How Praising Effort Incorrectly Negatively Affects Your Culture

Episode 125

November 06, 2013


culture automation value

The Agile Weekly Crew discuss how blindly praising effort can damage teams. While highlighting the benefits of laziness via automation.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Jade Meskill: I’m Jade Meskill.

Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.

Roy VandeWater: I’m Roy van de Water.

The Love of Lazy

Clayton: Today we are talking about my favorite thing, being lazy.

Jade: Oh my gosh, that’s my favorite thing too.

Clayton: Really?

Jade: Yeah.

Roy: Do we really have to talk about it?

Jade: I don’t know.

Clayton: [laughs] I don’t want to think about it. That’s too much.

Jade: [laughs] Good thing we can talk without thinking.


The Obsession with Rewarding Effort and Hard Work

Clayton: So many more jokes to be made.

This topic, Jade and I talked about this at lunch. It sounds like, Jade and Roy, you’ve been talking about this a lot. The concept stems from a lot of the clients that we’re working with.

We see these teams where they do a whole bunch of work, work, work, work, work, work, and they get praised for all their effort. At the end of the sprint they didn’t really deliver anything of any value, they didn’t really ship anything, the customer’s not delighted. But boy oh boy, they worked hard, and everyone in the room is clapping for them.

That feels really disingenuous. I think I heard someone the other day talk about how they stayed up till 5:30 AM tweaking these servers. I thought to myself, “Man, if I had to do that, I would be very upset. I would probably find some way to automate it.”

Roy: I’d shoot myself in the face.

Clayton: Yeah, that was my next way of saying that.

The Hero Culture

Jade: I remember living in that world, though. I was definitely part of the “Hero” culture. I could always be counted on to work the extra hours, or do whatever it took to get the job done. I’ve wizened up since then.

Clayton: I think it’s interesting because I think we have an “Automate everything” mentality, but there’s so much stuff now that…I used to do that, maybe be the hero, or you want to work the extra hours or whatever. It felt good to do that, like you were contributing a lot, but now it just feels dumb. I’d feel stupid if I do that.

Jade: I do too. Roy and I were talking about it the other day. I said, “If you find yourself working that hard to get something done, you’re probably working wrong.” It is so easy to get away with automating a lot of things, not having to do that much work. The problem is, there’s definitely a stigma against being perceived as not working hard.

Separating Value from Effort

Derek: I think my goal in life lately, maybe it’s why I’m a little more interested in robotics lately, is to replace myself with some form of automation. That is the pinnacle. I think what happens is, people do think that, “If I’m not doing something all the time, people are going to think I’m not valuable.”

I keep saying, what is it that makes us think this way? I can’t remember if it was Carlos Segura , or a designer of some kind. He’d said something very profound to me, at one point during a talk.

They basically said, “I make three million dollars for giving somebody a logo, and that logo only takes me about an hour or two worth of effort, to actually make the logo. My value is in knowing what to make for a logo, and that’s why I’m worth three million dollars.” The guy who makes the Nike Swoosh, we can all laugh at, “Man, that’s so simplistic!” Think of how valuable that is, or the Coca Cola logo, or whatever.

We focus on things that are very low value, and we think that we just have to put in a ton of effort to get any kind of result. I like to say that you have to put in a ton of effort to become an expert, and to become good, to know what the right logo is to do. But that’s not the same thing as, then every logo thereafter, you have to put in tons of effort to get there.

I think that’s the misnomer, is people just want to work hard, they don’t want to work at getting good. If you work at getting good, then you don’t have to work as hard anymore.

No Tolerance For Wasting My Time

Clayton: Jade, you’d talked the other day about…Your definition of “Lazy,” I think, was about not wasting your time. It had something to do with wasting your time.

Jade: It’s that I have no tolerance for wasting my time.

Clayton: I think there’s a big difference. I’m not opposed to hard work by any means. I think hard work is a great thing, and maybe being deliberate with what you’re doing is very important, and busting your ass to get to do that stuff, but I don’t want to waste my time.

Jade: I don’t want to work hard at being stupid.

It’s Not Fair, That It Takes So Little Work But Costs So Much

Roy: There’s still the “Human nature” component of not valuing it. Clayton and I were talking about his eye surgery, because he just got LASIK surgery. He spent a ton of money, and I think the operation, you said it took five minutes?

Clayton: Yeah, basically.

Roy: It was all automated, the doctor came in, pushed a button, and you’re done?

Clayton: Right.

Roy: I could totally see myself thinking, “I paid however much money for this? That’s crazy! I should have paid $5 because it took him 5 minutes!” It’s not like I’d rather have surgery for an hour.

Jade: You want the surgeon to work really hard on you, for a couple of hours?

Roy: Take a really long time, right.


Derek: I think it’s the value. If you’re spending $100 or $200 a year on contacts and you go out and you have this surgery, and it makes it so you don’t have to have contacts for 10 years or more, the value of that’s pretty high.

Jade: Maybe you just hate wearing them, it’s not even a cost thing.

Roy: But the weird thing is that I would actually feel less slighted if it took an hour, than if it took five minutes.

Praising Effort as the Default

Clayton: I don’t know what it is about software teams that it’s so easy to fall in that trap of just praising effort. I think some of it has to do with, nobody in the whole food chain is very clear about outcomes. If the entire maybe organization or department doesn’t have some alignment about what it means to be successful, I think you just default to back‑patting.

Jade: It’s the thing that’s very easily visible. If I can look out in the parking lot and I see everybody’s cars here, and it’s 6:30, I know everybody’s working hard. Man, they must be a great team. [laughs]

Roy: But there’s a waste factor to it, too. I may have one guy who’s able to do in an hour what the other team takes 10 hours to do. He comes in and works for an hour and leaves. That gets me thinking, “What if I got him working all 10 hours? I’d have 10 times the capacity,” although maybe the magic to why he’s able to do 10 times what everybody else does is because he only works an hour. There’s a lot of that to it.

Optimizing for Automation and Future Laziness

Derek: I think some of it, too, is it’s like preventative care in healthcare, or in medicine, or dentistry. I think a lot of times people don’t see the value in automation upfront, because there is performance degradation upfront that pays off in the long term.

If I go in and spend 10 minutes, I don’t know, once a quarter or twice a year getting my teeth cleaned, and I spend two minutes every night brushing my teeth, I can prevent really costly damage, and all sorts of repeated visits to the dentist down the road. But if it’s like, “Man, I just don’t have two minutes to brush my teeth every night to maintain that,” that’s ridiculous.

Jade: We have this happening at our client right now, where they have a build process that takes one to two weeks to run an automated test suite that they have. They have the capability to increase it by at least 100 times performance.

Roy: They know it’ll take less than a few weeks.

jade: Nobody will give them the time to invest to speed up their process that much. They think they can even take it to 1,000 or 10,000 times speed, but nobody will give them the time to invest. Now they just waste everybody’s time for weeks and weeks on end, because they refuse to invest that little bit.

Derek: I think that that’s a great point. I think that really solid engineers don’t ask because what they do is they say, “Look. We ship stuff late all the time. That’s standard for the industry, nobody’s going to beat us too hard.

“If we have to take in the shorts for a sprint or two or for a week, or a month, or whatever to get that 1,000, as long as we get that 1,000 times gain, people are going to be amazed with us 4 weeks from now. Fine, let them be pissed off for two weeks, while we fix this.”

I’m not advocating people go lie to their product owners or do hairy things, but I think there’s ways. If you truly believe in automation, you just bake it into what you’re doing. You don’t even say, “Oh, we need all this extra time to go do it,” you just bake it into part of the process.

Pattern Matching for Future Laziness

Jade: What other ways do we try to maximize our laziness besides automation?

Derek: I think I put a lot of effort into being good about pattern matching, so I don’t spend a bunch of time rethinking about a problem to figure out a solution for it. I think I immediately try and just go to my library of patterns. “This looks like something I’ve already done, I’m just going to go to that right away.” I think I spend a lot of time doing that. I just focus in on, “What have I done before?” and, “How does this look like what I’ve done before?”

Removing the Unnecessary for Future Laziness

Roy: I’m pretty brutal about trying to remove anything that isn’t totally necessary. When I’m talking to a product owner, I’ll try to get everything out that I don’t need to be able to demo that feature. That usually means you can end up delivering most of what they want with 10 percent of the effort.

Jade: I’ve seen Roy put a lot of effort into beating down a product owner to get to the simplest solution.

Roy: It was interesting though, because I’ve gotten interesting reactions from product owners. When you do that it allows you to get way more done, because you’d spend 10 percent of the effort on 10 stories and…

Clayton: Do the right thing on…


Roy: A few times, and in one case, the product owner actually made it explicit that he felt that I was just trying to get out of doing work. Which I guess is true to some extent, but I wasn’t trying to get out of work to not do work.

Jade: Your intent was to deliver maximum value for minimum effort.

Optimizing Physical Environment for Future Laziness

Derek: One area I see there being a lot of, I don’t want to say “Effort spent,” but some upfront effort spent, that gets long‑term gain for laziness, is space layout.

When I look at physical space layout, it’s one of the things I will fight really, really hard for teams to make the barrier to communication so low that everybody is within ear shot in the same room, so that I never have to IM somebody. I never have to get up and go to somebody’s cube.

The people that I work with the most are close to me, and are available right away. If I have to deal with somebody who’s digitally, I create pathways. Whether it be GroupMe, or Flowdock, or whatever, to basically maximize presence with them so that I don’t have to overcome some barrier. I don’t have to send an email and wait, and do all sorts of blocking techniques.

I think it’s interesting, because so many people just write that off like, “Why are you even finding facilities to just get all of us together? That’s just a waste of time.” I was like, “Not really, because every time we want to communicate, it’s going to save us, potentially, tens of minutes, hundreds of times a day.”

Roy: If I can turn my head and talk to you instead of get up, walk for 30 seconds, and talk to you, that’s huge.

Jade: The reality is you probably won’t even do it. If you have to spend even 30 seconds of effort to do it…

Roy: I’ll put it off.

Jade: You’re going to put it off until…

Roy: I’ll start trying to batch it, and then I eventually end up not doing it at all.

Derek: It falls in line with one of my other principles. I want to be the dumbest person in the room, or the dumbest person on a team, and if I am, I’m going to ask for help a lot. If there’s any barrier to me asking for help, it’s going to slow me down, so if I really want to be lazy, I want everybody near me and within earshot of me, or digitally near me, so that I can ask for help a lot, because I’m really lazy.

If Clayton solved the problem before, and he’s got a pattern the use, I don’t want to have to recreate it. I would rather ask Clayton and have him to say, “You’re such an idiot! Why don’t you just use this?” “That’s a fantastic idea. I would love to use that.”

Having to Unlearn Behaviors Taught in School

Clayton: It’s interesting. These things we’re talking about are things I think get beat out of you in school.

Derek: I cheat a lot.


Clayton: On the way to work I was thinking, “Man, I was a really lazy kid, and I always got in trouble for being lazy. Did the universe just align me with this perfect career where I get rewarded for being lazy?”

Jade: [laughs]

Clayton: “Or am I doing something different?” I thought, “I used to get in trouble for being lazy,” and the same thing about asking for help. “You don’t do that in school, it’s not right to do that. You have to do your own work.”

Roy: If you ask one of your classmates for help, that’s called “Cheating.” You get sent to the principal’s office for that.

Clayton: Derek already knows how to do this, why would I bother figuring it out on my own? I can just ask him.

Roy: Derek already filled his worksheet out. Why don’t I just copy his?


Derek: Can I just copy your…


Clayton: No, I’m going to learn something when I do it, and then maybe I’ll have Derek pair with me. We can both pair on that [indecipherable 12:07] how to do it. Now I know how to do it, and I already solved my problem, I don’t have to do those things twice. That’s one thing I’ve seen a lot in a lot of these teams.

Especially from the flip side, all the people in the room I mentioned that were clapping. There’s something about getting to the end of this demo where the people have just shown you some work that they’ve done. They’ve spent their time doing something, and I think everybody in the room feels obligated to just clap.

“Well, I have to show some praise. I have to pat you on the head and say that you did a good job.” But I think if you were to go around the room and ask everybody, “Why are you clapping?” they wouldn’t know what to say.

Jade: “Because I have to,” it’s expected.

Roy: “Everybody else is clapping. If they see me not clapping, then…”

Clayton: It’s just what you do.

Derek: Can we have effort ceremonies, where we go out and do a demo, and…


The Craziness of Effort Unveiled

Jade: That’s what it is!

Derek: No, but what we really do is we go dig a 10‑foot hole that’s 1 foot in diameter…

Jade: With a teaspoon.

Derek: …and we say, “My feature is so great we need to go outside and look at it. It’s so customer‑facing we have to go out into the public,” and everybody gets all excited. You come in and you say, ” Look at this hole!” and everybody’s like, “What the hell is that?” It’s like, “It’s my hole! Do you know, I spent all day digging this hole?” when they look at you and you’re like, “You are dumb,” “Well, it’s just as valuable as every other feature shown in the demo.”

Clayton: I think that’s one thing that really is interesting about this. I think the bounds of this problem…Basically, the amount of bullshit that people can ignore is this really narrow thing. If I were to say, “I did the same feature, but instead, what I did was I went over to this typewriter, and I typed the code out. Then I scanned it in an OCR, and then I saved the file. That took me three times as long. Isn’t that great?” Of course not, that’s so stupid.

There are some a little bit less than that, and I then get away with it, and I get praised for it.

Derek: It’s because the people praising generally don’t understand. They only are looking at the output, and the output looked like you had a lot of effort. They don’t know that all that effort was stupid effort, and there was this much, much simpler way to do it.

They think, “Wow, you did exactly what was necessary to get this done,” not, “You completely were moronic, and could have done this in a much more simple fashion.”

Jade: I’ve seen it doubly so, even when the output is poor. Because you put even more effort into it, it’s like, “Wow, this really looks terrible, but you worked so hard at getting this done.”

Roy: I was thinking the same thing. There’s so much with failure, like, “You didn’t succeed, but man, you tried really hard. As long as you tried really hard, that’s all that matters.” In school, that was the case. “As long as you showed your work, even if you got the wrong answer, we’ll still give you a 9 out of 10 points.”

The Taxicab Principle

Derek: Maybe we can call this the “Taxicab principle.” Taxicab drivers only get paid for the distance and the time you’re in the cab. If you jump into a new city, and you don’t know anything about it, and you don’t know any better, they’ll take you all around, so that they can have a much quicker fare. When, in reality, shouldn’t we pay them for, “If you could get me to the place quicker, I would actually pay you more money, instead of if you went the long way?”

Jade: I’ve done that.

Derek: I think product owners are like tourists. They have no idea how far or how long something is. If the cab driver drives through all this traffic, and they’re swearing the whole time about how horrible this this and how far it is, they’re so pleased as punch when they get there, they’re just like, “I’m going to give you an extra tip, because you really were a trooper and treated me well during this really long taxi ride.”

Jade: Roy and I decided that we’re going to start shaming people who try really hard, and work hard. We’re going to get a trophy that we hand out…

Roy: Right, a little Yoda.

Jade: [laughs] That says, “At least, you tried.” [laughs]

How To Stop Praising Effort

Clayton: OK. To wrap up, if I’m a product owner, the manager, or whatever, what can I do to stop praising effort?

Jade: Stop praising effort.

Roy: Stop praising effort.

Derek: Stop praising effort.


Clayton: OK, but how do I do that?

Roy: First off, stop clapping in the demo when everybody worked really hard to produce nothing.

Derek: I think a big part of it is, promote sustainable pace. Force everybody to go home at 5:00 PM. Don’t let people come in at six in the morning. Don’t let them work on the weekends.

Make them say, “You’ve got to have some time off,” and, if they don’t have those things, you should say, “Well, something is wrong with you. You are too serious.” When they’re like, “How else am I going to get all this stuff done?” it’s like, “You need to learn to work better.”

Clayton: Find a better way.

Roy: Find a better way.

Jade: I think, being proud of doing the simplest thing, of not working late, all those things are how you start to combat that attitude.

Clayton: All right, thanks.

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