Increase Engagement in Software Teams
Leverage the Scarcity Principle to Improve Contentment, Happiness, and Satisfaction

Increase Engagement in Software Teams : Leverage the Scarcity Principle to Improve Contentment, Happiness, and Satisfaction

The basic premise of the scarcity principle is explained in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition by Robert B. Cialdini. You are likely familiar with the concept. Who hasn't heard an advertisement declaring "while supplies last!" Scarcity-based sales and marketing tactics are abundant. While the concept is fairly intuitive, it often leads to rather irrational behavior. Studies of this principle have yielded some interesting observations.

  • Availability vs. Quality - Things that are difficult to possess are typically perceived to be more valuable than those things that are easy to possess. People often use availability as a judge of quality.
  • Freedom of Choice - People hate to lose freedom of choice. When certain freedoms are in danger of being lost, people will go to great lengths to maintain that freedom, even if it wasn't a freedom they valued prior to it being taken away. As an example, when the Hostess company went bankrupt in 2012, people rushed to the grocery stores to hoard the remaining Twinkies, sometime hoarding supplies that would last for years (as a rule of thumb, if your supply of Twinkies will outlast it's shelf-life, you probably have too many). When Coke introduced the "New Coke" formula in 1985, consumers were outraged. However, they weren't as upset with the taste of new Coke as they were about their inability to get the old Coke. Hoarding of old Coke was widespread. When the old Coke was re-introduced three months later, sales experienced a significant boost.
  • Scarce information is perceived to be more valuable - A computer manufacturer may inform a particular customer of an impending shortage of materials, in hopes of encouraging them to increase the size of their order. As a means of causing the information to seem more important, the manufacturer may give the customer the impression that the information is not yet widely known.
  • Loss of Freedom vs. Never Granted - When it comes to freedoms, it is more dangerous to have given for a while, than not at all. There are numerous documented cases of citizen revolts in many different countries and cultures after a group of citizens have been given a freedom for a short time, and then had it taken away.

Practical Application in Software Development Teams

While the scarcity tactics aren't extremely common in the context of software development management, there are still a few practical applications of this principle.

Make Sure Your Team Members Understands the Unique Value Proposition

To employ this principle, you need to first understand what is unique and valuable about your team, your organization, or the particular position of the team member. By helping a team member understand the unique opportunity that is afforded by their position, they will be more motivated to value that position and opportunity. The increased motivation will pay off with increased productivity.

If you don't think that a position of a particular team member is unique in any way, try find ways to make it unique. I once was asked to be part of a development team working on a project that I wasn't particularly excited about initially, as the opportunity seemed quite minimal. However, my manager was very creative in framing up the opportunity in ways that I hadn't previously considered. This significantly increased my excitement, motivation, and overall productivity for the time that I was on this project. Nothing had changed about the project to make it more interesting, it was just a simple re-framing of the context the helped me better understand the opportunity.

Commitment to Team Freedoms

There may be times when you afford your team freedoms or flexibility that they hadn't been provided before. Maybe you are going to allow them the ability to work from home. Maybe you are considering a four day work week or flexible hours. Whatever the case, in these situations, it's extremely important to remember that a loss of freedom is damaging to morale.

Properly Manage Expectations

People's level of happiness is inversely proportional to their level of expectation. If you are not 100% committed to an idea, then you need to properly manage expectations. If you are planning to allow the ability to work from home, or other types of increased flexibility, do it first for a some amount of time on a trial basis.

However, don't frame it as a trial. Just frame it up as a small bonus that is will only happen once for a short time. Summer can be good time to conduct these experiments. You might frame it up as "Summer Hours", "Summer Flexibility", etc. That way, you've properly managed the expectations. If it turns out that the change was a good change, when the summer is over you can enact the policy permanently. If it feels like the policy wasn't productive, it'll just end as planned when the summer is over.

Are you interested in increasing innovation and collaboration on your software team? Then continue reading...

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