Case Study: Motivating a team using Agile practices

A while ago I did some consultancy with an Israeli company that was kicking off a large, complicated and challenging project. They wanted advice on how to motivate the team so I looked in my toolkit – both Agile and general management – and suggested a few things.

It is worth emphasising that the company’s sole concern in this case, and the reason for my engagement, was "motivation" and not Agile per se.

Company and Context

The company in question produces both hardware and software for the security market. Management had identified the new project as "critical" but the team was skeptical because previous "critical" projects had been suddenly stopped, or stopped being critical. And the company had a history of late running projects. So the team had little faith in management and the new initiative.

Management wanted this project to be different, hence my involvement. I was assured that, this time around, "critical" meant "critical" and the timeframe was a hard deadline.

My engagement was strictly limited so all I could do was spend some time with the project manager to talk through options and develop an action plan. It was up to her to implement the plan.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

First of we talked through the two broad categories of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is external to the person; common examples are bonus, salary, and benefits.

Extrinsic motivation has its place but to get real change she would have to aim for intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is internal to the person, and is driven by an interest or enjoyment in the task itself. With intrinsic motivation the person is more likely to make all possible efforts to meet the target.

Action Plan: Demonstrating that the Project was Different

I suggested that to hook the team the project manager, and management in general, would have to demonstrate that this project was different. The difference would have to noticeable at project start and throughout the project.

I suggested they try some or all of:

  • Face to face interaction
  • Lead by example
  • Customer interaction
  • Deliver frequently
  • Demonstrate progress
  • Demonstrate support

Some of these techniques overlap and are part of a typical Agile Heartbeat.

Face to face interaction

Face to face meetings have more impact than other types of communication. So I suggested, where ever possible, to use face-to-face communication.

Lead by example

Note: unlike the other suggestions this wasn’t really from the Agile community; it is just good management sense.

Management wanted the team to think this project was different. So they themselves had to behave differently. And they would have to lead by example; if their motivation was low, why would the team’s motivation be any higher? And this started at the top. I suggested if the CEO was directly involved this would send a strong message that this really was a "critical" project. He wouldn’t have to be involved every day or even every week but i suggested he engage with the team throughout the project. The project kick off was an ideal opportunity to start that engagement and for the CEO to explain to the team the importance of the project for the company. If his involvement stopped there then the team would quickly get the message that the project wasn’t quite so "critical" after all. In contrast his on-going presence would demonstrate to the team that this project really was important to him and that he cared about what they were doing.

Customer interaction

I’ve noticed that developers are much more motivated when they write software for a specific, real person, that they’ve met, rather than for anonymous users. Of course there are also the quality benefits resulting from more, better and faster feedback. This is a product development company so the customer representatives are internal, specifically the CEO and marketing/sales department. I encouraged the project manager get these people directly engaged with the engineering team. And I warned that if the customer representatives stopped turning up then this would also be a sign to the engineers that the project wasn’t really "critical".

Deliver frequently

I find that teams respond well to mini-milestones rather than huge milestones many months out. So I suggested the project manager divide the project into timeboxes. She thought monthly timeboxes might work. Most of these monthly deliverables would only be for internal consumption, none-the-less the motivational benefits of mini-milestones would be realised.

Demonstrate progress

I proposed product demonstrations. These could be formal demonstrations tied to the frequent deliveries mentioned above or more informal, by the side of the desk, demonstrations. Because of the type of work this company does they would not always be able to demonstrate the final system but they could get close by using simulators. Such demonstrations would be an opportunity for the engineers to interact with the customer representatives (in this case the CEO and marketing people). But it is also the place for the engineering team to demonstrate progress and get feedback. And the customer representatives, and management, get to see progress with their own eyes; it was also an opportunity for them to learn at first hand about difficulties or successes.

Demonstrate support

A team needs to know they have the support of management. Often that support means removing impediments in the team’s path. An example is giving the team the right tools to do the job. But it isn’t enough for this to happen, there is a bit of public relationship game to play … the team has to know that management is working on their behalf.


I left the project manager to consider what we’d talked about. She put together an action plan and got it approved.

Later I contact the company to find out what had happened. I asked the project manager which of the techniques she had actually tried and how they had worked out. She replied:

We did them all.

The demonstration part went very well when engineers were actually demonstrating to management:
1) Face to face meetings
b) First hand feedback
c) CEO and management involvement.

Also, the “mini-milestones” worked very well, and we could actually meet our targets by the finish.

Added few motivation talks with team, asked them to work Fridays [first day of the weekend].

It worked, as long as we were focused. When interruptions came with other "urgent" priorities, we got lost. Now we try to maintain it again.

Most important – CEO is going to R&D team from time to time, asking questions and asking them to demonstrate. At first I had to help him do that, now he is doing it by himself…

So yes, this works !