To Slip or Not to Slip?

I once worked for a project manager who did not update project plans to reflect reality. On one occasion developers were coding furiously, unit test plans had not been written yet and the system test team were sitting around twiddling their thumbs. This manager calmly told me that the project had entered the system test phase.

In my previous blog I mentioned the fact that sometimes it is best not to move a milestone on a plan because the message it sends to your team is that deadlines aren’t fixed and this can lead to reduced motivation. It has since occurred to me that this argument could be used to justify the approach I describe above. This wasn’t my intention but it does raise an important question: when is it best to keep a milestone fixed to improve motivation and when should you allow it to slip into the future?

I recently read about expectancy theory (in The 10-day MBA by Steven Silbiger) which states that a person’s motivation is influenced by three factors:

Motivation = Expectation that work will lead to performance x Expectation that performance will lead to reward x Value of reward

To illustrate how this theory can be applied I am going to consider a simple example where a developer has been offered a bonus payment that is conditional on a project being delivered on time. Performance in this context equates to on time delivery of the project. In this case the value of the reward and the expectation that performance will lead to this reward are fixed and should not vary based on how realistic the planned schedule is. Given this the following chart illustrates how the developer’s motivation will vary based on how achievable (or likely) an on time delivery is:


Interestingly the developer’s motivation level is not at its highest when success is guaranteed. This is because with 100% chance of a successful outcome the developer does not see any need to work harder. The outcome is so certain that the expectation of increased work contributing to the receipt of a bonus is low: the bonus is assured.

As successful project delivery becomes less certain motivation is increased. The developer is aware that a bonus is not a certainty and feels that by working harder the chances of receiving a bonus can be improved.

As the level of uncertainty surrounding successful project completion grows still further the developer starts to perceive that no amount of work will lead to a positive outcome and motivation levels start to drop (marked on the chart as the slip point). The more unlikely a successful outcome becomes the further the developer’s motivation levels fall. Very soon they fall below the motivation levels felt when success was guaranteed (what I like to call the motivation break even line) because now, rather than a bonus being a certainty, it becomes increasingly certain that no bonus will be paid.

What is evident from the above is that as soon as the slip point is reached for an individual then keeping a deadline fixed will not lead to increased motivation. Furthermore there is a strong danger that if the schedule becomes even less realistic then motivation levels will fall below the break even line.

To keep things simple I have used an example where a bonus was offered based on a successful project outcome. It is important to recognise that many other incentives exist that are similarly related to the success of a project. These include:

  • Prospects for promotion
  • Prospects for a pay increase
  • Respect from peers
  • Praise
  • A feeling of job satisfaction
  • A feeling of self worth

Although some of these are very different to a simple bonus scheme they fluctuate in a similar fashion. I worked with one developer whose sense of self worth was strongly related to meeting the expectations of managers and peers. When, on one assignment, this developer could not foresee a positive outcome their motivation plummeted. Although there was no direct financial incentive in that case the motivation pattern was the same.

So far we have only considered the motivation levels of one person. How can this be applied to a team? The levels of motivation that people feel varies between individuals. The following chart illustrates this by plotting imaginary lines for five members of a team:


Now, rather than having a slip point we have a slip zone. As soon as we enter the slip zone there will be a trade-off between increased motivation for some members of the team and decreased motivation for others. As soon as we exit the slip zone then keeping the plan fixed will not benefit anybody’s motivation.

Let us now return to the original question: when is it best to keep a milestone fixed to improve motivation and when should you allow it to slip into the future? The answer is that as soon as the likelihood of achieving a milestone enters the slip zone for your team it is time to consider re-planning. Re-planning should be completed before the likelihood of achieving the milestone exits from the slip zone.

Fortunately it is easy to pick up on the signs that your team is entering the slip zone. You will notice motivation levels starting to dip for one or two team members whilst motivation for others continues to rise. By picking up on these early warning signs (rather than just blaming those individuals for lacking enthusiasm) you will be able to re-plan to ensure that motivation levels for the whole team stay high and you avoid entering the motivation debit zone.


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