When introducing pain is useful

Dec 12, 2023

As a tech lead, part of my job is to ensure smooth operations and eliminate roadblocks to enhance productivity and efficiency for my team. However, sometimes, the most effective way to improve processes is by introducing a bit of pain. This is particularly true for tasks that are necessary but often neglected—for instance, triaging production errors.

In many workplaces, teams have monitoring systems in place, but they tend to ignore the alerts due to an overwhelming number of notifications. This creates a situation where essential issues are buried under excessive noise. The solution lies in reviewing all the alerts, identifying those that shouldn’t have been triggered, and addressing the root causes to prevent them from occurring again. This process is often time-consuming and manual. While everyone agrees that the work needs to be done, nobody wants to do it.

Introducing pain when a new alert fires can effectively address this challenge. You can start by assigning a different team member daily to triage alerts. This person must provide a brief written statement after an alert is triggered, explaining the reason behind it, assessing its usefulness, and, most importantly, outlining the steps to get rid of it. Although it may seem insignificant, this task quickly becomes a burden when dozens of alerts are firing daily. Typically, after a few complaints, team members start proactively fixing the root causes to avoid having to triage them.

This approach ensures the necessary work is done and encourages a proactive mindset within the team, ultimately leading to more efficient and effective operations.

Another example of this approach is what people at TravelPerk call goating. If you leave your laptop unattended and unlocked, and one of your colleagues notices it, they will post a message on Slack for the whole company to see, saying you’re a goat and want to dance. As a consequence, you will have to dance at the company’s next all-hands meeting. While the pain in this case is only some light trolling from your colleagues, it serves as a powerful teacher. People who get goated once always remember to lock their computer the next time.

While introducing pain can be a valuable motivator to address neglected tasks, providing a clear path forward for the team is crucial. Simply inflicting pain without guidance on how to reduce it will only lead to frustration and demotivation. The pain should catalyze action, pushing team members to take the necessary steps to alleviate it. By clearly outlining the steps to be taken and providing support and resources, the team can effectively address the root causes and prevent future issues. This combination of pain and a clear path forward ensures that everyone understands the importance of the task and is empowered to resolve it proactively.

Finally, it is essential to reward and recognize team members for their efforts. This can be done in various ways, such as giving a shoutout during a team meeting or a one-on-one session, inviting the team for a lunch or dinner outing, or granting a few extra days of paid time off (PTO). These gestures go a long way in making team members feel recognized, appreciated, and motivated to continue their hard work.