Switching to agile ways of working? Prioritise motivation throughout the journey

By Tina Hjort Ejlertsen, Helle Gundorph

Agile ways of working help unlock the ingenuity of your people, accelerating innovation, improving operational resilience and securing competitive advantage. That’s because agile transformations involve moving towards a flat structure and striving for more equality. But such a fundamental change could be unnerving for people used to a clear hierarchy and well-trodden career paths, at least in the beginning.

To make sure this fear doesn’t undermine the success of your transformation, you need to focus on what motivates people as you make changes. Human behaviour experts now recognise the increasing importance of intrinsic motivations, like a sense of purpose and self-determination, at work – it’s no longer just about the extrinsic motivations of salaries and benefits packages.

Agile ways of working place greater emphasis on intrinsic motivation through:

  1. Autonomy – deciding what you want to work on, with whom and how.
  2. Mastery honing your core skills by being challenged and receiving constructive feedback.
  3. Purpose – understanding the ultimate meaning of your work.

When you’re working in a truly agile way, these factors will naturally exist. But you need to actively foster and nurture them while you’re working towards agility. We’ve worked with many clients, including Ørsted, which Harvard Business Review listed as one of the 2010’s top 20 business transformations, Schroders and Wasa Kredit to create agile organisations.

From our experience, we’ve discovered four ways to keep people motivated during a large-scale agile transformation.

1. Don’t drag it out

Leaving people hanging after announcing an agile transformation brings uncertainty and anxiety – and we’ve seen how that leads to a rapid drop-off in people’s motivation and productivity. So, get going as soon as you can – certainly within three months of making an announcement.

Sometimes, an eagerness to get things right first time causes delays. ‘Acting’ with agility is the first step on the road to embedding agility as business as usual. That means starting small with daily stand-ups for pilot teams, for example, and scaling fast by rolling out agile practices to the whole organisation once you know what works for your people.

2. Make it powerful

Agile ways of working rely on the power of teamwork. Encouraging people to ask for feedback and balancing the support and autonomy you give them will help create a collaborative environment.

Feedback is key to building a sense of purpose, and praise is often motivating – especially when given in public and by the senior leadership team. So, turn the system demo events that are part of agile ways of working into celebrations. The team can shine and enjoy public recognition, as well as attention from senior stakeholders, which in turn creates more momentum and engagement

You’ll also need to get the balance right between supporting people and giving them autonomy. Leaders can find it hard to let go of command and control habits, and they mustn’t disappear overnight in the name of empowerment as people can feel anxious about the responsibility that goes with new freedom. Helpfully, there are elements of agile working that give guardrails, like backlogs, product visions, definition of done and non-functional requirements. Business leaders need to make sure these guides are in place to balance support and autonomy.

As one of our clients told us: “It takes a while for people to realise the team have power to decide and make suggestions—they ask permission to do things they could just do without asking.”

3. Don’t compromise

It’s not possible to change people’s ways of working half-heartedly without sacrificing their long-term motivation. We know organisations sometimes cut corners or leave out elements of agility, such as meetings, artefacts or roles and responsibilities, because they don’t realise the full impact of doing so. We’ve seen Product Owners who manage the backlog and prioritise work but don’t communicate the product vision. This means team members can’t see the bigger picture and purpose of their work – there’s no clear line of sight from user stories to strategic themes – hampering motivation.

Having an Agile coach for every team can help. They can give people confidence to embrace agile working wholeheartedly and help them understand the bigger picture.

4. Make it attractive

As you move to a flatter organisational structure with fewer layers of hierarchy, you need to rethink how people view their roles to ensure they’re still attractive. Of course, how you do this will depend on how far you’ve got on the journey.

You can separate Agile roles from titles and compensation packages. So, people would keep their existing job-levels (title and compensation) while taking on an Agile role that wouldn’t denote seniority.

Alternatively, you can adjust your career model and remove the hierarchy inherent in old job titles, adjust job classifications to ensure senior people don’t feel like they’re being ‘demoted’, and make sure you never add seniority to Agile roles (you would have Scrum Masters, not Senior Scrum Masters).

You’ll also need to rethink career progression. Many traditional promotion steps are likely to vanish, so replace them with opportunities to gain experience. You could encourage people to develop their skills in a field in high demand, before taking a ‘mentoring’ role to contribute across different teams. And you could set objectives to reward cross-functional and personal competencies, like communication, collaboration and exploration.

We discussed how to climb the career ladder in a flat organisational structure in a session at last year’s SAFe Summit. You can watch the video to find out more.

A successful transition

Agile ways of working bring great benefits to organisations and individuals alike. Improved motivation is among them – once you’re truly set up to work in an agile way, motivation will take care of itself. But making motivating factors a priority on your agile transformation journey is key to that successful transition.

About the authors

Tina Hjort Ejlertsen PA agile transformation and consumer expert Nordic lead on Agile transformation
Helle Gundorph PA Agile transformation and business change expert

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