More on the Productivity of Software Developers

It was my former boss who introduced me to the principles of Performance Management and he gave me a job to do which enforced learning.

“Get out there, learn about Performance Management and implement a system here that will get our people to work harder and smarter. Incentivise people and they will be motivated to improved productivity.”

So I did. I learned from asking people questions and I learned from the Internet. I learned about ‘The Balanced Scorecard’ and I learned as much as I could find about Key Result Areas (KRAs), Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) and ‘Agreed Targets’ – measurable performance targets agreed between managers and employees.

And in time we introduced it at the workplace. And my word, did it work. In our payroll bureau our monthly error rate on payrolls was reduced from a monthly average of 5 to 0.5. It worked so well that our administrative staff – the tea maker, the cleaner, the drivers and the gardeners – asked why they could not be brought onto the scheme. So we did. The tea maker who had previously complained that management did not advise him when tea and biscuits were needed in the boardroom stopped complaining. Instead he asked daily if and when tea and biscuits would be required and he monitored the use of the boardroom so that he would be aware of when we had guests, then he automatically brought in the tea, coffee and biscuits.

My most valuable piece of learning was that to be meaningful and valuable to the organisation, targets to be measured should be OUTCOMES, not OUTPUTS and I learned that an outcome was the consequence of doing a good job, while an output was nothing more than doing a job. For example, the outcome of running a payroll was a satisfied customer, while an output was simply running an error free payroll.

So we started measuring outcomes and not outputs. Wonderful. Customers were happy, management was happy, the business grew.

Most staff knew that they could earn a monthly bonus by doing more. And they did.

But we found the problem of the Software Developers and our inability to set meaningful ‘Agreed Targets’ that measured outcomes, not outputs.

And then I watched and listened to Daniel Pink on TED

Daniel Pink is a great speaker on TED.

Has he finally solved my problem of Performance Management for Software Developers? Perhaps he has, but again perhaps not. Pink argues vociferously that providing incentives for people to work only works for some people and not others, depending on what they do and how they do it.

What then does Pink tell us?

Incentives work for one-dimensional jobs but they do not work for multi-dimensional jobs. In fact, in multi-dimensional jobs, financial incentives can be damaging. And he demonstrated the realty of this through the ‘candle problem’. You want to know about the ‘candle problem?  Here’s the link to Joachim Ramm’s Master’s Thesis:

People in Multi-Dimensional work are motivated, not by money or other financial rewards, they are motivated by Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

1.             Autonomy: The freedom to choose when and how to do the work.  Independence, self-rule. The urge to direct our own lives.
2.             Mastery: To be the best at whatever it is you do.
3.             Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

Now the question is: Is software development a single dimensional or a multi-dimensional discipline? Pink argues that in some cases software development or simply put, ‘programming’ is single dimensional but it other cases it is not.

What is it in or case? Our developers are being asked to be creative. They are being asked to be innovative. They are being asked to solve customer needs that are frequently unique and require creative, innovative thought. They are being asked to think ‘outside the box’, using their diffuse thinking mode. There is no doubt that they are in a multi-dimensional job.

But they are also in desperate need of money in this desperate economy with its desperate limitations to be able to send their children to school. Schools are expensive in Zimbabwe. Proper schools that is. And every parent wants his or her children to have the advantages in life that a good school can create for them. 

So here’s my solution to the Product Developers motivation: Pay the developers what they would receive if and when they achieved their performance objectives bonus level. Then give them the freedom to work where and when they want but they can only work on business needs of the business. (There could be special cases for doing something different sometimes). Give them opportunity and encouragement to learn new languages, new techniques, new procedures and once a quarter, take them out into the businesses of those who use the systems they develop. Let them see how their systems are being used, let them talk to the users and find out how they think and feel about the systems they have helped to develop. Let them see for themselves the results of their work.


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