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February 12, 2015

Motivation - the Agile Way!

James Manktelow

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Motivation is the art of finding out what "makes people tick," and applying that to get the best from them. As such, it’s something that we all need to understand.

There are many great models that help us do this. One of the fathers of motivation, Frederick Herzberg, said that the way to motivate people is to get rid of the things that are upsetting them first, and then to focus on factors like achievement, recognition, advancement and growth – all of which we find motivating ourselves.

Other researchers have talked about satisfying people’s individual needs for achievement, affiliation or power (David McClelland); helping them experience fairness, achievement and camaraderie at work (David Sirota); or motivating them by providing frequent small wins (Teresa Amabile).

However, for me and for many others, the biggest source of motivation comes from working towards an inspiring vision of the future (in Mind Tools’ case, the vision of helping thousands of people around the world learn the management, leadership and personal effectiveness skills they need to be happy and successful at work).

After all, in survey after survey, many report that the most important thing that motivates them is the sense that they’re working towards something that really "makes a difference" to others.

Good organizations know this, and it’s why they have developed meaningful mission and vision statements. Effective leaders also know this, and it’s why they interpret these statements for individual team members, helping them see how their work contributes to a meaningful "bigger picture."

Unfortunately, things can be more difficult than this.

Vision and mission come from the hard, technical work of corporate strategy, the discipline of working out how to win in business. In the "old days" of 20 years ago, this was thought of in terms of large, centrally developed, set-piece plans with three-, five- or seven-year time horizons.

I contrast this with my experience of growing MindTools.com, which has been about listening to people, brainstorming options, running experiments, listening again to what people say has worked for them, and building on this with another range of experiments. Listen, experiment. Listen, experiment. Listen, experiment...

I’ve written before about a favorite book of mine, "The Lean Startup" by Eric Ries, that codifies this approach. In it, Ries describes a way of developing businesses by testing business models using minimum viable products, building on what works through repeated iterations of experiments, and "pivoting" quickly to try something else, if this doesn’t work out.

(This "agile" way of doing strategy arguably embraces Agile Project Management – a flexible project delivery approach that complements Ries’ ideas.)

However, while this approach makes complete sense from an entrepreneur’s perspective, it can sometimes be profoundly demotivating for the people he or she leads.

After all, one of the things we most want from leaders is a sense of confidence and certainty about the future. Being told that "I don’t know for sure, but we’re trying this, this and this" isn’t a message that inspires confidence.

More than this, imagine that one of your best people has just spent a month working intensely to develop a closely specified test project, which is one of three such projects that will be run competitively against one another to find a best way forward. The experiment is run, and a different project, using a differently specified solution, wins spectacularly. As the manager who organized the tests, you may be delighted with the result, but how does your team member feel?

And what if she has invested a year of her life developing a product, only for you to "pivot" and abandon much of her work? You’re just about to lose a valued team member...

So, how can you motivate people in this sort of environment? Here are some thoughts:

  1. If you’re in a chaotic environment, keep your vision and mission statements high-level and broad, so that they stay constant even if your business subtly changes course. You’ll quickly lose credibility if you change your mission statement every few months!
  2. Educate your people to understand how the Lean Startup/experimental approach to business works. Sure – some projects will fail, and this doesn’t matter. Provided that they’re delivered well, many will succeed spectacularly, and it’s these big wins that will build the business.
  3. Keep projects small, and have frequent milestones within them, so that people are motivated by frequent small successes.
  4. If you’re working on a number of competing alternatives, do this as a team, with everyone working in some way on all of the alternatives. That way, everyone has a stake in all of the options, and no one loses when one option is rejected. (What’s more, you’ll benefit from the mutual recognition, affiliation and camaraderie that comes with good teamwork.)

This is a new area, and I'm not sure I have all of the answers. What do you think? And if you’ve managed people in a lean-startup-type business, how have you motivated people successfully?

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2 comments on “Motivation - the Agile Way!”

  1. You also need regular, meaningful contact with your employees. By "meaningful" I don't mean you always have to have deep, long conversations. But 10 minutes of your undivided time & attention will mean much to them. Also thank & recognise them regularly for what they do.

    1. Hi Rebel,
      I agree that the key is 'undivided time and attention', rather than distracted and only half listening!

      When we can give someone our undivided attention, it can be a very powerful and effective thing!

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