Just a Theory

By David E. Wheeler

Posts about Management

Flex Your BICEPS

I’ve been thinking a lot about what creative professionals want and expect out of their jobs. We require certain base features of a job, the absolute minimum for even considering employment:

  • Fair, livable compensation for the work
  • Comprehensive, low maintenance, effective benefits (especially health care)
  • Equitable work hours and conditions (vacation time, work/life balance)
  • Safe work environment

Employers attempting to skimp on any of these items devalue the people they employ and the work they do. Don’t do that.

Assuming an organization meets these fundamentals, what else gets people excited to go to work? What makes employees happy, committed, and productive members of the team? Fortunately, I’m far from the first to explore this topic. Paloma Medina reduces the literature to the muscular acronym BICEPS:

There are six core needs researchers find are most important for humans at work. Not all are equally important to everyone. You might find that equity and belonging are most important to you, but choice and status are most important to your employee. Getting to know them and coaching to them is a shortcut to making others feel understood and valued (aka inclusivity).

The BICEPS core needs:

  1. Belonging
  2. Improvement/Progress
  3. Choice
  4. Equality/Fairness
  5. Predictability
  6. Significance

Beyond the utility of having these needs enumerated to think about collectively — with obvious implications — I find it useful to examine them from varying frames of references. To that end, consider each from the perspective not of rewards and perks, certificates and foosball tables. Ponder them with the goal of creating a virtuous cycle, where the work improves the company, engendering greater satisfaction in the work, and encouraging more of the same.

Belonging

Organizations serious about encouraging friendships and closeness often highlight social gatherings, team-building exercises, and outings. But don’t underestimate the motivation of the work. Small teams given the space to collaborate and accomplish their goals might be the best structure to create a sense of belonging to a tight-knit group — and for employees to find joy in their accomplishments.

Then reward those accomplishments. Not just with compensation or perks. No. Put the full force of the business behind them. If a team finished work on a feature or shipped a product, don’t limit recognition to a cocktail hour and a raised toast. Promote the hell out of it through all available channels: marketing, sales, blogging, support, community forums, whatever. The surest road to satisfaction and a sense of belonging is to turn that work into a palpable success for the organization.

Improvement/Progress

Funds for conferences, training, and formal education clearly help employees make progress in their careers, or to sipmly improve themselves. But people also get satisfaction from work that helps the company to execute its strategies and meet its goals. Assuming the vision aligns with an employee’s values,1 contributing to the material achievement of that vision becomes the employee’s achievement, too.

So be sure to create opportunities for all employees to grow, both in their careers and contributions to the company mission. Avoid artificial divides between those who make the execute and those who support them. Not everyone will participate; still, encourage ideas and suggestions from all quarters and, where possible, adopt them. Beyond the old canard to “act like an owner”, clearly link organizational success to the ideas and work that created it, and give everyone the chance to make a difference. They improve as the business improves, and that’s progress.

Choice

Typically, “choice” means different healthcare plans, Mac or PC, sitting or standing desk. Such perks are nice, but not materially meaningful.2 The choices that warm the creative worker’s heart have much more to do with autonomy and decision-making than fringe benefits. Let teams choose their projects, decide on technologies, self-organize, make the plans to execute. People empowered to take initiative and make decisions without micromanagement or post-hoc undermining find motivation and reward in the work itself. Let them do it!

Equality/Fairness

Yes, grant employees equal access to resources, to management, to the decision-making process, and any other information necessary for their work, benefits, etc. That only stands to reason. But give them equal access to interesting work, too. Where possible, avoid unilaterally appointing people to teams or projects: let them organically organize and pick their collaborators and projects. Such decisions mustn’t be made in isolation; it wouldn’t be fair. Rather, you’ll need to hold regular get-togethers of all relevant teams to make such decisions collectively, PI Planning-style. Give everyone a voice, leave no one out, and they will mostly work out the optimal distribution of tasks.

Predictability

In addition to paying employees on time, every two weeks, make the work cycle predictable, too. Everyone should have a good idea when things happen, what the iteration cycle looks like, what the steps are and when they get slotted into the schedule, when projects complete and products ship. Just as importantly, make it clear what will they be working on next – or at least what’s in the pipeline for the teams to choose and plan for in the next iteration of the development process. A predictable cadence for the work lets people understand where they are at any given time, what’s next, and what successful execution looks like.

Significance

Titles and industry recognition, obviously, but this item brings my commentary full circle. Make sure that the work employees do gets seen not only by immediate managers, not simply lauded at the weekly dessert social. Make it a part of the success of the company. Promote the hell out of it, let customers and users know that it exists and solves their problems — no, show them — and shout it from the rooftops so the entire world know about all the stuff made by your super valuable team of humans.

They’ll be happier, more satisfied, and ready to make the next success.


  1. A very big assumption indeed. I expect to write a bit about company strategies and alignment to employee values soon.

  2. Okay, sometimes a choice is no choice at all. Mac or nothing for me!