Read time: 5 minutes
My last article provided an organizational behavior model of motivation, and how Agile can provide the frequent and timely positive reinforcement to create employee engagement. As leaders, our objective, and arguably our most important role, is to establish systems of reinforcement within the workplace.
This is the performance curve from my last article:
Unlocking Agile’s Missed Potential, Robert Webber, Wiley-IEEE Press, 2022
Recall that you need to be on the left or the right to establish motivation. The lowest performance is in the middle, where unfortunately most software organizations sit. They can’t apply negative consequences to “push” the teams along, and they have not implemented “real Agile” where teams can set and meet their sprint goals and recognize each other for progress at daily stand-up meetings.
I use the following survey question to assess where organizations are in the performance curve:
Describe how you feel about your work?
1 – Pressured
2 – Frustrated
3 – OK
4 – Motivated
5 – Excited
“Pressured” indicates that the individual is motivated to avoid punishment. For example, being called out for being late at the next project review. “Frustrated” means that the individual is pressured to achieve results but encountering obstacles to achieve results. At the other end, we have “Motivated” and “Excited”, which indicate that employees are engaged to achieve results. You are getting discretionary performance. They are finding ways to break down obstacles to achieve results rather than using them as excuses.
“OK” is not OK. You are in the valley of the performance curve. These are employees who are coming to work every day, doing just enough to get by. Their minds are on the end of the day, not on achieving results.
My experience is that in software organizations, most development staff are in the “OK” category. My clients tended to be large companies for which my book, “Unlocking Agile’s Missed Potential” was targeted. These are companies using waterfall planning to fix schedules and content, precluding the motivation created from allowing Agile teams to set and meet sprint objectives.
An interesting observation was that pressure almost never got down to the individual level. The pressured group was first-level management and project management, who were under pressure from above to predict and achieve results. However, they didn’t have the knowledge and skills necessary to establish the “umbrella of job positive reinforcement” necessary to move the teams to the right side of the curve. And most were not comfortable applying negative reinforcement. Consequences for an individual off schedule were typically, “OK, give me your new date.”
As an example, I worked on an Agile transition with a large company. I sent a consistent message to management that with the Agile transition, they had accepted empowered self-directed teams. Leadership roles had to change from controlling to supportive and motivating. All the heads nodded.
At a three-month check-in, they indicated that they had reached a plateau and weren’t seeing further improvement. I used the survey to find out where they were on the curve. Fewer than 10% of their staff were under pressure, and only 30% were motivated or excited. That meant that 60% of their staff were just “OK.” They had failed to leverage the inherent motivational environment of Agile.
I found that the teams were still being driven by fixed content and schedule. In fact, “standup meetings” were status meetings led by management where people stood in a circle and had to report completion status on their tasks and stories. Sprint objectives were assigned, usually beyond what the team could achieve. “Let’s load them so we get as much as we can.” Teams felt like losers.
We clarified management roles to follow the “servant-leader” model.” The organizational behavior motivation model was taught to management. The survey was repeated six months later. The percentage of people in the “Motivated” and “Excited” categories increased by almost 40%. Imagine the productivity improvement obtained with fully engaged staff applying discretionary effort to overcome obstacles and achieve results.
Go ahead and do a quick poll to see where your organization is. Establish the measure as the most important KPI for management and update progress quarterly.
A word of advice. Don’t put an employee focus group together to ask them the reason for lack of motivation. You will get answers ranging from salaries to not enough social activities. You already know the reason – you and your management team have failed to establish the environment of frequent positive reinforcement for achieving results. The first step is to get rid of waterfall planning with fixed schedule and content with Agile Investment Planning described in my book go enable “real Agile.”
Next article is about the MMMFS – The Mythical Minimum Marketable Feature Set. “It will explain why you have not been able to convince your business to adopt smaller development increments. We’ll be able to explain it with our organizational behavior model. It’s never going to happen unless you can convey positive consequences for the business to accept smaller releases.