Rallying a team behind unsexy projects

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It’s easy to get a team psyched and energized on sexy projects – the kind that have huge and visible customer impact, which gets your senior management and your board all excited.  Think of a software UI and workflow redesign that makes it ridiculously easy for your target end users to achieve their goals within your product, or a release of a new product with new and highly visible features.

It’s not as easy to get a team psyched and energized on highly strategic projects which, when done perfectly, has no visible manifestation whatsoever (except in subtle ways, such as improved performance of a software application, or a reduced incidence of rare catastrophic failures).  Think of architecture work, refactoring, server architecture rework for hosted applications, cost reduction exercises for existing products and so forth.  These sorts of projects are like plumbing: nobody notices the work if it is done right.

There are many ways to rally a team.  A steady stream of ongoing feedback and encouragement is a must.  Small victories should be celebrated as they come up.  I make sure my team is well fed if they have to work weird hours in support of some big initiative.  I like a little champagne to celebrate major milestones.  A private word of thanks and some token of appreciation is always appropriate as well.  But a much bigger part of it is public recognition of a job well done.

For jazzy projects, this is easy: everybody can see the end results and the quality and speed of execution of the work is self-evident.  For plumbing projects,  it’s much harder: even senior management often misses the magnitude of the achievement.  One could have a team toil for months on a huge project with everyone else scratching their heads on what this team achieved with all those man-hours.

In these cases, it is imperative that we explicitly call attention to the speed of execution and the quantity and quality of the work done by the team in a public manner, and make sure the team is recognized for excellence in execution.  We simply have to work harder to frame the achievement in a way that is immediately understandable by people outside the fray, so they can appreciate and applaud the contribution that the team made to the cause.

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