Agile and Employee Engagement


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In our newly formed Agile Community of Excellence, we discussed the topics of Empowerment, Motivation and Engagement.

This is a fascinating area for me and, if borne in mind, is a subject which I think really helps to make any Agile effort a really effective one. Employee engagement matters and a worldwide Gallup poll in 2013 was an indication that no company should be complacent on this.

Empowerment and motivation – more specifically – intrinsic motivation – are key to employee engagement. At Trainline, we have already embraced Agile for lots of good reasons and I believe that employee engagement is one of those good reasons.

So how can we make a positive impact on employee engagement? Below I will share with you three perspectives and consider how Agile principles support these.

1. CARE

Care for something increases the more that you feel you can actually have an impact on it and also if your impact is seen, understood and appreciated. An engaged employee is ultimately someone who cares about the work s/he is doing.

This presents a problem in the very typical situation of a growing company. As a company grows, there is a risk of each employee becoming more anonymous and feeling less significant in the grand scheme of things. This directly leads to a decrease in care. In short, care does not scale easily.

Agile principles advocate small teams delivering value on a regular basis. This structure is aimed for no matter how big a company is. As the company scales, the principle of small teams delivering value on a regular basis is maintained. In this way, I think Agile safeguards against a loss of care rather well.

2. AUTONOMY, MASTERY AND PURPOSE

Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the big three factors cited by Dan Pink in his very famous book, “Drive”. If you are not familiar with this book, I highly recommend it if you are at all interested in the psychology of motivation. Some of the discoveries are probably quite counter-intuitive.

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Autonomy is important because it is a basic human preference to be self-directed. The more autonomous we feel we can be in going about a task, the more motivated we become. On the autonomous part, Agile looks great. The self-organising team trusted to deliver what is needed in the way they know best definitely satisfies the autonomy angle.

Mastery points to the fact that we are motivated by getting better at something. This means we enjoy the challenge of trying to figure something out and succeeding at it. In short, mastering something. Once we have mastered something, we are motivated by mastering something a little harder next time.

To some extent, the opportunity to master something is also made possible by being a self-organising team. But this is also something that some thought needs to be put into when organising work. We need to think about learning, sharing knowledge and growth as well as the space to investigate a problem. I think there is scope for this in practices such as pairing and in tech spikes.  In addition to this, the Agile focus on quality definitely challenges software teams to keep raising the bar in terms of technical excellence.

Purpose is all about the importance of meaning. We humans need to feel that what we are doing contributes to an overarching cause which we believe to be a worthwhile one.

Again, the value-driven focus of Agile must help give teams a sense of purpose. On a regular basis, you are putting something out there to improve something for your customers. It also helps, of course, if you are developing a product which you believe is making the world a better place in some way or otherwise contributing something which is of benefit.

3. GAMIFICATION

Gamification tries to apply the principles of gaming to typically non-game activities in order to increase engagement. Great! It sounds like gamification could help us here!

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I have been intrigued by the concept of gamification ever since reading expert game designer, Jane McGonigal’s book, “Reality is Broken”. Jane McGonigal argues that, given more and more people spend more and more time gaming and escaping from reality, the gaming world must have an awful lot of expertise in the psychology of motivation and engagement. What is it that drives people to keep on gaming and how can the key ingredients be leveraged to promote engagement in other activities?

McGonigal identifies four key elements which are common to all games and which make them so engaging:

Goal: all games have a goal which serves to focus your attention and to motivate you to strive to achieve it. The crisper the goal, the better. If the goal is far off, better to have shorter-term goals on the way towards it. Parallels in Agile are clear. This is why having a sprint goal is so important. Make sure the team has a compelling short-term goal to aim towards.

Rules: all games have rules which create constraints around how to achieve a goal and thus create a challenge for you to overcome. Working within a framework such as Scrum could provide this element as well as the processes that the team agrees to.

Feedback System: all games have some way of letting you know your progress towards your goal. The more frequent the feedback the better! In the tech world, we are spoilt for choice in this area with our metrics dashboards, our analytics, product KPI’s and so forth. We also have daily stand-ups, demos and retrospectives, cycle times and velocity to provide us with lots of feedback on progress.

Voluntary Participation: a key ingredient of every game is that it is voluntarily entered into – that is to say, we willingly enter into the challenge. Again, I think Agile best achieves this through the principle of self-organisation.

HOW DOES THIS HELP?

Looking at your Agile processes and practices through the lens of employee engagement and the motivational factors above should help you to ensure that, rather than going through the motions, those processes and practices are facilitated and carried out in a spirit which absolutely maximises engagement. Our Agile Community of Excellence is going to give this a try and let you know how it goes. Watch this space!


Haran Rasalingam is the Lean Agile Coach at Trainline.

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