Motivated Individuals

As agile approaches the mainstream, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the core principles, especially this one:

Build projects around motivated individuals.
Give them the environment and support they need,
and trust them to get the job done.

If agile is to apply broadly, we can’t reserve it just for those projects that start with motivated individuals. We need to learn how to cultivate them.

What makes for motivated individuals on a software team?

  1. The belief that the product is worth building. (I consider really interesting technology a special case of this.)
  2. The belief that the expectations placed on the team are achievable.

(The book Influencer divides these into Motivation and Ability, but I find that ability so often drives motivation that the two can’t easily be separated. Nonetheless, the book and the authors’ blog are well worth reading.)

Scrum’s sharp distinction between “what to build,” which belongs to the Product Owner, and “how to build it,” which belongs to the team, can create a situation where the team passively builds whatever the Product Owner asks for whether they believe in the value or not. If better software is built by motivated individuals, this is not the way to get it.

This week, I facilitated a project retrospective for a team that struggled with the value of the product they’ve been working on since May. On several occasions, the team was visibly demotivated by the low value they saw in the product. They worked hard and did a good job, but I could tell that they weren’t motivated by the product itself. In the retrospective, one of the answers that emerged to “What should we do differently next time?” was, “Engage the Product Owner in conversations about the value of the product.” Had they done this, the team might have been able to help the Product Owner identify more valuable stories. Or the Product Owner might have been forced to articulate the value of the current stories more compellingly. Either way, the team would have been more motivated to deliver.

The principle I quoted above can be read as, “Find individuals who are already (or inherently) motivated and use them on your projects. Avoid the unmotivated individuals.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but I don’t think it usually works that way. It’s better interpreted something like this: “Find individuals who are open to caring about their work (i.e. potentially motivated). Engage them to become motivated about building something valuable. Let them make delivery commitments they believe they can achieve. Support them and get out of their way.That’s how you build projects around motivated individuals.

Related Articles