Why agile methods motivate people

Why agile methods motivate people

This is a post from 2014 that I’ve published on LinkedIn. I am now reposting it here to share all my knowledge on my new homepage.

Recently, many discussions have appeared (again) regarding different frameworks of agile methodologies. The agile community has various methods like Scrum, Kanban, SAFe, LeSS, DAD and other ways on how to scale agile values. I want to step back and look at the core strengths of agile methods and why they can be so much more successful than the old waterfall. In doing so, I hope to find correlations to motivation theory.

Why is it that people like to work in an agile team? Every employer wants a motivated workforce. If you want to have a nice introduction on how you motivate knowledge workers, I recommend this video: RSA Animate Drive

So, how does science look at motivation? Motivation can be seen from different viewpoints according to Huczynski & Buchanan (2013): Goals, Decisions and Influence. The “goal” perspective sees motivation in terms of desired outcomes. The “decision” perspective tries to look at the processes leading to personal motivation. The third perspective: “Influence” sees motivation as a social influence process.

In this blog post I’d like to focus on goal-setting theory, because this not only applies to agile methods but also to many other aspects of our personal life as well and I might start a series of posts looking at different aspects of motivation theory.

Goal Setting Theory

Authors like Latham (2004) have done research on loggers and found out that setting a delivery goal for individual loggers increased performance because it “instilled purpose” and meaning into their rather physically tiresome task. But does this also apply to software or product engineering teams? Yes, it does as Latham found out. But what are the main aspects of such a “goal” that increases performance? Here are the points that Latham (2004) found out:

  • Making goals public enhances commitment
  • Assigning a goal to an individual expresses the leader’s confidence in the person that he or she will achieve that goal
  • A vision provided by the leader increases goal commitment

Those points by Latham (2004) are also mentioned in the book by Huczynski & Buchanan (2013) who say that:

  • Challenging goals improve performance
  • Specific goals improve performance
  • Participation in goal-setting can improve performance
  • Knowledge of results of past performance is necessary for achieving goals

Application in Agile Methods

By Mountain Goat Software (Mountain Goat Software) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

For example, the Scrum process contains many items that we can correlate with goal-setting theory.

Product Backlog

First of all, the product backlog is the single source of information for the whole product. It contains the ordered list of items and is transparent. So, this can be seen as a way in which “the vision provided by the leader increases goal commitment”. The vision and the progress are transparent.

Sprint Backlog

One of the most important factors for motivating goals is “participation in the goal setting process”. The team decides on what can be done in the next iteration and the “sprint goal” is set by the team leading to focused and challenged team members. They are in charge of the decision on how much they can achieve.

Sprint Review and Retrospective

Motivation theory also says that “knowledge of results of past performance is necessary for achieving goals”. Within the sprint review the team has the chance to present what it has achieved and in the retrospective the team looks on how they can improve. When we look at the points of motivation theory mentioned before, we can see how important those meetings are for the team. Therefore, I would also never shorten them or give them not enough attention, because it is crucial that the team stays focused and does not stop trying to improve.


I am sure you can see even more things in Scrum or Kanban that apply to goal setting theory, such as the daily Scrum, but my message should be clear by now. There are many more important factors that are necessary for a performing team, like good leadership or putting together the right people for the project, but you can see that agile methods provide the framework to enable a motivated workforce.

In my opinion, we should start debating the agile principles and values again and stop fighting the “methodology war”.


Huczynski, A.A. & Buchanan, D.A., 2013. Organizational Behaviour Eighth., Pearson Education Limited.

Latham, G.P., 2004. The motivational benefits of goal-setting. Academy of Management Executive, 18(4), pp.126–129. Available at: 10.5465/AME.2004.15268727.