Four Principles For Motivating a Team (aka Canoes on Mountain Tops)

Motivating a team is difficult. Here are four guiding principles to prevent burnout, coordinate people, and fast track important projects.

Four Principles For Motivating a Team (aka Canoes on Mountain Tops)

Motivating and coordinating a team is one of the most difficult managerial tasks out there. It's more time consuming than planning quarterly goals, more important than defining KPIs or OKRs, and more difficult than firing someone. Yet, for a team to be successful a manager has to do all of these things and more. It's no secret that an unmotivated team can quickly lead to stagnation, burnout, and missed deadlines, but how can you motivate a team when constrained by goals and deadlines? It's not as if you can simply change what needs to get done, push deadlines to give people extended breaks, or hire fresh legs. The wheels of business have to continue moving. They key, of course, is motivating the people you have now, with the work you need done now. In this article, I'm going to lay out four key principles that will help you motivate, coordinate, and keep the path.

Here's an example of what the ideal, motivating project looks like:

You and your team are riding together in the car. Attached to the roof rack is a canoe. You pull the car over to the side of the road, and everyone gets out. You point to a distant mountain peak and confidently announce "We need to get this canoe to the top of that mountain." You unstrap the canoe from the car, and, as a team, lift it between the group, each person grabbing onto it with one hand. You, your team, and the canoe begin to walk down a trail that leads to the mountain. The trail is well blazed and you rarely question which way you're going. Signs read "Hypothetical Mountain this way!"

Not only do you reach the mountain top ahead of schedule, but once there, everyone is in very high spirits, giving out high fives and congratulations like a sales team welcoming back Larry Ellison. Your team is motivated, coordinated, and breaking down barriers like a 4-year-old walking through an ant hill. Why did this happen?

Principle One: The Path is Different

Muir Woods trails
Photo by Caleb Jones / Unsplash

When setting out on your canoe-toting escapade, you pulled off of the road to start down a new path. This brings us to our first principle: the path must be different. If you've been working on the same project or feature for the last quarter, you can motivate your team by shifting to a totally different project or feature. If your last project was five new sales decks, make your next project a new email campaign. If your last project was a new frontend, make your next project a new backend. If your last project was an internal tool, make your next project a customer facing tool. Switching to a different path helps give fresh eyes to your team. One of the most demotivating things a worker can go through is staring at the same thing every day for three months. In my experience, once a project reaches the three month point, eyes start to glaze over. In an ideal world, continuous projects wouldn't last that long, and ones that needed to be longer would be broken into smaller and more manageable pieces. But in the real world this is often not possible, and projects can drag on and on and on. When coming off a long project like this, it's imperative to pivot to new scenery.

Principle Two: The Path is Difficult

Who takes a canoe to a mountain top??? Gluttons for punishment?!?
- You, Probably
Photo by Charlie Hammond / Unsplash

While seemingly counterintuitive, the experienced managers among you will recognize our second principle: the path must be difficult. Everyone reacts differently in the face of adversity, but studies have shown that workers perform up to 40% better when faced with a challenge that seems just out of reach. In our example, this would be the mountain. Climbing a mountain is hard! It's especially hard carrying a canoe! Why did your team pick it up to begin with? Something we often take for granted is the power of new challenges. Ever pick up a new hobby and become quickly and vehemently enthralled by it? When I started woodworking I watched hours and hours of YouTube videos showing other woodworkers work. I watched videos on how to set up a workshop, how to use a table saw, how to pick lumber, how to ensure things are square, how to stain wood, how to finish wood, dovetails, finger joints, mortises, tenons, the list goes on and on and on and on. I am far from unique or alone in this response. In fact this is true for almost everyone. Setting a goal that seems just out of reach is hugely motivating for both teams and individuals. Take note of an important distinction I'm making: just out of reach. A goal that's so lofty you can hardly see it results in discouragement and gives the feeling of "we're never going to get there." Setting goals right outside the proverbial reach of the team have the effect of stretching the team just enough to make those motivation muscles flex.

One fascinating example of this comes from basketball. A 2011 study by Jonah Berger and Devin Pope analyzed over 18,000 basketball games and showed that teams that are behind at halftime tend to lose. No surprise there. But the correlation drops as the score deficit drops. "Teams behind by a point at halftime, for example, actually win more often than teams ahead by one, or approximately six percentage points more often than expected," the study says. Berger and Pope attribute this inversion to the increased motivation of being so close to winning. The same is true for your team. Setting a goal barely outside your scope of "winning" can pull entire teams out of a slump.

Principle Three: The Path is Well Defined

Forest Footpath
Photo by Ahmad Kadhim / Unsplash

Happily skipping down a well worn path is not always a luxury we have available. That being said, a trail that's been blazed before us takes uncertainty and anxiety out of the equation. In our example, the trail we take our canoe down is well blazed. It's established, easy to follow, provides clear direction, and brings us to our third principle: the path must be well defined. Few things are more grueling than a team clawing their way towards a goal with little to no idea of how to get there. Projects that start without a clear path are doomed to pull in many different directions, resulting in a net movement of zero. Again, this isn't always a luxury we're allowed, and in those cases it's important to focus on the other three principles here. However, if motivation is already low, this is a risky move. Few things cause burnout faster than being unmotivated and then having your work scrapped half way through a project because the path forward has changed. Tempers can flare and fingers can be pointed when situations like this arise. As a manager, setting a clear path should be one of the most important parts of your job. A team on a well defined path doesn't question, doesn't argue, doesn't deviate, and doesn't waste energy deciding where to go next. The energy your team would have spent making those orienteering decisions can then go to actually working on the project. This makes the project run faster and smoother, and is the core reason our hypothetical team got the canoe to the mountain top ahead of schedule. When things move quickly and smoothly, the team gains confidence. When the team gains confidence, they enjoy the work they're doing, and gain the motivation to keep going.

Principle Four: Everyone is On The Same Path

Backpackers following a dirt trail
Photo by Austin Ban / Unsplash

If you leave one person to carry the canoe, they won't get very far. While deviations are sometimes necessary, a dispersed team results in one or two people carrying the load. This brings us to our fourth and final principle: everyone must be on the same path. The poor sap stuck carrying the canoe while their team mates go help another boat-fearing team will be quite frustrated when held to the same deadlines and checkpoints as a six man canoe caravan would be. In addition to sharing the load, having the whole team on the same path breeds camaraderie and trust. When one person gets stuck, their motivation will drop. Having the rest of the team to pull them out keeps feelings of discouragement at bay. In this way, a motivated team can self-regulate in a way that an individual can't. This self-leveling keeps everyones head above the water at all times. When someone is struggling, the load can be shared, and when someone is moving quickly, they can forge ahead, making a cleaner path for those directly behind them.


Photo by Wu Jianxiong / Unsplash

Following these four principles will result in a team that is motivated, agile, and capable of hitting metrics that didn't seem possible before. That being said, a project that will be able to encompass all four principles will be fairly rare. In the real world we rarely have the luxury of providing all four of these things to our teams. Often times that path forward is unknown, or goals too lofty, or teams too thin to travel together, or projects too important to put off. In those situations, apply as many of the principles here as you can. Carrying a canoe through thick woods, to a mountain you can't see, by yourself, will not be an enjoyable experience for very long.

Here's the four principles laid out:

  1. The Path is Different
  2. The Path is Difficult
  3. The Path is Well Defined
  4. Everyone is On The Same Path

Happy Canoeing!