Working with somebody is probably the first time you'll care about their output. As a friend, or even a professional relationship but on a different team, this likely didn't matter to you; however, once your job depends on their output, you'll probably find yourself, either intentionally or unintenionally, evaluating how productive they are--that is the rate at which you can depend on them to produce meaningful output.

Because you care about them, and also for personally motivated reasons, you might find yourself wishing they were even more productive. You might ask try to nudge them that way, and maybe that will work. This post is about what happens when it doesn't.

The first time you nudge someone to be more productive and they just aren't, you might throw your hands in the air and proclaim it's not possible. That they are hard to work with. The other option is part of what we call growth, and a thing many software engineering organizations seem to obsess over.

When thinking about someone's productivity, various frameworks (i.e. High Output Management to Situational Leadership) try to break it out into two axes:

  • Capability: what tools, including knowledge, they have to at their disposal
  • Motivation: their willingness to use those tools

And I believe that there should be a third:

  • Awareness: their ability to judge forward progress

Capabilities refers to a whole bunch of things:

  1. Do they have the literal tools necessary to do their job?
  2. Do they have the knowledge to use those tools?
  3. Do they have the ability (in a greater sense) to use those tools? Concretely, are there other things going on in their life that would prevent them from taking full advantage of their knowledge and equipment ("It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." - Upton Sinclair).

Usually, when we are discussing capabilities in the context of our peers, we are referring to #2. It's presumed that it's a good organization's responsibility to take care of #1, and a good management chain's responsibility to clear anything that arises in #3.

Motiviation refers to one's willingness / energy to get the job done. A metaphor that's helped me is that motivation is like a motor and capability is like a rudder. Without a motor your boat won't go anywhere, and without a rudder (or with a rudder pointed in the wrong direction) it won't make progress. Both are bad. Not going anywhere can be bad for a team for obvious reasons, and expending a lot of energy without going where you want can be equally bad (Facebook has a saying, "Don't Mistake Motion for Progress").

However, I believe there is a third axis we should pay attention to: Awareness. A highly motivated individual should be able to improve their own capabilities. That's what learning is. However, that's not always true, and you'll encounter individuals that are high in motivation, but low in capability and who stay there (individuals the organization failed to grow). This is the person who spends a lot of time on a task and gets nowhere without learning much.

Awareness is what lets someone out in the ocean realize that they're off-course and readjust. More frequently than not, these people have been going somewhere, they just didn't realize it was the wrong direction. There are many reasons this might be the case (from oblivion to arrogance), but ultimately it prevents learning. As an organization, you can nuture awareness through regular feedback, many role models, and clear expectations.

Once you start to think of productivity in-terms of those three, I think your role as a peer becomes much easier. Problems in motivation are a matter of cheerleading / understanding the underlying drives. Problems in capability are a matter of teaching/mentoring. Problems in awareness are about making sure you clearly call out what's going well and what's not.

And once people are motivated (largely hired for) and aware (your responsibility to teach), capability--and ultimately productivity--will follow.