Case Study: Ownership leads to Motivation

June 29, 2013 | Author: PM Hut | Filed under: Motivation,People Issues

Case Study: Ownership leads to Motivation
By Allen D’Souza

This is a follow up article to the previous one titled “Managing Uncertainties in People“. Here, I will narrate an actual experience as a project manager.

Case Background

In 2010, I was entrusted to execute a new software delivery project that would deliver a time entry system over a period of 6 months. The team involved 2 key individuals, Roger and Nigel (names changed), both of whom were technically qualified and had prior experience working in similar projects.

Roger had worked in the organization for over 5 years by then. He was not a great communicator, but knew the time entry product very well. He gelled well with most members of the team and was fun-loving. Nigel on the other hand was a new member of the team but was a quick learner. He had great communication skills and could express ideas well.

During the planning phase, I explained the project in detail and the high-level timelines. I also mentioned that the timelines are tight and that we’ll have to work as a team to meet the deadline. Both Roger and Nigel agreed to put in their best foot forward to make the project a success.

After the kick-off, the project progressed well and the client got to know the team members closely. Roger had a difficulty communicating his thoughts across and Nigel had to step in to clarify the design on several occasions. Because we were on a tight schedule, I decided to have just Nigel sit in during the weekly status meetings over the phone and have Roger continue coding.

Trouble Begins

Work went on a few weeks without any hiccups when I noticed delays in the project execution schedule. Several key components were not completed by their respective scheduled dates. In the team meetings, we discussed the delays and agreed we need to put in a little extra effort to make up for the lost time. Despite Roger having the most experience, almost all the late tasks were his. This intrigued me and I asked him why he fell behind and if there were any design challenges. He said he was good with the design but the work just took that much longer. We discussed revised dates and mentioned that Nigel and I would communicate these to the client during the next call. He agreed.

Surprisingly, after a week, while Nigel was ahead of schedule, Roger fell even behind and couldn’t meet any of the revised milestones for that week. I knew that the next call with the client wouldn’t be easy and sure enough, the client expressed concerns we were slipping considerably. I assured them we would work towards bridging the gap by reassigning work.


After the call, I stopped to think what was going wrong. Roger almost always finished his tasks on time and this project was nothing new as compared to the previous ones he completed well ahead of schedule. On the other hand, Nigel with lesser experience was sailing smoothly. I asked Nigel if he knew a way to speed things up and he offered to pitch in to take over one of Roger’s tasks. While I was immediately tempted to take him up on the offer, I decided to give it more thought. After all, one task would just solve part of the problem and unless I get Roger back to his best form, there is no way we can deliver the project on time.

So I looked back at past projects and realized that Roger always was the star of the projects – the key person in the team to whom any success or failure could be directly attributed to. This was the first time he had to work with Nigel who was equally competent and stood at par. While Nigel’s presence was a great value addition to the project, I knew it somehow caused Roger to slack behind. I realized Roger no longer felt he owned the project and that de-motivated him. My decision to exclude him from the client meetings only made matters worse and he lost any sense of real commitment to the client.

Corrective Measures

I knew I had to make amends fast. I called for a team meeting and mentioned that we need to speed things up and take ownership. While requesting updates, Nigel always started first and somehow always ended up providing status for the overall project. This time, I asked Nigel to focus his status update on just his tasks. I then turned to Roger to provide an update for himself, just as Nigel did. Roger now had to personally deal with the discomfort of a delay in the project. I also mentioned that starting this week, both Roger and Nigel would attend the client call and provide status updates for their respective tasks. I also highlighted the role each one had and how equally important they were to ensuring the success of this project. I also alluded to Roger’s experience and how that has helped us not just on his tasks but in the overall design of the solution. During the client call, the client asked me what would be the new dates on the delayed tasks. Although I usually answered timeline questions myself, I decided to defer the question to Roger himself. Roger, although surprised, knew the dates he had informed me earlier and conveyed the same to the customer. The client went on to stress the importance of the timeline and Roger replied that he would work over the weekend to make up for time lost.

Roger now had a personal commitment he made and while I believe he always wanted to meet deadlines, his low motivation level never gave him that push to work hard. He now felt personally liable to live up to his own word. It took just over a week for Roger to get his tasks on track, which meant he not only completed his tasks at the rate he promised but also worked extra to make up for lost time. I commended him on his efforts and knew I had learned a few lessons as a project manager.

Lessons Learned

Knowing what motivates an individual is the key to utilizing human resources effectively. Some people are motivated by power and they perform best in positions of authority or importance. Others are motivated by the sense of achievement and always work best when they know and feel the impact their work has. There are others who are motivated by recognition and always work hard aiming for the “Employee of the Month” and usually get it too. But a Sense of ownership is a must for each of these types of individuals.

In hindsight, the decision to leave out Roger out of the team meetings to get more time coding was a bad one. Roger ended up being later than ever and his absence dented his motivation levels.

Project Managers must be proactive in drawing the active participation of all attendees in meetings. Detachment in meetings is often the first sign of lack of ownership, and managers must often direct conversations towards such individuals to draw them in.

All in all, it was a great project and we achieved the key success criteria. But the experience handling the team was more enriching than the success itself.

Allen D’Souza is a PMP Certified Project Manager and Solution Architect with wide and varied exposure to Oracle HCM within Oracle Corporation and outside in the Consulting domain. Interests include designing solutions and products that are functionally rich yet scalable, performant and extensible using client-server architecture; Implementation of Oracle E-Business Suite (HCM) for both 11i and R12 releases.

1 person has left a comment

Hi Allen,

One the best posts I have published on this website.

Reading your post, I can relate to that because I have been on both sides of the fence (actually there are 3 sides). I have been Roger (the old star), Nigel (the new star) and the Project Manager.

As a Roger, I used to always make the calls on large projects, and I used to always fear a Nigel coming on board. And when that happened, I left the company I have worked in for a couple of years in just over a month.

As a Nigel, I used to enjoy seeing Roger becoming more and more depressed every time he loses a fight. I used to enjoy seeing his role diminishing, and him becoming an “old story”. Ironically, I never wanted Roger to leave, because I knew, deep down inside, that when that happens, I will become Roger, and it’ll be only a matter of time before another Nigel jumps in.

As the project manager, I made the same mistake that you made, by alienating Roger (the very same person that has made all my previous projects a success), and praising Nigel (someone I know nothing about). I saw many Rogers leaving and many Nigels becoming Rogers because of my strategy.

So what is the solution? Well, it’s easy. Never ever alienate your true-and-tested resource, and never ever allow anyone to shine more than your Roger. Additionally, nobody should be allowed to badmouth or to criticize the work of anyone else. That should be stated somewhere in the company ethics.

Unfortunately, the solution is too much idealistic, our ego always dictates our actions, and it is our ego that destroys those surrounding us, and ultimately ourselves.

An excellent read Allen, and thanks for sharing.

Fadi wrote on June 29, 2013 - 11:51 am | Visit Link

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