The psychology of progress

Something I am very interested in is how people perform in an environment where there is the perception of progress versus the perception of little-to-no progress.

When I used to work on motion pictures, our unit of measure was a “shot”. For visual effects, this was usually about 2-10 seconds of screen time; once production was underway (3D models made, textures made, etc) we would get a shot done in about 3-5 days and it was very satisfying (and was usually followed by a team happy hour). After 6 months, we would final the film and it would hit the theaters. This was extremely satisfying and to celebrate we would have a HUGE wrap party at the end of visual effects work.

In contrast, I have worked on software projects for 3-6 months with no appreciable sign of progress, no celebrations, no ceremony. It’s not as if people are’nt working; they are working, but the perception of progress is just not there. The final release of software cannot be the only measure of progress; other occasions need to be marked and celebrated. Perhaps the “unit of measure” can be a feature, the end of a sprint or a design deliverable. I think the important thing is that the duration is relatively small (no more than a month), has is a clear end date, and that the occasion is marked somehow.

Since most people who work at large software companies are there for years, not marking and celebrating occasions can make work appear to be a dreary gulag where the view never changes and nothing seems to happen. I think over years it wears people down and takes away that vital energy that makes them innovative and creative.