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How to Foster Motivation and Purpose Through Agility

1 Mar 2017 by Chris Conlin

“We want to be more agile in our delivery.” “We need to build up our teams.” “How can we do Scrum well?” Companies are asking themselves these questions every day and looking in various places for the answers.

Instead of looking at processes, checklists or specific methodologies, let’s talk about what organizations and teams are made of: people. If we want to have great organizations, we need to have thriving teams. In order to have thriving teams, we need to have motivated individuals.

How do we even begin to find, develop and retain motivated individuals? The good news is agility has mechanisms, mindsets and ideals already built in to motivate team members and give them purpose in their everyday work.

So I know what you’re thinking: Oh great, another millennial writing a blog post about motivation. And you're exactly right. You might want to get used to it. We all know the stats: By 2020, it's projected that 50% of the workforce will be millennials.

Chart showing that the rise of millennials is more than half the size of non-millennials
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Projections, 2012

We millennials are infamous for wanting to have purpose through our jobs (I would argue that most generations want the same but aren't as vocal about it). We’re not the generation that wants to come into a workplace, punch in, do our jobs and then punch out. The workforce is evolving, and more and more people want to find meaning in their work and integrate it with the rest of their daily lives. Unfortunately, most organizations don't provide this, prompting this graphic from

Infographic displaying: Millennials will change jobs every 3-4 years

When most organizations have training plans that take 12 to 18 months to bring someone fully up to speed, do the math yourself on the productivity level. If your organization isn't adapting to the evolving employee landscape, you risk your top talent eventually becoming burned out and leaving for an organization that's able to motivate its employees — or even leaving to start their own company. In fact, according to a Forbes article, more than half of millennials want to start a business. Why is this, and how do we address it? Before we dive into this, let’s define our terms.

When I say motivation, I define it as finding meaning in your job (how YOU make a difference to the whole). Consider the following quote:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

People want to work for something more than just a paycheck. They want to find meaning. According to a University of Alberta study, when employees said they considered their jobs meaningful, their employers saw a 60% decrease in absenteeism and a 75% decrease in turnover. When employees said they were happy, customer retention was 18% higher.

Millennials are particularly concerned with a company’s mission. A Gallup study found that 67% of millennials surveyed said purpose was the main reason they wanted to work for a company, and 40% said they planned to stay at jobs long-term when their employers had strong missions beyond making money.

So what can you as an organization do about this? How do you provide this for your people so that they'll love what they do — and help make excellent products for your customers? Instill a sense of purpose.

What is purpose? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the reason for which something is done or created, or for which something exists.” In his book, “Drive,” Daniel Pink talks about what makes a motivated employee, and he boils it down to three things:

  • Autonomy — the art of self-organization and having some semblance of control over your surroundings
  • Mastery — the ability to do something well 
  • Purpose — being connected to something larger than yourself 

At some point, people would rather be happy than make more money. In knowledge work (which would apply to software development), studies have found that after a certain point, money is a demotivator. So why do we still use it as THE motivator?

Happiness and flexibility are becoming increasingly important to modern employees. One of the most famous, time-tested illustrations of this is Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which also applies to individuals on teams within organizations.

Infographic displaying: Millennials will change jobs every 3-4 years
McLeod, S. A. (2016). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from

Maslow argues that after base financial and security needs are met, our desires move upstream to purpose and self-actualization. He also argues that communities are becoming increasingly important — people need other people, shown as the psychological needs in the pyramid. By having strong teams, this can become a reality.

So how does this apply to agility? Through agility — not specifically Scrum or Windows XP or SAFe (although there are a lot of processes in place in these that build opportunities in), but through agility, we can make all of these needs met. Modern Agile paints a great a picture of what this looks like:

Illustration of agile values equal experiment, make people awesome, deliver value and be safe

When agility is done correctly, all of these are just the implementation of providing an environment where the purpose and motivation of individuals can thrive.

Once this is implemented, employees are able to determine their purpose. Traditional purpose methods are based on finding overlap in a few key areas and have looked something like this:

Illustration of millennials motivations equal purpose

I would argue that this has a flawed premise. It assumes people know all of these. Through agility, we make the unknown known through experimentation and responding to change. Jurgen Appelo, creator of Management 3.0, says it best:

“The Venn diagram of purpose is both right and wrong. It is right because purpose is the result of a lot of work that you need to do in four different areas. However, it is wrong in making people believe that purpose is something for you to discover, as if it is already there, hiding somewhere in those four overlapping areas. For some of you, that might even be true. But for most of us, purpose is something that we create.

We explore things until we love them;
We invent things until we get paid;
We change until the world needs us;
And we practice until we're good at it.
Purpose is something to be created, with a lot of hard work.”

So, what does this mean for a software development organization?

  • Stop focusing so much on money and raises and financial benefits. These are necessary to a point, but they have a quickly diminishing return after that point. Instead, switch the focus to providing a good environment that helps people grow and meet their goals beyond just the financial ones.
  • Experiment. Keep building products your customers will love. By doing this, you'll allow team members to be close to the problem and the solution — and it will motivate them to see how they're improving the lives of others, regardless of the domain your company is in.
  • Respond to change and let your teams own their work, and their destiny. Help teach them goals and explain why those are what the company is aiming for, and then give them freedom to create. Although there may be short-term pains and some discomfort along the journey, doing so will create long-term gains that will help your organization adapt and thrive.
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About Chris Conlin
Project Services Principal Consultant

In his career, Chris has served in a wide variety of roles, ranging from product management and Agile coaching to business analysis — and just about everything in between. Chris's drive is to make organizations and people as effective as they can be. He sees agility as an excellent tool for doing that.

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