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In-Depth: How Scrum Motivates Teams Through Goals And Autonomy

June 24, 2022

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When people first look at the Scrum framework, they often see the roles and the events first. They see only the structure of Scrum; who wears the hats and when. And that makes sense. We are still so embedded in the leftovers of the mechanical perspective that originated during the Industrial Revolution, that it takes time to adjust our eyes and see beyond structure (Morgan, 2006).

But Scrum and the Agile methodologies it builds on are so much more. Scrum is a great example of a motivation framework. Its tactics and practices are deeply rooted in insights from academic research into what motivates people and what drives teams to become high-performing. And while those roots are strong, they are also mostly invisible.

In this post, I want to explore how Scrum is a motivational framework. We will work our way through theories on motivation in teams, and how they apply to Scrum. We also use these insights to offer practical tips for better goals.

This post is part of our “in-depth” series. Each post discusses scientific research that is relevant to our work with Scrum and Agile teams. With this series, we hope to contribute to more evidence-based conversations in our community and a stronger reliance on robust research over (only) personal opinions.

What motivates individuals?

Before we dive into what motivates teams, it is important to first consider what motivates individuals. Scientists have long studied motivation in the workplace, mostly because of its effect on performance. Until the start of the 20th century, much of this work focused on external motivators, like bonuses to reward good behavior and punishment to discourage undesirable behavior. This fitted well with the then-dominant “scientific management paradigm” that was advocated by Taylor (1911). This approach to management emphasized rigorous measurement of how individual workers performed and advocated the use of external rewards or punishment to improve performance (Morgan, 2006).

But as the century progressed, the focus shifted more to the psychology of workers, and how their thoughts and feelings affected their work. This is when organizational psychology emerged as an academic field (Kanfer, Frese & Johnson, 2017). Its earliest members, like Herzberg, started to investigate how the psychological processes of workers influenced their motivation. The most profound contribution to this was pioneered by Hackman and Oldman (1976) with their Job Characteristics Model. In essence, this model states that five job characteristics are essential to motivation:

  • Task Identity: the degree to which a job delivers a visible outcome that can be identified by the person performing it and those they work with.
  • Task Significance: the impact of someone’s job on the lives or work of the people they work with.
  • Skill Variety: the diversity of skills and activities involved in a job.
  • Autonomy: the autonomy that people have to schedule and perform their work as they see fit, including the process by which to execute it.
  • Feedback: the frequency, amount, and clarity of the information about how effective a person is at their job.

Together, these characteristics provide employees with an experience of meaningfulness, an experience of responsibility for the outcomes, and knowledge of the actual results of the work. In turn, this is what drives motivation, increases job satisfaction, increases performance, and decreases absenteeism. Hackman and Oldman also recognized that personal differences influence this effect; particularly the “need for growth”. They reasoned from earlier studies that the effect of highly motivating jobs on performance would be higher for people with a stronger need for growth. A simple formula can be used to calculate the Motivating Potential Score (MPS) for a job. You can also do this with your team in our free tool TeamMetrics.

The Job Characteristics Model has since been studied extensively, and the bulk of the empirical evidence supports its core effects. In a meta-analysis of 259 studies and 219,625 participants, Humphrey, Nahrgang & Morgeson (2007) found that motivational characteristics of jobs alone explain between 25–35% of the actual performance and job satisfaction — which is substantial.

What motivates teams?

Once the link between individual motivation and work outcomes was established, psychologists started to investigate the role of motivation in teams and workgroups. Much of this work focused on how team-level factors — like goals, climate, cohesion, group identity, and size — influence the motivation of team members (Kanfer, Frese & Johnson, 2017). We explored the role of cohesion and team size in another in-depth post.

The presence of goals has been one of the most extensively studied team-level factors. This makes sense conceptually, as work motivation always exists in relation to some goal. Although several theories about how goals and motivation are related were developed, the most prominent one to this day is Goal-Setting Theory by Locke and Latham (1990). This theory also informed the well-known management approach called “Management by Objectives” (MBO) that was developed by the management consultant Peter Drucker (1954).

For a long time, motivation was considered mostly a matter of finding the proper external rewards or punishments. Modern theories on motivation emphasize intrinsic motivation.
For a long time, motivation was considered mostly a matter of finding the proper external rewards or punishments. Modern theories on motivation emphasize intrinsic motivation.

Goal-Setting Theory

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham developed Goal-Setting Theory based on data from earlier decades (Locke & Latham, 1990). The core premise of their theory is that clear and challenging goals motivate teams and individuals more than unclear goals, or no goals at all. Specifically:

  • Provided that goals are clear enough, and not too small, they serve a directive function that allows teams to spend energy and efforts on activities that help them achieve the goal, and avoid spending it on irrelevant activities.
  • Provided that goals are ambitious enough, and not too ambitious, they also have an energizing function by creating energy and inspiring greater effort.
  • Provided that goals are difficult enough, and not too difficult, they also have a persistence function by inspiring people to prolong their efforts and keep trying.

These functions have been extensively supported through experiments and other studies (see Locke & Latham, 2002). It is also clear that not all goals are equally capable of inspiring greater performance. Numerous studies have shown that the motivating potential of goals is at its highest when they are difficult, when they are important, when they are set together, when they are specific enough and when there is frequent feedback on progression (see Kanfer, Frese & Johnson, 2017 for specific studies). This body of scientific work informed the concept of SMART goals by George Doran (1981).

Another powerful contribution of Goal-Setting theory is that it recognizes individual differences. As the work that is required to achieve a goal becomes more complex, people need to have the skills and the self-confidence to remain motivated. When the work becomes very complex, and people lack the skills or the self-confidence, their motivation actually suffers (Kanfer & Ackerman, 1989). In those situations, it is better to set nonspecific learning goals (“try your best”) than specific performance goals (Winters & Latham, 1996).

Goal-setting theory is one of the most robust theories in organizational psychology. Locke & Latham (2002) report that “specific difficult goals have been shown to increase performance on well over 100 different tasks involving more than 40.000 participants in at least eight countries, working in a laboratory, simulation, and field settings”. Few models in psychology have received such extensive empirical support: there is no doubt that clear, specific, and ambitious goals are motivating and increase performance.

But who sets the goals?

As Goal-Setting Theory already suggests, the motivating potential of goals is at its best when teams and employees are involved in their setting. So autonomy seems important. Organizational psychologists often refer to this as “self-determination”, or the belief that your behavior, decisions, and task choice are self-determined. This is nicely captured in Self-Determination Theory (Deci & Ryan, 2012). At its core, this theory states that intrinsic motivation is at its highest when three personal needs are fulfilled:

  • A person needs to feel sufficiently competent to achieve a goal.
  • A person needs to feel sufficient autonomy so that they can decide how to achieve a goal.
  • A person needs to feel connected and related to others who are also working towards a goal.

Like Goal-setting Theory, Self-Determination Theory has been extensively supported by experiments, field studies, and other investigations (see Deci & Ryan, 2000 for a review). But a theory is only as useful as what it can predict in the real world. Fortunately, many studies have found strong effects of self-determination and autonomy on work outcomes (Gagne & Deci, 2005). For example, people who experience autonomy in their work are more committed to their work and the organization, they more quickly volunteer to help, they are more satisfied with their work, feel better about themselves and perform better than people who feel controlled. Daniel Pink popularized aspects of Self-Determination Theory in his book “Drive” (Pink, 2011).

Source: Wikipedia

Now does all this mean that goals are only motivating when they are set by teams themselves? Self-Determination Theory does not require this. Even goals set by others can be internalized too, but only when the psychological needs of autonomy, competency, and relatedness are sufficiently fulfilled. But the more control teams have over their own goals, the stronger the effect on motivation will be.

How it all ties together in the Scrum framework

The insights from this research help us to recognize how the Scrum framework is in a motivational framework. Not through its roles or its events, but through its strong emphasis on short-term goals (Sprint Goals), longer-term purpose (Product Goals), and team autonomy. Goal-Setting Theory goes to great lengths to show that not all goals are equally adept at inspiring motivation. The most motivating goals are challenging, clear, and provide frequent feedback on their progression. This is precisely what a good Sprint Goal should offer; a tangible goal for just the current Sprint that is clear enough to determine what a team will work on.

Self-Determination Theory adds to this that goals should be proportional to the competence of a team. Goals that are way too ambitious will fail to motivate, and can even demotivate. Goals should also be set in a way that makes a team feel that they have autonomy — or self-determination — in how to achieve that goal. This is why goals that are too detailed are not helpful. Or why a goal like “complete all the work on the Sprint Backlog” won’t inspire motivation either.

Taken together, these insights also help us understand why Scrum so often fails to take off. When your Scrum team doesn’t use Sprint Goals, you should not be surprised that motivation and performance remain low. When your Scrum team has no say in whatever Sprint Goal is forced upon them or how to achieve that goal, it shouldn’t be surprising that motivation remains low. When your Sprint Goals are too challenging for your team or too vague, it shouldn’t be surprising that motivation remains low — or drops further. These are not opinions, but empirical facts grounded in an overwhelming amount of scientific research. The message is simple: if you want motivated teams, they need clear and challenging goals that match their level of competence and are set with or by them.

“Taken together, these insights also help us understand why Scrum so often fails to take off.”

How to create better Sprint and Product Goals

Barry Overeem and I often talk with Scrum Masters and Scrum teams about the need for good Sprint Goals. From these conversations, we know that many teams struggle greatly here. It is often hard for teams to pick a single goal, or to formulate a goal that can be achieved in one Sprint. Other teams can’t control the work on their Product Backlog and end up with a hodgepodge of items in a Sprint that can’t be caught in a single Sprint Goal. What can these teams do?

Sprint planning

Unfortunately, Goal-Setting Theory and Self-Determination Theory don’t provide precise recipes on how to craft good goals, and certainly not for Scrum teams specifically. Even so, we’ve found the following very helpful and consistent with the theories in this post:

1. Formulate goals together

Don’t create Sprint Goals for the team, but write them together. This is a good way to honor the self-determination of teams and their members. This is also why the Scrum Guide emphasizes that Sprint Goals should be created by the entire team, and not just its Product Owner. Even though the Product Owner can certainly introduce an important objective, and set a purpose, the team as a whole then refines that into a Sprint Goal that they feel is challenging enough and also within their capability. As a rule, we always finalize a Sprint Goal with our teams by asking — openly and honestly — “even though it might seem challenging, does everyone feel confident enough that we can achieve this goal this Sprint?”

2. Ask Powerful Questions

Sprint Goals — or any goal for that matter — will fail to inspire motivation when they are too vague or far too specific. You have to find the sweet spot together, and that requires a lot of creativity and ingenuity. A good way to spur this on is through Powerful Questions. For example, “What would need to happen while working on this Sprint Goal that would be cause for celebration?” or “What worry about our product is keeping you up at night? What can we build or test this Sprint to make you sleep a bit better?”. We offer these, and 8 other Powerful Questions in this post.

3. Learn from other teams that have motivating goals

When I write that Sprint Goals should be clear and challenging enough in this post, you may still wonder what they should look like then. Good examples of Sprint Goals that motivated teams are often a great way to start “getting it”. So take a look at how other teams in your organization work with Sprint Goals, and look together for examples of goals that are highly motivating. We also compiled a list of actual Sprint Goals from one of the teams we worked with, in this post.


4. Diagnose how motivating your Sprint Goals are

Use your upcoming Sprint Retrospective to diagnose with your team how motivating the Sprint Goals are. Bring examples of recent Sprint Goals and ask your team to rank the goals on the three functions we discussed in this post: To what extent do they give you energy? To what extent do they give direction and to what extent do they make you persist in the face of challenges? Then, discuss the rankings and identify patterns. A Liberating Structure like 1–2–4-ALL is very helpful here.

5. Try our do-it-yourself workshops to create better Sprint and Product Goals

Finally, Barry and I created several do-it-yourself workshops that you can run with your team, or in your organization, to create better goals (123, and 4). Each workshop takes between 1 and 2 hours and comes with a detailed facilitation guide based on Liberating Structures. So they’re easy to facilitate, in-person and online.

Closing words

Is the Scrum framework the accumulation of its roles, events, and artifacts? Or is it something more? In this post, we explored how the Scrum framework is essentially a motivational framework. Although it is never made explicit by its creators, the design is the Scrum framework is deeply consistent with insights from decades of work by organizational psychologists on what is necessary to create motivated teams.

The motivational power of the Scrum framework lies in how it uses goals to create motivated teams. The scientific studies and models we discussed in this post show that clear and challenging-enough goals are motivating, but only when teams have a say in them, or determine them altogether. In turn, motivated teams perform better, are more satisfied with their work, volunteer more help, and are more loyal to their colleagues and organization. Finally, we shared five practical tips for how to create more motivating goals.

If you use Scrum but don’t use Sprint Goals, I hope this post made you realize that you’re missing out on a key ingredient. It may also help you understand why performance in your teams is lackluster, why motivation is low and why members are not willing to take initiative. Regardless of how difficult it may be to create properly motivating Sprint Goals, it is essential that you do.


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