Making it tangible

Tangible things are easy to care about; this is because we are humans. We like things that we can hear see & feel. Even in religion you will see all of these sense engaged; idols, symbols, incense & liturgy are common across religions and provide an anchor for people to focus their energy into.

In software we have not really learned this lesson. For instance defect prevention is trying to prevent something from existing in something that doesn’t exist yet. Trying to rally people around defect prevention is doomed to fail because people can’t anchor their energy on anything. Some people will be able to force themselves and implement practices on sheer force of will, but even those people are spending enough effort on willing themselves into new habits that the opportunity cost should not be ignored.

For me this has been very hard to come to terms with; I like the abstract, can enjoy it and care about it deeply. But I also realize that it can become incredibly hard to force yourself to stay motivated on a bad project. Part of this is because there is nothing to focus your energy on; these projects often have no physical aspects. One thing I find myself do is create to-do lists so that I can create small things that I can focus on so I can check them off. In effect I made it tangible because that made it easier for me. I now realize this, but this is a recent thing.

Some of the development practices that actually are getting traction also have these physical aspects. For Agile for instance you have the board that holds the tasks, and the physical act of moving a task is quite gratifying. Kanban has the cards that are being walked through the company and the act of handing it to someone else really brings home that something was completed so something else could start. Even in the least agile implementation of agile you will most often see the physical artifacts survive where as the more abstract elements get warped or forgotten.

The physical is very powerful, and it is worth using that power to drive your project. Try and focus on giving a project a physical identity and meaning; something as seemingly silly as creating a project logo or mascot can actually help people focus on the project easier. They can keep it on their desk as a physical reminder as to why they are doing this and who they are doing it for. Rewarding people with small tokens that can be displayed also makes things more real. Especially in an age where money has become abstract; and along with that has lost some it’s power as a reward.

You could for instance reward people with Lego™ bricks. Again this sounds silly; but it is something that people can use, they can display them on their desk, they can touch, feel and change them when the motivation is lacking and they can realize that they can build something new if they only had a few more bricks.

It is hard to measure these effects, but if you go looking around you will see that a lot of people have symbols at their desk. A picture from their kid, a gift from a client, a token from their school, hobby or favorite team. All of these symbols and idols allow people to channel energy easier and are valuable for that.

Try and get your project on peoples mind, and start by getting on to their desk.

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