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Feature ownership and motivation

Posted on  by Tommy Ku

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With 3 of my friends I used to join the department-held hackathon at HKUST. One of us named Ivan, a talented programmer who were somewhat experienced in image editing and video processing.

We brainstormed a lot before the hackathon and ended up with 1 idea the majority of us agreed on. Of course, we needed a design before beginning validation or development, that responsibility fell on Ivan’s shoulder despite he were the minority who opposed the idea.

Ivan did a fine job rolling out a design the next day. Yet we came to discover that the idea we supported yesterday could hardly impress us anymore. Back to the drawing board, we brainstormed again.

Of course the one who spent the night creating a design was dissatisfied. Ivan, losing trust on the other teammates, disagreed to create any design until the rest of the team have made a final decision, the one killer idea we would never diverge from.

The team were demotivated, and it was nobody’s fault. Product feature idea and direction changes according to the circumtance. Everybody who builds product knows it, but not all can deal with it calmly.

Impromptu change and vague requirement demotivate people

Recalling the experience with the product manager and another engineer in Taiwan, we have spent a big chunk of our time working on something and had it thrown away because 1) we didn’t validate it beforehand; or 2) the project manager has a better idea/something more valuable to do.

We never gave him a good face whenever the PM wanted to change. Over time there developed a sentiment that if a feature is not well-designed and validated with the users, we shouldn’t work on it. We played with cat instead.

The situation were made worse because our ‘PM’ were less of detail-focused person but more of big-picture driven and gave nothing more than a sentence rather. As an CEO that is fine, but as an PM, that is unacceptable.

Don’t ask me to do it until you’re absolutely sure.

Really, no

We were demotivated. Task assignment became long discussion and took lots of persuasion. The unhealthy tension between the devs and the PM required much negotiations and trust building before the devs agreed to work and the PM promised to not change the schedule until the end of the sprint.

It was that moment that I realized what Ivan felt when I piped his night-worth of work into /dev/null*. And the prospect of the project were gloomy.

* nerdy way to say ‘void’, ‘nothingness’

Vroom’s Expectancy theory states that individuals motivation comes from the belief that efforts are positively correlated to performance, and that performance results in an outcome that brings reward that satisfies an individual’s need.

Now come to think about it, effort were paid yet there came no performance nor outcome because the work was trashed. While rewards (paycheck) were given every month, developers seek more than monetary rewards. They value the sense of achievement when they deploy a feature with nice code and novel approaches.

Therefore impromptu change in plan negates developers’ paid efforts and brings nothing but demotivation.

Feature ownership motivates people

Tommy, I have something to ask you.

Sometime my colleague John would call me to his seat and showed me the code I wrote. He could be modifying the code or didn’t understand it. Then he would made me feel shameful or feel proud of the piece of code I wrote.

In EventXtra where I worked, every one of us is usually responsible for a chunk of feature. One would architech it, write up algorithms to do something. Later somebody else may manage that piece of code, by then the piece or code is either git praise-ed or git blame-ed.

# ~/.gitconfig
    praise = blame

This’s my feature, and that is your feature. For that part of code, you’d better ask Kenneth.

Who the h*ll wrote this? Let me git blame it.

Go, blame someone else

When we evaluate a piece of work, we refer it by somebody’s feature not because that person is the sole person responsible for developing it, but that it’s consolidated a significant amount of effort from that person and thus that person feels a psychological ownership over it.

The sense of psychological ownership also spawns from the fact that someone being a opinion leader over a feature, in which he possesses control over a major part of the design or implementation of the feature.

Research by Dyne and Pierce demonstrates positively links between psychological ownership for the organization and employee attitudes, and work behavior.

Of course, when a piece of code is git praise-ed the developer feels good about it due to a sense of ownership. Ownership positively influences the attitude and performance of a developer as a feature is being developed.

Feedback and discussion are the keys

We have talked about what demotivates and what motivates. To those who are attempting to improve their own working motivation, these are what to fix and what to reinforce. For those who attempts to motivate, they should take note on and avoid the behaviors demotivating their colleagues.

Open communication aiming at trust-building instead of blaming can help the managements to better understand the need of their colleagues.

As a friend of mine always says: ‘When your trust bank has bankrupted, you’ve to work hard to build the trust back up.’ Should you see your colleagues demotivated on their jobs, trust-building is the first step.

Have you encountered motivation issues in workplace, either on yourself or your colleagues? How did you deal with it? Tell us in the comment section!

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About the author

Profile pic of Tommy Ku

Tommy Ku, a Hong Kong-based Software Engineer experienced developing PHP and Java-based web solutions and passionate in Web technology.

Also a hobbyist digital and film photographer.