Small Celebrations, Big Motivation

Man In White Dress Shirt Sitting Beside Woman In Black Long Sleeve Shirt

Software development can sometimes feel like an endless treadmill. Push that commit, review that code, investigate and solve that bug. Rinse and repeat, day after day.

You probably have some high-level business and technical aims that you’re working towards. These might be releasing a large new feature, or perhaps migrating to a new infrastructure or a new software stack. These long-term projects might take a year or more to complete, and can often feel never-ending.

If you’re working on a mature code base it can be difficult to see the progress that you’ve made. One of your jobs as a leader is to help the team step back and see how far they’ve come, and one way to maintain motivation in a team is to celebrate achievements and show the wider business the progress that has been made.

It can be hard to know how to celebrate, and how often. Too frequently and you’ll be celebrating things that are too small and simple, and it will seem forced. If you wait for the large projects to finish then you could be waiting for a very long time, and it will feel like you never celebrate anything.

I’m not saying never celebrate the small stuff, and never celebrate the big projects. If someone has completed a particularly gnarly ticket, then it’s worth shouting about. Take the team out for a meal if you’ve successfully launched a big new feature. However, it’s the in-between celebrations that are key to maintaining motivation in a team.

There are two audiences for a celebration - internal and external, and both can have motivational benefits.

By celebrating internally you can help people to feel recognised by their peers, to step back and see the progress they’ve made and help people to realise that those large, long-term goals, which may seem unattainable, are actually achievable.

Internal celebrations don’t need to be big or fancy. Even a short Slack post calling out some good work to a wider audience will be appreciated. If you have monthly or quarterly town halls, for a small group of teams then these can also be a good venue to call out a successful piece of work.

External celebrations might take the form of a town hall to a wide audience, an email newsletter or a global Slack post. The aim will be to raise awareness of the work your teams have been doing, to a group of people who might not be aware of the details.

As well as raising awareness of your team’s work, a side effect is to show people that their work is valued by the wider business and to show that you as a leader are acting as a cheerleader for your teams. People want to know that leaders are advocating for them, which most of the time happens privately - in budget or roadmap meetings, so you shouldn’t turn down the opportunity to highlight their good work in public.

Getting the business to truly value your work can be a double-edged sword. Having the CEO, or other high-level manager discuss a project, or even announce a goal related to it, is unmatched in the ability to help people feel like their work is important to the company, and to focus minds on exactly what you are trying to achieve. However, this level of attention can feel like the eye of Sauron and is not always welcome - especially if the work is particularly challenging or aspects of it are unknown.

I believe the benefits of having a senior manager engage publically with a project your team is working on far outweigh the potential issues, so make sure you’re using your meetings with them to advocate and sell your teams. Encourage them to use their platform to talk about your teams, and try to get goals at the organisation level that unambiguously relate to projects that you’re working on.

Have you got any suggestions about how to celebrate small wins? How do you raise awareness of the teams you work with? Please let me know in the comments below.

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