Agile Development is Motivating and Engaging

July 27, 2010

In my post, What is Better About Agile Development? (a reprint of the article Top 10 Reasons to Use Agile Development that I wrote for, my ninth reason for using Agile is that Agile development is motivating and engaging. This post will expand upon this topic.

My position is that developers are knowledge workers, and as I pointed out in my article, “knowledge workers have the greatest understanding about their own work, and that they are the ones best qualified to plan and organize how they will accomplish that work.”

I’m not alone in this observation. In their book, High-Performing Self-Managed Work Teams by Dale E. Yeatts and Cloyd Hyten, Yeatts and Hyten stated, “Case studies have shown that the decisions made by SMWTs (Self-Managed Work Teams) are extremely effective because those making the decisions – the team members – are the most knowledgeable persons about the work.” (Buchholz, Roth & Hess, 1987; Ray & Bronstein, 1995).

Not only are those decisions effective, but allowing teams to operate autonomously – self-directed – is a great motivator. Why do so many people seek to start their own business? Money, yes, but another very common reason is autonomy. People want to live their lives the way they want to; they don’t want a boss telling them what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. The control factor present in most workplaces is a major factor in the decision to go it alone.

Tony Schwartz discussed this control factor in his book; The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working. Schwartz states, “The all-too common dynamic is today’s workplace is parent-child. Most employers tell employees when to come to work, when to leave, and how they’re expected to work when they’re at the office. Treated like children, many employees unconsciously adopt the role to which they’ve been consigned. Feeling disempowered and vulnerable, they lose the will and confidence to take real initiative or to think independently. Doing what they’re expected to do often becomes more important than doing what makes most sense.”

As a manager, I certainly want people thinking independently and taking initiative. I want people to do what makes sense, and by all means avoid following a procedure because “that’s the way we’re supposed to work” when that procedure doesn’t apply! I want people to understand our business goals and to think and act in accordance with those goals.

A great treatment on the subject of engagement and motivation is given by Dan Pink in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. He relates a theory put forth by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan called “self-determination theory” which argues that we have three innate psychological needs – competence, autonomy, and relatedness – ingredients that Agile development endorses. Deci and Ryan feel that when these needs are met, we are happy, productive, and motivated. (No argument from me!)

In support of productivity gains through autonomy, Dan Pink cited a study conducted by researchers at Cornell University that examined 320 small businesses, half of which granted the workers autonomy, the other half relying on top-down direction. The results were fantastic! The businesses that offered autonomy grew at four times the rate of the control-oriented firms and had one-third the turnover.

While I'm on the subject of engagement and motivation, good morale is vital to positive motivation and engagement. Studies support that adopting Agile development definitely improves morale. The 2009 State of Agile Survey by VersionOne lists Improved Team Morale as the fourth-highest benefit obtained from adopting Agile development. Mike Cohn reports in his book, Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum, that fifteen months after adopting Scrum, surveyed its employees and found the 86 percent were having a “good time” or the “best time” working at the company. Prior to adopting Scrum, only 40 percent said the same thing – a solid improvement to say the least!

A couple of quotes that that capture the concept of autonomy, motivation and engagement:

“Mediocrity is expensive – and autonomy can be the antidote.” – Tom Kelley, General Manager of IDEO

“Traditional management is about compliance. If you want engagement, self-direction works better.” – Dan Pink

Finally, Agile development provides a sense of accomplishment that is very motivating. Through the delivery of working software early and often, there is a sense of meaningful accomplishment on a regular basis. There is also a feeling of belonging and relatedness due to the highly collaborative nature of Agile development.

I’ll summarize by quoting from my article. “This control over their workday, plus operating in a sustainable mode and the feeling of accomplishment that is a by-product of continuous delivery of working software, all combine to provide a solid motivational boost to each and every person on an Agile team.”

What is a manager to do? As Josh Leibner, Gershon Mader, Alan Weiss observed in their book The Power of Strategic Commitment: Achieving Extraordinary Results Through Total Alignment and Engagement, “Outstanding managers can create environments conducive to people motivating themselves.” Agile development creates this very environment – provided that you (as a manager) and your organization endorse and support it.