May - 5th agile principle

2019-05-15

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

All agile principles are about the “how” as in “how to get things done”. If there is any principle that touches upon organisational culture, it is this one. We can ask: How do people in an agile team interact and contribute to an organization’s goal? What are the underlying beliefs, values and assumptions of an agile team? So, the fifth agile principle is about the “how” of project management and organisational culture.

meeting room

There are three propositions in this statement. The first one is to build projects around motivated individuals. Notice that there is no mention of the words team, management, or leadership. The emphasis is instead on individuals and motivation. Individuals carry out tasks and take responsibility. Motivation is the force that propels them. Successful completion of a project is not the outcome of good leadership, good management, and not even a good team. It is achieved because motivated people who work together.

The topic of motivation is very important. At the same time, it is left open where motivation comes from and how individuals are motivated. They may be motivated because they share the same ideas ideas and goals. They may be motivated by the challenge that the projects presents. They may be motivated, because their work allows them grow their understanding and abilities. Or they may simply love the work they do. Whatever the source of motivation may be, it is key to the success of the project. Motivation is also contagious. If team members are highly motivated, they create an environment in which it is hard to stay unmotivated.

The focus on individuals is directly tied to the first of the four agile values: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” Individuals bring with them not just motivation, but specific skills and experience that is valuable to others as well as to the overall project success. Individuals are integral parts of a team and are not easily replaced. They inevitably affect group dynamics and leave a personal mark on the work project. Which is why agile teams are often composed of multiple senior developers.

The second proposition is: “give them the environment and support they need.” To begin with, this includes the physical environment. A team obviously needs some sort of space where collaboration takes place. Traditionally, this is a shared office where people come together and communicate face-to-face. Increasingly, this is also virtual space that teams configure to their needs for online collaboration. There are a myriad ways of doing this. Suffice to say that physical shared space is preferred in agile project management. Physical space is conducive to informal and efficient communication.

Besides space, people need workstations, laptops, servers, equipment, software, tools, online resources and other “physical stuff” required to accomplish the given task. The term “environment” extends into the non-physical realm, however. A good work environment entails non-physical attributes, such as being safe, pleasant, respectful, rewarding, encouraging and stimulating. If you find that your work environment has all of these attributes, consider yourself lucky.

The support part of this statement plays in tandem with the environment part. A good environment is always supportive. Apart from financial support, this primarily means providing a platform and structure for cooperation. This could be the way a team organises its workflow, for example. But it is actually much more. Support can again mean physical and non-physical things. A good coffee machine and pleasant offices may be considered just as important as a well-maintained backlog and intellectually inspiring tech talks. At the top of the list, you are likely to find non-physical qualities such as transparency, recognition, and good work-life balance.

The third and final proposition of the 5th agile principle is: “Trust them to get the job done.” This piece of advice is most telling about the organisational culture that goes along with agile development. It is a radical departure from traditional top-down management. In a typical waterfall project, goals and milestones are prescribed by project leads and managers. The fulfilment of these goals is then ensured by implementing measures to gauge and control project progress. Or at least that is the idea.

In reality, both planning and measuring progress are often flawed. For example, the plan may contain a high degree of ambiguity, or the measurement does not regard code quality. By contrast, agile development operates on the assumption that the desired outcome (project success) follows naturally from providing the right conditions. This means, if there are motivated people working in an environment that is conducive to cooperation and if they receive adequate and sufficient support from management, then they will automatically get the job done. In fact, they will even get the job done in suboptimal conditions as long as they remain motivated.

The advise to trust people to get the job done comes from a place that has embraced a non-autocratic style of management. Responsibility and decision making is delegated to the individuals who work on a project. Managers assume the role of mentors and coaches rather than that of a dictatorial leader. Much emphasis is put on intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic rewards and control mechanisms.