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How to Foster Motivation and Purpose Through Agility

Tags: Agile Enablement

“We want to be more agile in our delivery.” “We need to build up our teams.” “How can we do Scrum well?” All of these are questions that companies are asking themselves 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 that 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. You are exactly right! You might want to get used to it. We all know the stats: By 2020, it is projected that 50% of the workforce will be millennials.

We millennials are infamous for wanting to have purpose through our jobs (I would argue that most generations want the same, but are not as vocal about it). We’re not the generation that wants to come into a workplace, punch in, do our job, 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 life. Unfortunately, most organizations do not provide this, prompting this graphic from

When most organizations have training plans that take 12-18 months to fully bring someone up to speed, do the math yourself on the productivity level. If your organization is not adapting to the evolving employee landscape, you risk your top talent eventually becoming burned out and leaving for an organization that is able to motivate their employees, or even starting their own company. In fact, according to a Forbes article, over 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 in the survey said they considered their jobs meaningful, their employers saw a 60 percent decrease in absenteeism and a 75 percent decrease in turnover. When employees said they were happy, customer retention was 18 percent higher. Millennials are particularly concerned with a company’s mission. A study found that six in 10 millennials surveyed said purpose was the main reason they wanted to work for a company, and 40 percent 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 will 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”, Dan 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), and Purpose (being connected to something larger than yourself). Reference - Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books. At some point people would rather be happy than make more money. In knowledge work (which would apply to software development), studies have been done 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 for 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.

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 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:

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:

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.”

Appelo, Jurgen. "Purpose Is Created Through Hard Work." Entrepreneur. Entrepreneur, 4 Apr. 2016. Web. 27 Jan. 2017.

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 very quickly diminishing return after that point. Instead switch the focus on providing a good environment to help people grow and meet their goals beyond just the financial ones.
  • Experiment! Keep building products that your customers will love. By doing this, you will allow team members to be close to the problem and the solution, and it will motivate them to see how they are improving the lives of others, regardless of the domain your company is in.
  • Respond to change and let your teams own their work, own their destiny. Help teach them goals and explain why those are what the company is aiming for and then give them freedom to create. While 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.

To continue the conversation, please reach out to me at


About The Author

Project Services Principal Consultant

Chris is a Principal Consultant with Cardinal Solutions in Cincinnati. In his career, he has served in a wide variety of roles ranging from product management, agile coaching, business analysis, and just about everything in between. Chris' drive is to make organizations and people as effective as they can be, and sees agility as an excellent tool for doing that.