Developing awesome products is hard. It just is. The domains we do business in are complex, and the ever-expanding technology stack is even more so. Even when you love what you do, there are some days—and dare I say, sometimes weeks or months—when it's tough to feel motivated.
Why is it important to motivate teams?
I've seen firsthand the difference between motivated people and teams and those that are not. I’ve experienced it myself. That's why I gravitate to this agile principle: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done.
Success of agility, regardless of the method, is firmly on the shoulders of not just people, but MOTIVATED people.
Of course, it's challenging to stay motivated when the deadlines are tight and the bar for quality is set high, even when you have plenty of talent and adequate compensation. Good ol’ Maslow (love his work) tells us that once our basic needs are met—like sustenance, rest, a way to take care of ourselves and our loved ones—we open ourselves up to being motivated by things beyond tangible rewards like money. This is a studied and documented fact. So what are those things that will motivate us? And how can we tell when they're working?
We all work on teams in some form or fashion. So let's talk about what motivated teams look like, and how to become one.
What does motivation look like?
Here are some signs that you're on a team of motivated people:
- Everyone is actively participating in the work.
- Everyone is focused solely on the issues at hand. In other words, they cut through the BS.
- People want to show what they’ve created—not to each other, not to management, but to the people that are going use it.
- Everyone builds quality, value and usability into the solution, and they do it as quickly as possible
- The team members regularly celebrate among themselves.
- People are willing to experiment and make bold decisions.
What's the most important sign of a motivated team? Real value and quality delivered regularly.
What should we focus on to improve motivation?
So maybe you think that you or your team could use a little more motivation. Motivation can come from so many places. It can be pretty contagious, too.
Start with intent in the form of a vision.
In the context of a scrum team, motivation often starts or is fostered by the Product Owner. The Product Owner is one that helps create user empathy, ensures that the vision is vivid in everyone’s mind and presents the needs that attack the mission at hand. They do this by first representing who the user is, what they're like and what their current reality is. Once the current reality is understood, the Product Owner describes a new reality for the user—one that's better than today’s situation.
That’s the vision.
Good Product Owners don’t just describe this vision once—they make sure that it’s front-and-center in everyone’s mind each sprint. One of the ways that the Product Owner makes sure that the vision is part of the daily activity on the team is by making sure the user stories describe what the user needs and most importantly what compels them to want those things—their "why". The more vividly real the Product Owner can make the user's pain points for the team, the more motivating it is to solve them and solve them quickly.
What you can do:
- Establish a clear vision.
- Keep that vision in the forefront of your team's minds.
- Make the user's pain points real, so that your team can empathize.
Show firsthand how the result matters to the user.
Solving problems is fun for a scrum team. Solving real problems for real users is even more fun. Seeing customers use the solution and being able to evolve that solution based on their feedback is the best thing ever.
Nothing is more motivating than seeing something that you collaborated on and created come to life and delighting the user. It's seeing the real value of the hard work you've put in. Even if they aren’t delighted right off the bat, being about to talk about real, impactful changes based on something tangible is so powerful that you can’t help but want to iterate on what was delivered. So how do you encourage these motivating moments in the context of a scrum team?
What you can do:
- Build small increments of value, and get feedback as early and often as possible.
- Get feedback from the people who will actually be using the software regularly. This might be something new to you and your company. Work through the fear and logistics to make it happen, and it will pay off more than you can imagine.
- Make the best use of user’s time in the sprint review. Let them use the software, ask them open ended questions, etc. It will pay dividends by setting or confirming the next goal that the team sprints towards.
Work closely with diverse yet like-minded people.
The best solutions come from diversity of thought. That said, the only thing messier than creativity and innovation is working with others.
Building astonishing software solutions for our users is a team sport, and who you work with plays an important role in how motivated you'll be when times get tough. Little is more demotivating than working with people that don’t share your priorities, values (related to the work), or approach (how they attack problems, learning and quality). Be smart about the dynamics between people on your team, for the sake of motivation and delivering astonishing results. The people that are around you every day make a big difference in how much you care and what you're willing to do collectively. Remember, motivation is contagious.
What you can do:
- Aim to work with a diverse group of like-minded people.
- Diverse groups bring different perspectives, experiences and backgrounds to the table, which leads to great end products.
- Like-minded groups have similar priorities and styles of work, which makes them more conducive to collaboration.
Give team members the autonomy to make informed decisions and mistakes with support rather than intervention. This makes all the difference in the world.
The people who I talk to who like their jobs the most, even in the circumstances where they don’t feel fairly compensated, are satisfied because of two things—they can manage the work that they do themselves, and they learn almost daily. They do this in the context of the vision and the mission of their work. On a scrum team, the context is the vision of the product and the user needs that are represented in the prioritized backlog.
Team members and teams that possess the ability and safety to learn, take calculated risks, adjust and make their own decisions on how they accomplish the work are so much more motivated than those that are not. I know this first hand, as I’ve been in both environments. I’ve both managed and been an individual contributor on a team where they were told what to do and how to do it. And I’ve worked in an environment where every mistake was scrutinized; not by me, who had all of the facts and understood the calculated risks that I took, but by someone outside of what I was doing. I wasn’t motivated. In fact, quite the opposite. I was afraid. I took fewer risks and played it safe. I spent more time worried about what my boss thought than the customer. Most days, I dreaded going to work. I didn’t want to quickly deliver anything, because delivering was met with scrutiny and judgment.
Contrast that experience with more recent ones, wherein I was supported in my decisions, mentored or coached when I needed it, given access to the information that I needed and allowed and expected to make informed decisions. I would wake up ready to attack the day, cut down barriers to completing the mission at hand and spend a little extra time on things when needed.
What you can do:
- Empower your team to make decisions. They're the ones closest to the problem, after all.
- Welcome questions, curiosity and coaching opportunities.
Motivation is key to astonishing results.
All of the behaviors and benefits that we desire from the agile mindset hinge on having motivated individuals. It’s so, so, so much harder to be collaborative, empowered, autonomous, innovative and nimble when you are not in an environment that supports and trusts. It’s darn near impossible to get astonishing results without creating an environment that fosters motivation.
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