TL;DR: There are a lot of situations when you cannot actually tell people what to do. In these cases, persistent and reliable nudging can help. It’s not about annoying people, but about holding them accountable. There are good tools out there that can remind you to remind them.
Developers around me are usually pretty busy. There are features to implement, problems to solve, sprints to plan, infrastructure to maintain, emergencies to handle. They coordinate projects, align with business functions, think about strategy, and many more things. Many of them are high-priority or cannot be moved because they just belong to the day-to-day. This means that other jobs that are not day-to-day and non-urgent, but nevertheless important, suffer. Nobody ever gets around to actually doing them.
Examples of these important-but-not-urgent tasks are:
- Writing a blog post on the latest performance optimizations
- Migrating the last few packages from the old package server to the new package server
- Writing crucial documentation
- Preparing teaching material for a workshop that has not been scheduled yet
- Improving the developer handbook
- Updating the onboarding material
- Preparing a conference talk
- Improving employer branding
Typically, they are tasks where it does not matter if they get done three days sooner or later, as long as they get done. However, if they do not get done, you eventually pay a constant (or even steadily rising) tax as more and more time passes. Some of them, like preparing the conference talk, become obviously urgent at some point (since the conference date is coming closer), but others don’t. If you fail to prepare teaching material for a workshop nobody knows about, your team’s skill gap keeps widening. It is becoming more urgent to prepare the training to make the gap smaller, but not obviously so. There is still no deadline or somebody telling you “I want this by Tuesday”.
As a manager, you cannot take all of these tasks over yourself. Probably, you do not even have the insight to do so (side note: probably, you also shouldn’t, see the Second Law of Bad Management). This means that most tasks are done by somebody else. Now, you could just walk up to somebody and tell him: “Jason, I need you to migrate these packages by Tuesday.” However, since Jason knows that it does not matter if the packages are migrated a few days sooner or later, this would seem like a random demonstration of power. Like an inappropriate case of command-and-control management.
Instead, you trust your people to manage their own time (don’t you?), so you trust Jason to find the best time to migrate the packages without putting any other schedules at risk. On the other hand, you know that it is sometimes too easy to get lost in the bustle of everyday business, and you suspect that it might be a while before Jason actually tackles the package servers if he is left entirely on his own.
In such situations, nudging is a wonderfully powerful method to avoid eternal procrastination:
Nudging: To give people repeated reminders or little cues of varying subtlety until they are so annoyed by you and by themselves that they finally take action.
This definition is, of course, a bit exaggerated. Nudging is not about annoying people. It is about holding them accountable and moving things forward. You know that Jason himself is annoyed by the presence of two package servers, and wants to get rid of the old one. So you remind him of his own ambition, and he will be glad when the job is finally done.
Nudging can also be about balancing pressures within the company. On the one side, we have the pressure of handling day-to-day work. We have 52 unread emails in the inbox, a long backlog of tasks, and other things that keep piling up, and, of course, all of them are urgent. Not all of them are that important, but the mere feeling of not being able to keep up with the stream of work items that is pouring in can make people lose track of what is really worth their time, and what is not. Before you know it, the justification of your existence is to stay at inbox zero, or to handle all those JIRA tasks, when your actual goal should be to create value for the organization.
Consistently and repeatedly nudging people to take the time to do something of long-term value creates some gentle pressure in the opposite direction. When you ask Stella if she has already started that blog post she has been meaning to write, your message is: “Writing that blog post is important, and I personally care about you writing it. Please do it.” This gives Stella an “excuse”, should she need one, to escape the daily busy-ness, and do something non-urgent but important. If she needs to, she can actually say: “Yes, I know that the implementation of [insert minor feature name here] was planned for the next sprint, but I promised my boss to finally write this blog post we have been talking about.” This is what balance might look like.
Nudging at Google
In Work Rules!, Laszlo Bock, Head of People Operations at Google, devotes an entire chapter to nudging people (aptly named “Nudge…a lot”). Google nudges people to eat healthier by how they arrange the food selection in their cafeterias. They nudge people to save more money for their retirement by giving them regular updates about their current saving behaviour and how it will play out in the long run. They nudge interviewers to use proven and tested standardized interview questions instead of conducting inconsistent ad-hoc interviews by making it very easy to compile these questions.
What Bock emphasizes very strongly is that, while people generally respond well to nudging, they will resist if you take choice away. One prominent example is the Meatless Monday that Google tried to introduce, where they only served vegetarian dishes in their cafeterias on Mondays. This was met with fierce resistance among some employees (1), because they felt that decisions were made for them, which they rather wanted to make themselves.
So, instead of telling people exactly what to do, it is better to involve them in determining the path forward. Nudging lets you do exactly that. First of all, there has to be agreement that the other person will actually do the task you have in mind:
- “Jason, I think we should shut that old package server down. What do you think? Are you up for it?”
- “Stella, you mentioned a blog post some days ago. Are you still planning to write it? Because I think it would complement Mike’s post from last week very well, so it would be a good time.”
- “Charly, I realized that the onboarding material on our development process is a bit out of date. Would you be willing to update it?”
If these questions are answered with “yes”, we can move on. When delegating to people, you should also find out if they need help with their task. However, delegation deserves a blog post of its own. Assuming the other person does not need any help, we should then agree on a “nudging frequency”:
- “When can I ask you for an update on this?”
- “Can I get back to you about that early next week?”
- “I know you are super busy right now because of project X. I will just ask you again in two weeks. Is that fine?”
Once you have agreed on a time when it is ok for you to check back, you have to make sure you live up to this agreement.
There are a lot of tools that can help you with that, like Remember the Milk, Producteev, Any.DO, and so on. One of my favourites is FollowUpThen. If I agree with Patrick to ask him in two weeks about shutting down our Sinopia server, I just send an email with the subject “Ask Patrick about Sinopia shutdown” to firstname.lastname@example.org, and get an email back in two weeks with the exact same subject. This way, I can (and certainly will) forget about it in the meantime, but still be sure to remind Patrick when the time is right.
Nudging can be as simple as a Slack message, or a quick question in the hallway or during a one-on-one. Randy Pausch had a very charming way of nudging the peer reviewers of his research papers: Along with the paper, he used to send them a box of thin mints and a note saying something like: “The thin mints are your reward, but you may only eat them when you’re done reviewing the paper.” Then, if he did not hear back from a reviewer for some time, he only needed to drop them a line: “Did you eat the thin mints yet?” To me, this is really smart, because it sends the message (“Do the work!”) in such a nice way.
Nudging is an effective technique to influence people and steer them in the desired direction. It is not as direct as giving out orders, but much more appropriate in a knowledge work environment. Obviously, nudging should be used for good, not for evil. Often, you will have to let a couple of days pass before you can nudge somebody, so you need either a phenomenal memory, or a good tool to keep you organized. Remember The Milk or FollowUpThen are just two examples.
This blog post took me about 3h to write.
- The “Meatless Monday” failure reminds me of the German elections in 2013, when the Green Party took a beating because of the “Veggie Thursday” they suggested for public canteens.