Working in the moment

I’ve been thinking a bit more about the topic of my previous post (deadlines forcing decisions and focus), and comparing it to some other moments of high-energy, high-engagement, high-satisfaction productivity over the years.  I realized there was a factor I hadn’t really considered before, and that was the capacity of the task to force all participants to remain in the moment.

For example, contrast these two anecdotes:

Ben knows his daughter is home sick from school today, and he’s worried about her.  He keeps getting a weird exception coming from apache and he can’t figure out why.  He’s got half the team in his cube, and as soon as they’re done he knows he can go home and check on his daughter.  But no matter what, nothing works.  It takes him until 9 PM, and it ends up being something really stupid and obvious.  He’s mad at himself for missing it, and mad at the team for not finding it.  He leaves frustrated and angry.

Jill has no plans tonight, which is good because she keeps running into problems with the local maven repository.  She’s got half the team in her office trying to figure out why.  5 PM comes and goes, and the team stays on the task.  While they’re swapping stories over cold pizza at 9 PM someone spots a stupid configuration problem.  They all laugh about it, promise not to tell anyone how simple it was to solve, and go their separate ways.

Two years from now, both these developers will remember those nights.  While the end result was exactly the same in both situations, one team will bond closer through the hardship while the other will not.  One developer will think of it somewhat fondly, the other as a time when his work kept him from being where he needed to be.

Jill had the freedom to be in the moment, while Ben’s attention was elsewhere.  This isn’t Ben’s fault, or a credit to Jill.  It’s just unhappy circumstance.  How many of us have been in situations like both those?  I remember staying late into the evening trying to fix a configuration problem for a ControlCenter demo at EMC World — it was annoying and frustrating but in total the team that stayed to fix it grew closer and remembers it with a chuckle.  Why?  We were miles from home, had nowhere else to be, and had the freedom to attack the problem fully in the moment.

I’m not suggesting you hire only mid-20s kids with no families who will lose themselves in their work.  But it’s important to recognize the reasons why the same circumstances can either build a team up or tear it down.  I’m also not suggesting (by far!) that managers manufacture artificial barriers for teams to overcome together.  Software development is full of enough pitfalls that the team will stumble into these situations without your help!

So the question becomes: what can a manager, a technical leader, or a team member do to help the team operate in the moment?  How can we capitalize on those moments when they arrive?  How much does the attitude of the leaders present (and remember: we expect leadership at all levels here … directors and interns share this responsibility!) shape the way the team perceives a difficult moment?

More than I think people realize.