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No matter what your role is, there are times that you need to motivate a group of people to come together and complete a chunk of work.  Whether it’s a bake sale or building a time machine, there is one key concept which I promise will dramatically help you in getting the job done.

Persuade people to sign up for tasks in public and have a forum for tracking their progress.


Why does this work?  First, let’s talk about some elements of motivation.

Most people are not self-starters

As much as we’d like to believe that everyone is a natural self-starter – they’re not.  Sometimes, people need an external influence to nudge them to complete their work. Two of those influences are the positive emotion of praise and the negative emotion of shame.

Motivations: praise & shame

When people state in public that they are going to do task “X” by date “Y,” they are putting their reputation on the line.

When they can tell their teammates that they completed their work, this typically results in an intangible reward.  It can be in the form of appreciation from their team or a thumbs-up from a manager.  At minimum, other’s opinions of them tick up a notch because that person did what they said they were going to do.

Conversely, if they have to sit in judgment in front of their team and say that they didn’t complete the work, then they appear unreliable.  That shame of seeing looks of scorn from their teammates or questions of “why didn’t you get it done?” from a manager is a motivator for getting the work done.

The factors of praise and shame will cause people to push that work to the top of their to-do list and get it done on time.

How to get people to sign up publicly

For this motivation method to work, you need to encourage people to sign up for tasks publicly.  How can you accomplish this with the least amount of friction?

Most endeavors have some form of coordination meeting.  This meeting is the forum you should use for both getting people to sign-up and for holding them accountable.


Each slice of work should have an action, one owner, and a date.  You should clearly state the action of the work item.  For example, “We need four dozen cookies for the bake sale.”

Owner – get someone to “raise their hand”

  1. Your first instinct will be to say, “Joe – you should bake the cookies.”
    Resist that first instinct.
  2. Instead, ask the question, “Who can sign up to bake the cookies?”
    Since everyone is working towards the same goal, you have a good chance that someone will raise their hand.
  3. If no one signs-up, then ask the question again, “Come on. We need a volunteer.  I know that someone in this room is an A+ cookie maker” – and then don’t speak for up to 15 seconds.
    Nature abhors a vacuum, and people get very uncomfortable when there is total silence.  The chance of someone raising their hand is very likely.
  4. In the rare case that no one has signed-up at this point, then you have to use the last resort tactic of putting someone on the spot. “Joe – I’ll be you’re the best cookie maker in this room.  Can you help us out?”
  5. If none of these tactics work, you need to re-assess whether you have the right people in the room or are even working on a problem that everyone agrees is worth solving.

One – and only one – owner per task.

When two people try to sign up for one task, my response is:
“This pen only writes one name.”


Date:  when will the work be completed?

Now that you have both an action and an owner, you need to get a completion date.

  1. Again, your first instinct will be to assign the date yourself.
    Once again, resist this temptation!
  2. Instead, ask the question, “Joe, when can you finish baking those four dozen cookies?”Allow the owner to verbalize their completion date.  It is orders of magnitude more powerful for someone to publicly state when they will have something done rather than having a date assigned to them. By declaring a date, they are hardening their commitment and reinforcing their public accountability.If their chosen date is later than the team needs, then nudge them towards an earlier date and state why. “Do you think you could get it done Tuesday rather than Thursday? Sarah needs your work so she can proceed, and those two extra days would be beneficial.” Then wait until they vocalize their agreement to the adjusted date. The key is for the owner to verbal commit to the date.
  3. If they reply, “I don’t know when I’ll be done.” don’t be deterred. Your follow-up question is then, “When can you give me a completion date?”
    This is known as a date-for-a-date.  This question is so reasonable that there is almost no satisfactory reply other than a date.

Follow up in public

Following up in public is the crucial step.

At your next team meeting:

  1. Walk through the list of actions/owners/dates.
    For each action that is on (or past) the due date, ask the owner for their status.
  2. If the action is completed, recognize their contribution and how their work moved the team forward. Do not go overboard – just one sentence of sincere thanks.
  3. If the action is not completed, ask when it will be completed and if there’s anything anyone in the room can do to help.

For uncompleted tasks, do not admonish the owner in public.  Having to admit that they didn’t finish the work as they had publicly promised creates enough embarrassment on its own.  And most people will work harder next time to prevent having this feeling again.

Public accountability is fantastic for your team’s culture

Getting people to sign-up for work, and then holding them publicly accountable works wonders for your team’s culture.

Flywheel of execution

You are reinforcing the team value that it’s good for people to say what they are going to do, and then do what they say.  Everyone picks up on this, and it creates the expectation that every individual on the team is going to get their job done.  Plus, the diligent workers appreciate that the less dedicated team members are being held accountable if they don’t finish on time.

Celebrate progress together

As the team gets things done, celebrate each step by stating the benefits of the completed work and reminding people how that accomplishment fits into the big picture. “By finishing all our baking, we are set up for a great bake sale, which will raise money for that awesome thing we all care about.”

Reinforce goals

Actions are tied to goals, and when you take the time to define an action/owner/date, it’s an opportunity to reinforce to the team the importance of that specific set of goals.

Build trust face-to-face

When people see each other in person and then start/execute/finish a group project, they build trust with each other.  Such bonds are incredibly valuable, take time to create, strengthen a team, and endure through inevitable challenges.

Public accountability is a vital force that improves your team’s execution.  If you follow the steps above, I promise you will see an uptick in quality, delivery, and morale.