Why Agile makes people work

Motivational evolution

In his book “Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”[1], Daniel Pink explains there are three types of motivation systems, or schemes as he calls them. They stand for the evolution of intrinsic motivation in human behavior. The evolution of the human society plays a big role in its development. I’ll describe these different types of motivation and their origin below. Also I will put them in the context of today. Does it make sense if we use this scheme in today’s world? We’ll wrap up by explaining why Agile fits Daniels Motivation 3.0.

[1] Pink, D. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York City: Riverhead Books.

Motivation 1.0: the early days

In the early ages of mankind, with no society and primitive ways of living, survival was key. So we search, hunt and eat. As simple as that. Everything we did was centered around survival. Pink calls this Motivation 1.0.

Rule two of mafia life – get clearance for outside work.
The Mexican Mafia do all the sorts of things you’d expect of a big drugs gang, including killing anyone who gets in their way. That has included some pretty direct film criticism. In 1992, a film called American Me took the story of the gang as its foundation. The director had tried to see Morgan to get his blessing and input, but Morgan gave him short shrift and even launched a lawsuit against a film he claimed was inaccurate. But legal redress or boycotts aren’t enough when a gang disapproves of a piece of cinema – nope, at least two killings have been put down to this artistic displeasure, the victims gang members who did offer advice to the film makers.

This type of motivation relates best to our primitive impulse, to which we hopefully don’t act too much anymore: motivation 1.0. As the example shows we still have organizations (and countries) operating this way.

Motivation 2.0: until the industrial age

Later on we gradually developed a new system. We formed tribes and as relationships between different groups of people became more complex, we formed societies. We found out that reward and punishment worked well in establishing a society where we had to be productive and generate lots of output. This type of motivation made its way all through the Industrial Age.

So in this Motivation scheme we discovered that if you reward good behavior, you get more of the behavior you want and if you punish bad behavior, you get less of that behavior. And that worked well for a long time. It still works for a lot of tasks we do: mechanical skills, simple steps we need to follow to perform a simple task.

But, as Pink points out, when the tasks we do involve even the slightest cognitive skill, Motivation scheme 2.0 works contradictory. That’s why we needed a new scheme for the new age we’re in (Information Age and Age of wisdom[1]).

[1] Pink, D. (2005). A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. New York: Riverhead Books.

Trust and ownership – a story from FAVI (reinventing organizations)
Zobrist was appointed as the new CEO at FAVI and spend four months observing the company and its employees, making no decisions.

One day he noticed an employee waiting in front of a closed warehouse door holding a piece of paper. Zobrist asked him what he was waiting for. The mechanic needed new gloves. The procedure required the employees boss signing of the required use of these gloves which confirmed that the old gloves were worn out and that he required new ones. He now needed to wait for the warehouse manager to open the door for him in order to get a new set of gloves. A short calculation made Zobrist realize that the time needed to follow this procedure, the mechanic not being able to operate the machine, cost the company ten times the price of a pair of gloves.

Let’s be honest, this is what happens in a lot of companies. People don’t trust each other enough and let the process take charge. It’s typically motivation 2.0. Command and control.

Motivation 3.0: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Money is a basic motivator. Actually, it’s more like a bribe that we get monthly to show up for work. Money does not get us intrinsically motivated. For simple operational tasks it does, but not for creative work. And with creative I mean non-repetitive. Most of the work we do nowadays is far more creative than we often think. If you want people to be intrinsically motivated: pay them enough, so that they can think about work and not be demotivated by money.

When that’s settled, there are three things that lead to intrinsic motivation and personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy is the need to be self-directive. People want to choose their own ways. Make their own decisions.

Mastery is the feeling of being able to become better at your work. Experiencing mastery makes people feel good. This is the reason why people play instruments on the weekends or take acting lessons, even though they know they will never get a job paying them to do so.

Purpose is the reason that we get up in the morning and go to work, because we believe in something.

Zappos pay people to quit
When Zappos hires new employees, it provides a four-week training period that immerses them in the company’s strategy, culture, and obsession with customers. People get paid their full salary during this period.

After a week or so in this immersive experience, though, it’s time for what Zappos calls “The Offer.” The fast-growing company, which works hard to recruit people to join, says to its newest employees: “If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you’ve worked, plus we will offer you a $1,000 bonus.” Zappos actually bribes its new employees to quit!

Why? Because if you’re willing to take the company up on The Offer, you obviously don’t have the sense of commitment they are looking for. It’s hard to describe the level of energy in the Zappos culture–which means, by definition, it’s not for everybody. Zappos wants to learn if there’s a bad fit between what makes the organization tick and what makes individual employees tick–and it’s willing to pay to learn sooner rather than later. (About ten percent of new call-center employees take the money and run.)

More and more companies today are looking for evolutionary purpose and want people to be engaged in this purpose. For Zappos, “The Offer” is a test to see if people are intrinsically motivated to join the company for its purpose. A purpose where profit is not the primary goal, but it emerges from the fact that they want to contribute in making the world a little bit better. And that appeals to customers and employees. These companies embrace autonomy, mastery and purpose!

Agile = autonomy, mastery and purpose

Autonomy and Agile

Autonomy is the need to be self-directive. People want to choose their own ways. Teams want to be successful, they don’t want to be told how to do their work.

Trust. Agile and trust are glued together. We need to trust each other in that we’re all trying to do the right thing. We also need to trust each other in making mistakes and being transparent about it. Trust makes autonomy flourish, thus it helps teams to become more Agile.

When we look at the Scrum Framework, autonomy is in the basics of the Scrum Roles.

The Product Owner has the job of maximizing the work the development team does. He or she has no say in how the team should do the work, but sets the goals!

The Development Team works together on the Sprint Backlog. This backlog is a breakdown of the work that needs to be done to meet the goal. This development team is also a stakeholder for the Product Owner, so that work gets done in order to get the best possible outcome for the end-users and stakeholders. To be able to do this the development team needs to self-organize.

The Scrum Master is coaching the team in becoming a better version of themselves. He or she is continuously helping them improve and challenging them to achieve the best possible outcome.

The combination of these roles makes the Scrum Team (which consists of the Product Owner, Development Team and Scrum Master) self-directive.

Note the difference between self-organization and self-direction. The Product Owner sets the direction of the team, its goal. The development team organizes itself around that goal.

So we could say a Scrum Team is self-directive. However in larger organizations we see that the Product Owners do not have the mandate to actually decide the direction of the company. They are organized within a larger system of additional governance and the autonomy can make way for top-down decisions.

Mastery and Agile

The second important element of the Motivation 3.0 scheme is Mastery. That is the feeling of being able to become better at your work. Experiencing mastery makes people feel good. This is the reason why people play instruments on the weekends or take acting lessons, even though they know they will never get a job paying them to do so.

What Agile strives to do, is to get in touch with the human aspects of the work. The reason why people choose a certain profession or started a specific education is because they wanted to become good at it. And it’s that same passion that we look for in people when they work in Agile teams. The reason we leave the “How” up to the development team and not to the Product Owner is exactly this: mastery. We know you know best, so let’s get out of the way and let you do what you do best!

This is the reason that there is no project manager role in Scrum. The traditional manager with its Motivation 2.0 scheme would think that you are only good at what you do because we tell you to do it and pay you for it. The assumption is: If we raise the pay, you raise the production (output). As we now know, that is true only for straight forward, simple tasks. What works is: create the environment for teams to be successful. Facilitate change and boost creativity. That’s how teams (and individuals) can become successful. Mastery!

Purpose and Agile

Goals are important. They can set the road to purpose. Purpose is the highest goal of them all; The ultimate goal, possibly a goal we will always strive for, but never reach. It is the reason that we get up in the morning and go to work, because we believe in something.

This purpose naturally could be one of many things. Within Agile I can see that when people feel the company’s mission is the ultimate goal and their work is contributing to that mission (hopefully being some evolutionary purpose), they will be intrinsically motivated individuals. And those individuals will create an atmosphere in the workplace that makes teams potentially high performance teams.

The role of the Product Owner (and other leaders) is important in creating meaningful purpose for the teams. Having a vision for the product(s) the team is working on makes collaboration far more successful.

A responsive (Agile) enterprise is creating alignment throughout the organization by giving the people purpose to show up for work!

Henrik Kniberg, known as the Agile Coach at Spotify captured this in the figure you see here. High alignment (setting goals), but no autonomy means no creativity. Thus motivation 2.0.

High autonomy with no goal means we’re all having fun but we’re not being effective.

We need to be on the top right: setting goals and using the teams autonomy to figure out how to reach that goal!


Hopefully my story on how Agile and Daniel Pink’s book on intrinsic motivation go hand in hand, sounds logical to you. Also, the reality shows that in most cases we haven’t incorporated his philosophy (motivation 3.0) into the workplace. And Agile might be a start to begin that change! I encourage you to start changing today and focus on  people. Their wisdom, creativity, knowledge and skills will bring your company, department or team to the next level. It will help you to stop thinking for other people.

Start by creating an environment where people feel good, can be creative and bring their whole self to work. Change is very hard, so this will not be done overnight. It takes time. But start taking steps, and you will get there. Inspire and be inspired, so you can continuously grow.

Often people ask: “Does Agile fit all people? Can they handle the autonomy we give them, that responsibility?”. Well, books are written on that, but ultimately: yes. A great deal of the human population is capable of thinking for themselves, making decisions, taking responsibility, having fun and yes… creating revenue. The problem is that for the last century we have created a working culture that forced people to be different in the workplace than at home. To take orders instead of think for themselves. And people have grown accustomed to that culture, so not everybody wants to change. But people will surprise you. Give people a chance to let Agile grow on them.

Give them the autonomy, mastery and purpose to become Agile.




Jasper Alblas