Cobras and Carrots: How to Get the Best Out of Project Teams

The term cobra effect stems from an anecdote set at the time of British rule of colonial India. The British government was concerned about the number of venomous cobra snakes in Delhi. The government therefore offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Initially this was a successful strategy as large numbers of snakes were killed for the reward. Eventually, however, enterprising people began to breed cobras for the income. When the government became aware of this, the reward program was scrapped, causing the cobra breeders to set the now-worthless snakes free. As a result, the wild cobra population further increased. The apparent solution for the problem made the situation even worse. Wikipedia


performI love stories like this. The cobra effect was mentioned in a recent book I picked up – Primed to Perform from Doshi and McGregor (2015) – which is about the “science of total motivation” or what kind of motivation works well for individuals and teams. You’ll already be familiar with the ‘carrots’ mentioned in the title too – ‘carrot and stick’ as another saying we use when trying to get people to do things. Thankfully the book gives other food for thought in the area of team motivations – essentially, direct and indirect motivation.

In this article we take a look at some of the findings.

Direct Motivation

There are three kinds of direct motivation:

  1. Play
  2. Purpose
  3. Potential

Play is the most powerful – this is where work stimulates and sparks creativity. It’s intrinsic – the rewards come from doing the work itself. We’re motivated because we love what we do for a living. With purpose – it’s the meaning we attach to the work or the mission in the work. Probably best understood as careers which help others; the reward comes from seeing people benefit directly from your work. Potential is about work which is on the path to something you really want to accomplish – if the desire for an end goal is strong enough, people are motivated to get there.

Direct motivation is considered to be the most effective at getting people to perform well.

Then we have indirect motivation.

Indirect Motivation

There are two:

  1. Emotional pressure
  2. Economic pressure
  3. Inertia

These two are the things that cause a reduction in performance Emotional pressure is all about doing things for the wrong reason – you stay in a position because you feel pressured to do so, or its some kind of status symbol but actually you don’t like what you do. We see this in project management all the time, a pressure to move up the hierarchy to programme management when actually you love what you do as a project manager (there’s some excellent reading to be done around the Peter Principle in relation to this too).

Economic pressure can also lead to underperformance – this is related to things like salary, bonuses and other rewards. When people are in the job purely for the money, in the longer term it does nothing for the organisation.

Inertia, in its simplest form is when employees can’t be bothered to move on from their work even though they don’t like and their performance is gradually getting worse. They stay at organisations because of apathy.

The bottom line is motivation factors have to be combined. Economic pressure alone – the need for pay rises and rewards – without play or purpose or potential factors – will lead to lower motivation and therefore lower performance levels.

The book then goes on to talk about Total Motivation or “ToMo”.

Total Motivation

ToMo is about the culture of an organisation – how does the culture of the organisation contribute to the balance of the six motivational factors we’ve just outlined.


Total Motivation – “ToMo” – Image from Vegafactor, click for more information


The book outlines well-known organisations who feature on Fortune’s most admired companies list and how they share their ToMo scores (like the image above). The great thing is you can take the ToMo survey for yourself and for your teams. You can do that here and it is free. You can also look at a sample report here. The numbers are one thing – interesting in their own right – but I was more interested in some of the conversations afterwards that this survey is supposed to generate for yourself and for your teams.

For example in the Play motivation, these are a couple of the questions for the team to discuss afterwards:

  • Play drives performance when a sense of curiosity and wonder fosters self-directed learning and experimentation. Discuss scenarios where the team is able to explore new ways of doing things or experimenting.
  • How does the team currently encourage an environment of learning and teaching?

What a great free tool for project managers to use with their own teams. And what a great tool potentially for practitioners in PMO too, perhaps using it to understand the culture of the project delivery organisation.

What do you think? A good tool for project managers to pick up on?

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