Scrum: the surprising truth about what motivates us!

Dan Pink is well known for popularising the concept of intrinsic motivation in his book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. He gives a brilliant summary of his thinking in a TED Talk (and now an animated video) – which does a much better job explaining it than I ever could. It only takes 10 minutes to watch, you won’t regret it!

But in order to make sense of this post, you need to know that when it comes to creative cognitive tasks (rather than repetitive algorithmic work), there are three factors which determine success. Funnily enough financial bonuses and management by objectives aren’t on the list. Rather the three crucial factors are autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Now software development is a creative process. If it was routine and algorithmic, then projects might actually be delivered on time!  But it isn’t – it’s complex and requires creative thinking to get results.  Which is why scrum is such a good fit for software development – it facilitates the intrinsic motivation necessary for cognitive and creative work!



The autonomy that is meant here is not independence, rather the freedom to make choices – which may well be to depend on others.

As a programmer it’s not unusual to be treated as a code monkey. Your toolset and tasks get determined further up the chain of command and all you get is an unrealistic deadline to have it finished by.

Scrum turns all this on its head. The team decides how much effort is required to get something done. The team decides how much work to take on for a sprint. The team decides how to implement a story. They are an intrinsic part of the process and they take responsibility for their work.

It’s great to watch a team mature in this way. Initially a team may look to the lead developer or architect for all the answers when it comes to estimating stories or debating with the product owner. But with the careful guidance of a good Scrum Master, all members of the team, from junior developer to tester, have important contributions to make. Once people learn that they have a voice and can shape decisions they are happier to take responsibility for them.


Mastery is the chance to get really good at something – like playing the guitar, becoming a level 60 mage or perfecting your programming skills 😉
When it comes to scrum, I’m a bit hard-core about code quality. So much so, that it got me removed from a project because management had little appreciation for unit and automated testing! In my view, if you take scrum seriously then you are delivering fully tested deliverable software at the end of every iteration. At the start you can get away with some unit tests and then manual testing of the stories. But after a few sprints the manual testing becomes an overhead and automated regression testing built into the continuous integration becomes a must.

So testers and developers have the chance to master their craft and delve deeper into topics like common code ownership, test driven development, automated testing, continuous integration and if you’re feeling particularly adventurous behaviour driven development and continuous deployment (go on, I dare you!). Scrum offers you that chance to become a master craftsman.


Making the purpose clear is the Product Owner’s job. He is the one, particularly at the start who sells the product vision. He is the one who maps out where the project is going and what needs to get done to get there. As time goes on though, the team normally gets more involved not just in defining the project but also emotionally in the success of the product. This team feeling of owning the product they are developing gives purpose to their work.



So there you have it. Autonomy, mastery and purpose provide the best results when dealing with creative and cognitive problems – such as software development – and scrum facilitates exactly these motivators!  The more interesting issue may be: why aren’t more teams developing this way?

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