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The Whip Didn’t Work, But The Sword Was A Hit

October 30, 2013

Hey, everybody, gather around. Bruce, as the software development lead here at Agile Studios, you have a very important job. We’ve got some important deadlines coming up, a big one for RESMARK, but also for some of our other projects. It’s your role to crack the whip, so I stopped by the tack store and bought this whip.

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There is a certain skill to cracking a 12 foot bullwhip. If you do it correctly, you get a satisfying CRACK, as the end of the whip literally breaks the sound barrier. If you do it wrong, you get numerous holes in the acoustical tile ceiling in our bullpen.

As the Executive Vice President, my role was to do everything the president didn’t want to do. I did sales, contract negotiation, oversaw hiring and firing. But, what I didn’t do was actually assign and track the work the programmers were doing. In Agile programming parlance, I was a chicken, not a pig. Bruce was the scrum master. He was responsible for getting the work done. . .and it wasn’t getting done quickly enough.

In fairness to the rest of the developers, Bruce was a big part of the problem. He was getting ready for a vacation out of state. He was constantly telling us about the finer aspects of how to choose a good hotel. He obsessed over how to shave a few dollars off the price of his airline tickets.

I never do anything at work without a reason. The whip was a motivational technique. I probably couldn’t have done it at a larger company, but we were about 15 people. My hope was that Bruce would see the whip and cracking the whip as a metaphor for more actively managing the engineers. And that by being more active in THEIR work, his own work output would increase.

It didn’t work.

Oh, he loved the whip. (Unexpected gifts are kind of cool.) But, he continued to be more focused on his vacation than our looming deadlines. You are probably thinking, “If you were the EVP, why didn’t you use your position to influence him?” Because power in an organization typically flows from the top. Bruce was close friends with the company president, Bryce. I would have long talks with Bryce about my concerns, but it was Bryce’s company. If he wanted to leave Bruce in that role, all I could do was attempt to find ways to motivate him.

Eventually, we did some reorganization and Dave ( was given responsibility for the RESMARK project. Dave is a great coder, and one of the hardest working people I’ve ever worked with. And although he was doing a great job, I decided I wanted to provide him with a physical representation of his role and the need for him to lead our development team to accomplish some pretty ambitious goals. I couldn’t give him a whip. Bruce was still part of the company and it would a very bad signal to give Dave the same tool I gave Bruce. People would compare them and regardless of who came out best in the comparison I would have an unhappy employee. And possibly they would BOTH be unhappy.

So, I got Dave a sword. It was a short sword and it came with a cool wall hanger.

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I instructed him,

You are only allowed to hit employees with the flat of the blade. NEVER the sharp edge!

He later pointed out that I hadn’t forbade him from using the pointy end. I’ve talked before about non-monetary motivation, including Dave’s diet Coke habit. The sword was something that I believe Dave has to this day. It cost $50, but even it had been $100 or more, it would have been worth it.

In order to ship RESMARK on time, Dave was going to have to put in way more work than I could afford to pay him for. He was salary, so I didn’t have to worry about overtime. But, I needed him to feel as accepted and appreciated at work as he felt at home, or Church. And I told him that was the reason for the sword.

I also needed the staff to know that Dave had my full 100% backing. He directed their day-to-day tasks. It had to be clear that while I might be the Vice President, and later the president, Dave got to run the development in the way that he saw fit.

Can’t imagine what HR would have said had I tried the same thing at a large company. . .Guess that’s why I never tried it there.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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From → Team Building

  1. Not only do I still have it, I still have it on the wall behind my desk. I, uh, may have hung one or two conference badges on it since then: 🙂

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