Agile for speed, productivity and … happiness
5 reasons why cultures with engaged employees are often agile cultures.
Look to your left. Now look to your right. Think about the co-workers who filled up your inbox or chat channels yesterday. Think about the colleague who opened your last conference call, the one sitting across from you in that meeting and the one you ran into outside the bathroom. Now think about this:
More than two-thirds of you are disengaged at work.
That statistic is appalling, right? For those of us who spend 40+ hours per week at our jobs, it can feel wasteful to put so much time and effort into a pursuit about which we’re all … meh. (Gallup defines employee engagement as “involvement in, enthusiasm for and commitment to the workplace and their work.”)
It’s a waste for our employers, too: disengaged workers are more likely to call in sick and more apt to leave (at a turnover cost of 20 percent of their salary.) They produce 60 percent more errors and defects. And over time, they correlate with a 65 percent lower company share price.
On the flip side, Gallup’s extensive research—looking at 1.8 million employees on 82,000+ teams in 230 organizations, across 49 industries and in 73 different countries—shows that employee engagement is “… strongly connected to business outcomes essential to an organization’s financial success, such as productivity, profitability and customer engagement.” This is backed up by research from the Corporate Executive Board (CEB), finding that engaged employees contribute 57 percent more effort and are 87 percent more likely to stay with a company.
Interestingly, though the benefits of engaged workers may seem obvious, few employees can tell you what their employers are doing about it. Consider the experience of this business consulting group:
“We often ask senior leaders a simple question: ‘If your employees feel more energized, valued, focused and purposeful, do they perform better?’ Not surprisingly, the answer is almost always ‘Yes.’ Next we ask, ‘So how much do you invest in meeting those needs?’ An uncomfortable silence typically ensues.”
Most of us who work in the application economy would agree that building great software requires people, process and technology—and the bigger you are, the more you need these at scale. CA helps customers with all three elements of this trifecta, but what we’ve found is that it’s way too easy to focus on your process and technology—and neglect your people.
We see this all the time with agile: companies will adopt Scrum and think that because they’re doing standups and completing user stories, they’re agile. Or they’ll adopt an agile tool thinking that just using it will make them agile. Then they’ll wonder why they’re not seeing the dramatic improvements in time to market, productivity and defect reduction that agile promises.
You might say companies make this mistake because capital investments are concrete and thus easier to quantify, while humans are messy and complicated. But therein lies the irony.
Though it’s important to invest in agile processes and technology, engaging your employees with an agile culture is the true game-changer. “Doing agile” is all well and good, but “being agile” is key to helping you develop the involved, enthusiastic and committed people who make your company great.
Author Dan Pink discusses the characteristics of engaged employees in his work on what motivates people, and he’s pinned it down to three factors: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy is the degree to which you can be self-directed; mastery is your ability to improve at something you care about; and purpose is your sense that what you’re doing has meaning beyond yourself.
Interestingly, there are some neat parallels between Dan Pink’s motivation factors and the principles and tenets of the Agile Manifesto. In fact, it’s no coincidence that agile cultures tend to be cultures with engaged employees. Let’s take a look at five reasons why.
The command-and-control style of management common to traditional companies doesn’t work in a 21st century where the largest generation in the workforce, Millennials, are “… uncomfortable with rigid corporate structures and turned off by information silos.”
The Zappos experiment in holacracy has brought new attention to the idea of self-managed teams, and this year Deloitte reported on this broadening new trend in how companies organize themselves, giving up traditional corporate hierarchies to form networks of teams with growing levels of autonomy: “Companies are abandoning functional silos and organising employees into cross-disciplinary teams that focus on particular products, problems or customers. These teams are gaining more power to run their own affairs.”
A recent Steelcase study of 12,000 workers in 17 countries confirms that the most engaged employees are those who have the most choice and control over their work. This lines up perfectly with one of the 12 principles of agile,
“Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.”
This doesn’t mean process doesn’t matter—it just means that process should exist in service to helping people do good work. As engineering leader Michael Lopp (Apple, Pinterest) has noted,
“… healthy process is awesome if it not only documents what we care about, but is willing to defend itself. It is required to stand up to scrutiny and when a process fails to do so, it must change.”
Teams today are also distributed across timezones. Work happens outside a shared nine-to-five schedule, and workers value flexibility between the office the rest of their lives. Collaborating may be best when it’s face-to-face, but the new reality is we’re relying on technology to help us, and technology alone isn’t enough.
Our new way of working requires that teams be able to communicate openly, commit to a shared plan for work and trust each other to get things done. Agile processes and ceremonies support this new way of working: big room planning focuses organizations on their highest priorities, Kanban gives teams visibility into this status of work and daily standups help teams clear blocks and hold each other accountable.
According to a survey published last year, “… 28% of techies said they understand their companies’ vision compared with 43% of non-techies.”
From a tactical standpoint, how do we expect developers to execute on company vision if they don’t understand it? And from an engagement standpoint, why would we expect employees to feel connected and committed to their employer if they don’t know why they’re doing their work?
Agile development methods are designed to deliver high-quality working software, early and often, that satisfies customers. But agile approaches also help you connect your company strategy to your delivery work. This happens through ceremonies like big room planning, where business and development employees come together in the same room to commit to a plan for the work ahead; and through tools that give users visibility into how work is prioritized and scoped.
These connections matter, because employees who feel connected to their company’s purpose are three times more likely to be engaged employees. Millennials and other generations in the workforce don’t differ much in this regard: they want to feel that their work has purpose, and they want their work to have an impact in their organizations.
The team is the new resource unit in today’s modern organizations, and team collaboration is an expected skillset—not just among co-workers but with customers, vendors, online communities and other stakeholders. Several studies have correlated teamwork with better results and higher job satisfaction; Kelly Services found that a majority of young people, having grown up connected and communicating with others for help and information, favor collaborative working environments.
Collaboration is one of agile’s most important tenets, expressed in principles like, “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project,” and ”customer collaboration over contract negotiation.” Agile planning, meeting and improvement ceremonies all center around teams, and agile at scale harnesses the power of teams of teams to help companies develop realistic plans, deliver faster and become more predictable. Many agile development teams even code collaboratively, programming in pairs to improve speed and reduce defects.
In agile, we often talk about Tuckman’s stages of group development—forming, storming, norming and performing—and how teams need to evolve through them in order to become high-performing. Sure enough, when one of the most data-driven companies in the world, Google, decided to look into the chemistry behind high-performing teams, it discovered that the secret sauce of collaboration lies in the establishment group norms. As one of the researchers says,
“Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.’’
We’ve all heard the expression, “It’s all about the journey,” and then probably had a good eyeroll. But research about goal-setting finds that, ironically, focusing on the process for achieving a goal (rather than the goal itself) might be the best way to get ‘er done. The reason is that the process for achieving a goal forces you to break down that goal into smaller, doable parts, and achieving each of these parts gives you both a palpable sense of satisfaction and a good idea of your progress.
This is exactly how agile approaches goal-setting and planning: it emphasizes the need to break large chunks of work down into smaller increments, and adapt along the way if your progress gets blocked or your priorities change. With agile you can still set a big goal—perhaps even a big, hairy, audacious one—but you reprioritize along the way, if necessary, as you focus on your incremental goals and the picture changes.
Agile helps prevent you from striving for a goal, for goal’s sake (and to the detriment of delivering what’s most valuable) by asking you to “harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.” This approach isn’t just better for your company, it’s better for your employees, too.
“Process promotes progress, and progress, on a neurochemical level, primes us to persist.”
When employees are asked which benefits they would most value from an employer, it’s not annual bonuses or health club discounts that top the list: it’s training and development. In fact,
“… learning and career opportunities are the biggest drivers of employees’ willingness to recommend their company as a great place to work.”
For a population that grew up with social networks providing ubiquitous feedback in near-real time, it makes perfect sense for them to expect frequent feedback in the workplace, too. This is how we know whether we’re doing a good job and are on the right track, or need to advance our skills.
Getting feedback early and often in the development cycle, and regularly retrospecting and adjusting our behavior, are critical agile behaviors for the same reasons: they help you know whether you’re building the right things to meet customers’ needs, and analyze how you can become better. They also happen to be characteristics of a learning organization, one where employees and leaders can both appreciate the value of improvement.
All right, let’s recap: you don’t get engaged employees because of foosball tables or casual Fridays. No amount of free Red Bull will compensate for a workplace where your workers don’t feel inspired or motivated to crush it. Because it’s not the unlimited vacation or bonuses that make people work hard for you, it’s whether they feel engaged with the work.
Given the pervasiveness of agile in software development circles, and the ubiquity of software as the backbone for every modern business, it’s no surprise that agile tenets have infused employee expectations about the workplace. In fact, this is why some of our agile coaches encourage customers to use employee happiness as a productivity metric.
The companies that fail to invest in agility will likely need to invest in replacing their leaders, instead: 30 percent of VPs and director-level leaders who lack digital transformation opportunities plan to find new jobs in the next year. But the companies that build engaging agile cultures will see the returns on their investment: CEB finds that agile employees outperform so-called “hard workers” by nearly 20 percent, and Korn Ferry research shows companies with more agile executives have 25 percent higher profit margins than their peers.
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