim for the unachievable. This is also how OKRs work. Setting goals where you can only achieve 70% of them means that you’re stretching yourselves while still achieving meaningful success. Completing ambitious yet achievable goals will allow your team to gain high confidence and achieve their full potential. However, how do you make sure that your team has the energy and endurance to reach this level of performance consistently?
Creating a Culture of High Performance
Like any other skill you want your team to master, you need to allow them to exercise their team performance muscles as often as possible. I recommend this general approach to leaders:
- Intentionally build the space for your team to practice working together. There are a lot of different options including 20% time, Hackathons, and Code Katas. Choose what works best for your team and your company’s situation. Regardless of what you choose, the important thing is to set aside time for your team to practice these skills. You will need to choose a time that doesn’t create stress for your team. For example you won’t be setting your team up for success if you give them Fridays to work on these exercises, but still expect them to do 5 workdays worth of work.
- Provide positive feedback when your team achieves their ambitious goals. Celebrations are important to reward the team for their high performance. Leverage the power of moments to breath new energy into your team, highlighting key milestones. Taking advantage of the high of completing a tough objective is a key to continuous high performance. These moments will allow the team to transition into the next set of goals with even greater drive.
- Continue to paint a clear vision of what you want the team to achieve. This is your chance to paint an inspirational picture for everyone. Make sure it’s ambitious, and that the “why” is clear. It will serve as the motivation for your team to keep pushing through the obstacles and setbacks. An additional benefit is that it will allow your team to be creative in how they achieve that vision. Also if they know the end goal, they can potentially find more efficient ways to get there.
Hopefully this gives you some starting points for how to drive your team to greatness. Your strategy should be custom-tailored to your team and its strengths. Experiment with a few different tactics to find what works best, and take your team to the next level!
Change the world,