Eight Reasons Why Agile Motivates Project Teams

by Jake Bennett

Research proves what software developers already know: Agile projects are more fun and inspiring to work on. In this article, we review the science that explains why Agile fosters greater motivation.

Scrum Board

A few weeks ago, I finished conducting a series of video retrospectives with several POP team members who recently completed Agile/Scrum projects. The goal of these one-on-one interviews was to elicit the kinds of critical insights that can only be discovered through in-the-trenches experience. By video recording the conversations, it allowed me to quickly distribute these Agile learnings to the larger agency in easy-to-digest bites.

It was great listening to the team talk about their Scrum experiences, but what struck me the most was the universal belief among the people I talked to that Agile projects were more fun and motivating than Waterfall projects. I wouldn’t have considered this a pattern if the people I interviewed had all worked on the same project. But the team members I spoke with worked on a variety of different projects, ranging from e-commerce sites, to mobile apps, to frontend-focused work. Furthermore, the participants came from different departments, including design, development, project management and QA. Yet despite these differences, it was clear that everyone I talked to shared one thing in common: they all had a much higher level of satisfaction and motivation when working on Agile projects. So for me the big question was: Why? What was it about Agile that fostered greater motivation and better performance than a typical Waterfall project?

Money certainly didn’t have anything to do with it. None of the team members I spoke with were compensated any more or less based on their participation on an Agile project. But the fact that money wasn’t the answer didn’t come as a surprise. Decades of research has debunked the myth that money motivates employees, despite corporate America’s obsession with performance-based pay. So if not money then, what?

The truth is that there isn’t any one aspect of Scrum that increases motivation. But when you dig into the research behind employee motivation it becomes pretty clear that there are several aspects of Scrum that do. To better understand why, let’s dive into the research.

1. Setting Goals

One of the most powerful motivators for employees is simply setting clear goals. According to Stephen Robbins, professor and author of The Essentials of Organizational Behavior, the research is definitive—setting goals works: “Considerable evidence supports goal-setting theory. This theory states that intentions—expressed as goals—can be a major source of work motivation. We can say with a considerable degree of confidence that specific goals lead to increased performance; that difficult goals, when accepted, result in higher performance than easy goals; and that feedback leads to higher performance than no feedback.” Fortunately, we’ve already been told that setting actionable goals is good, which is why managers focus on goal-setting during the annual employee review process. But this isn’t enough. Clear and challenging project-based goals occur more frequently and are usually more tangible and satisfying than amorphous yearly career goals. So having employees work on Scrum projects throughout the year can help bolster morale in between the reviews.