Sunday, 14 March 2010 00:00

Chug, Chug, Vroom, and Expectancy Theory

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The Little Engine that Could

Or... I Think I Can

I have a book that sits in the bookshelf behind my desk and has been there for as long as I have had a desk—The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. I have read it numerous times to each of my children and soon to my granddaughter, Kennedy. Each time I open it, the smell takes me back to my Dad's lap and a time when life was much easier. A time when my vocabulary was devoid of the word project. I am not sure if there is a direct connection between that word and life's simplicity, it is probably just an coincidence.

Positive Attitude

The book is about a project gone bad and the positive attitude it took to fix it. If you have not read it, the book metaphorically captures the essence of a failed project where the project's team members are left to find their own solution. The story is about an engine pulling a train load of food and toys over the mountain pass that has broken down. A little blue switching engine and the train's toys try to find an different engine to pull the train over the mountains. Other engines are too narcissistic, old, or tired. The engine that saves the project is the one that has a good attitude, the confidence to complete the job, and values the project's goal. The little blue engine is the benevolent leader who completes the project; the one that no one else believes can finish the job. This little leader has the "I think I can" attitude that makes dreams come to life. As with nearly all children's books, they are full of great business lessons; Derek Huether grasped the value of Green Eggs and Ham just last week.

Case Study: The Right Attitude

A client's Information Technology department was building a web-based tool. One of the features was integrating a third party tool. It would simply be a link on an internal web page to a provider's site. During the recovery audit interviews, one of the non-technical team members went on a tirade, wanting to remove the feature from the project. She wanted to manage the work as a separate project. Although the feature was isolated from the primary project it was very high risk due to the number of parties involved and the company's inexperience with third parties. Based on her inability to comprehend the issues, her involvement was minimized. Another person, although junior, was made the lead. He had the right attitude, was realistic about his capabilities, and took great pride at being assigned the responsibility. He rose to the occasion and lead the integration successfully.

Expectancy Theory

The little blue engine is great example of expectancy theory. If you think you can, your chances for success drastically increase. The theory, established by Victor Vroom (you thought I was going to bring in the Cat in the Hat, didn't you?), is based on three factors that motivate people—their attitude, their confidence in achieving the goal, and how the reward resonates with them. A project manager with the confidence and proper mind-set only needs to create the right reward and he or she can drive any team to complete a project successfully. Better yet, the attitude can infect the team with the same outlook, uncovering their leadership qualities. This observation is supported by Isaac, Zerbe & Pitt:

...leader interactions with followers permit the establishment of highly motivational working environments. In so doing, individuals acquire the means to transcend their traditional roles of supervisor, manager, or follower, and realize their potentials as leaders.


The Little Engine That Could

I just takes motivation. Reflect on any project that has failed, the team's morale is dismal. There is little, if any, hope in achieving the project's goal, the team members fear losing their jobs, and no one sees a path to success. A proven method for improving moral is through relevant, timely, and accurate feedback. It helps promote their desirable behavior. Sonia Di Maulo (@ReadyToFeedback) has posted an article on team motivational basics that everyone should know.

I am a strong believer in trying new ways to break the dejected knuckle draggers. Listening, providing feedback, making decisions, building trust, and defending them; motivation takes work and imagination. I have never tried reading The Little Engine That Could or Green Eggs and Ham to perk the team up, I doubt it would get the desired effect. However, I have very successfully used a screaming flying monkey. Bringing out the little kid in us relieves the pressure and takes us back to the time before everything was a project.

So, remember, the next time you face the impossible, slowly repeat to yourself , "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can."

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