Imagine you’re an engineering manager working with a team of 15 brilliant developers. You have Alex, a talented tech lead who architected your entire middleware layer. Emily is your UX wizard who can design intuitive interfaces in her sleep. Bob and Sam are your dynamic coding duo who crank out features at the speed of light.
But despite all their skills, you notice that their productivity is suffering. Sprints are filled with half-baked features, bugs creep up everywhere, and releases are delayed.
Alex became visibly frustrated when his intricate middleware code got shelved for the third time. Emily spent hours on beautiful interface mockups that got scrapped because requirements changed. Bob and Sam’s envy-worthy productivity suffered as they constantly got pulled into emergency bug fixes.
During monthly one-on-ones, your team complains frequently about the constant distractions and lack of focus time. They tell you they feel like hamsters on a wheel — working hard but never reaching the finish line before being spun around to another priority.
You have to be understanding — after all, they are talented professionals you admire and enjoy working with. But you also represent the business needs to deliver products and features. You have to figure out this puzzle and change something quickly to help your burned-out team thrive again, knowing that the process will stay unpredictable to an extent.
Agile frameworks like Scrum, Kanban, or SaFe have several tried and tested tools to help solve this problem. It’s interesting, though, that they all are based on the Ovsiankina Effect. It’s a foundational behavioral principle for most personal and team productivity frameworks and methodologies. Knowing and leveraging this effect will help your engineers succeed while delivering excellent results.
What is the Ovsiankina Effect?
In the 1920s, psychologist Maria Ovsiankina made a fascinating discovery during her research. Through simple experiments, she noticed a curious tendency in people.
When interrupted mid-way through a task, her participants felt almost magnetically pulled to go back to finish it. For instance, if they were asked to draw shapes but got disrupted part-way, they instinctively resumed the incomplete drawing as soon as possible.
Maria realized that the act of starting a task flips an internal switch in our minds. We become committed to seeing it through to the end. It’s like an itch that needs to be scratched before we can move on.
As Maria delved deeper, she found the urge gradually faded if the task stayed interrupted for too long. But within a short span, there’s an irresistible motivation to dive back in and complete it.
Through further tests, the pattern became clear. Maria named it the “tendency toward completion of interrupted activities.” But today, we call it simply the Ovsiankina Effect after its discoverer.
This powerful psychological pull to finish what we started operates below our awareness. As managers, we can harness this human quirk to our team’s advantage. By understanding when the effect is the strongest, we can better organize workflows for maximum productivity.
Leveraging insights from Maria’s simple experiments, we can enable our teams to scratch those itches and fulfill their deep satisfaction of task completion.
Break Down Large Tasks
Dumping massive, complex projects on your team will leave them feeling overwhelmed. Who could blame them? How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!
Start breaking work down into smaller, more digestible chunks for each engineer before handing them off. It’s easier to stay on track and avoid interruptions while working on smaller tasks because the Ovsyankina Effect is doing its job.
Instead of just saying, “Build our cloud backend!” frame it as:
- Set up the Docker containers first (2 days)
- Then tackle user authentication APIs (1 day)
- Finally, build out CRUD operations for the core User table (2 days)
You’ll quickly see the release of tension when you describe tasks this way — people will nod along, jotting down notes, ready to sink teeth into the first bite.
The scoped tasks give a sense of control and the confidence to get started and move faster through the work. Checking off the tasks also gives a little dopamine boost to fuel the next step, and reviewing completed items during standup makes people feel proud of themselves.
Set Short-Term Goals
Setting clear short-term goals is key to keeping the team motivated. Nobody wants to work towards a vague, distant milestone. It feels like driving towards the horizon — no matter how far you go, it never seems to get closer.
Instead, map out projects more like a stepping stone path — each milestone brings us measurably closer to the end objective, fueling the motivation to move forward and close the loop.
For example, when if you’re building a new customer portal, sit down with your UX designer and map out goals like this:
- Have wireframes done by April 10th for review
- Finish core pages by April 24th so you can start testing
- Get a usable beta version working by May 15th to demo to stakeholders
- Launch the MVP on June 1st to start getting feedback
The goals make the project tangible and within grasp, even if the deadlines are ballpark (they are in most cases anyway). A designer can visualize herself completing each milestone with a clear roadmap like this.
The stepped goals work because they leverage the Ovsyankina Effect — we desperately want to achieve things and feel productive. The milestones are like mini accomplishments, building blocks towards the bigger achievement waiting at the summit.
Limit Context Switching
Constant context switching is kryptonite. It’s diluting the team’s motivation and focus because the desire to finish the tasks diminishes as the number of distractions goes up.
Become protective of people’s time and attention. No more hour-long all-hands meetings if a quick synopsis would do, and 1:1s should be moved if they interrupt flow time.
Notice when people get pulled in multiple directions, starting new tasks before finishing others. Some of us need help saying no when pressed for time.
Help engineers prioritize the tasks, emphasizing finishing current work rather than jumping onto new requests. Suggest turning off Slack notifications to stay focused during the dedicated time of concentrated work.
Coach people who tend to tinker rather than deliver to timebox the tasks. Dedicating fixed 2-hour blocks helps finish something imperfectly rather than pursue perfection.
With these little changes, satisfaction will increase as tasks start getting checked off and projects shipped.
Harnessing The Power of the Ovsiankina Effect
As managers, we care about our teams and want to see them thrive. It’s frustrating when talented, smart people seem stuck in a productivity rut. The good news is we can help get them unstuck! Understanding basic psychology around motivation gives us tools to set our teams up for success.
We’ve all felt that pull to finish something we started. That’s the Ovsiankina Effect in action. It’s like a little motivational magnet in our minds saying, “Come back and complete this!”
Leverage this quirk by breaking big, intimidating tasks into smaller pieces. Give people the satisfaction of checking things off and building towards their goals step-by-step. Limit the distractions and context-switching as much as possible. Protect your team’s flow time so they can find satisfaction in uninterrupted work.
With some planning and intention, we can create the conditions for our teams to get into flow, maximize their potential, and deliver their best work. The boost in morale and productivity will show.
Originally published on Medium.com