For software development project managers who are accustomed to being the primary controller on team projects, agile methodologies represent a dramatic change.
Agile Software Development (ASD) refers to a group of software development methodologies (e.g. eXtreme Programming (XP) and Scrum) that focus on developing software in short time periods (iterations of approximately two or three weeks). These agile methodologies differ from the traditional, predictable plan-driven approach to software development. They allow project requirements to evolve and change during iterations, encourage close collaboration between teams and end-users, and require teams to be self-managing, with responsibility for their own work and behaviours.
Each agile methodology details a number of different practices, which ASD teams use on a daily basis and are accepted as "the correct way to do things". It is not essential for ASD teams to adopt all practices of an agile methodology, but to select the practices that suit the needs of their project. Agile practices may be technical, (e.g. test driven development, continuous integration), relate to management of a project (e.g. iteration planning, daily stand-up), or could relate to the agile environment (e.g. co-located team, self-organizing team).
Project managers using agile methodologies must ensure their team produces quality work. They need to create a supportive environment that will continually motivate their software developers to use their abilities in the best interests of the team. Project managers also need to ensure that team members make the correct decisions and complete tasks in a timely manner.
Since an increasing number of software teams have adopted agile methodologies and practices, researchers from the J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics, National University of Ireland, Galway are exploring how three specific agile practices can impact an agile team's motivation.
Researchers Orla McHugh, Kieran Conboy and Michael Lang undertook two exploratory case studies to examine how ASD teams in two different cultural settings use agile practices. They interviewed 17 people in two teams working for multi-national organizations in Ireland and Sweden. Both teams were working on long-term projects for internal business units.
The researchers' goal: to determine how three commonly used agile practices-the daily stand-up, iteration planning, and the iteration retrospective-can contribute to, or inhibit, an agile team's motivation.
The researchers describe the three agile practices as follows:
• Iteration planning: A team meeting at the start of each iteration to collectively define and plan tasks to be completed during the upcoming iteration.
• Daily stand-up: A 10-15 minute meeting, conducted with all participants standing up, that briefly discusses the previous day's accomplishments and the plans of each team member for the day ahead.
• Iteration retrospective: A meeting at the end of each iteration to reflect on the work completed, and to identify improvements for the next iteration.
The study found that these three agile practices motivate ASD teams in the following ways:
• During the iteration planning team members can easily express their preferences for working on tasks where they will learn the most; for example, gaining a new skill/expertise
• Team members feel more involved with the team because they participate in task planning, in the daily stand-up, and the iteration retrospective
• Team members believe they work more closely with each other as participating in the agile practices ensures they are familiar with other team members' needs
• Team members can give and receive feedback to each other during the daily stand-up and iteration retrospectives and provide support where required
• Team members can give and receive praise during the daily stand-up and iteration retrospectives , which they find motivating
• Team members communicate daily, which helps individuals to better understand each other, become familiar with each others' personalities, traits and competencies and be more comfortable in their interactions with each other, leading to increased levels of trust.
• Team members identify more with the task during the iteration planning where they feel more responsible for the project's goals. Consequently, team members are more motivated to help each other achieve these goals
• Daily stand-ups promote greater transparency on tasks completed amongst team members, which creates more accountability. This is a strong motivator for team members.
The researchers also found that the three agile practices de-motivate team members in the following way:
• Some team members feel stress and peer pressure to accomplish tasks in timeframes agreed to at the iteration planning meeting that may become unfeasible during the iteration due to circumstances outside of their control.
• Team members can find the number of meetings for these three agile practices, both daily and weekly, to be disruptive as they reduce the time available to work on tasks, causing frustration.
• On long-term projects, for example greater than two years, the agile practices may become routine, with less interaction, leaving team members less motivated to actively participate in the practices.
• Daily stand-ups can become frustrating when members must regularly report on lack of progress due to difficulties associated with complex or fragmented tasks
While the researchers' study revealed that these agile practices can encourage greater interaction, feedback, support and communication among team members, they can also assert undue pressure that results in de-motivating the team.
"Project managers must ensure that team members are not experiencing unnecessary stress," says McHugh. "They must work with the team to make sure that tasks are allocated appropriately and that sufficient supports are in place if required."
She says the study highlights to managers how these practices can also cause frustration and apprehension among team members. "It's important that managers are aware of these so that they can be avoided or addressed where possible."
Overall, says McHugh, "Agile teams must be clear on the goals and benefits of each agile practice. If they are causing difficulties amongst team members, then the team must take control, agree to review and change the way the practices are implemented."
SOURCE: McHugh, O., Conboy, K. and M. Lang. "Motivating Agile Teams: A Case Study of Teams in Ireland and Sweden", International Research Workshop on IT Project Management 2010. Paper 8. December 2010, St. Louis, Missouri, USA.
PMPerspectives.org is a website which connects project managers and sponsors with project management researchers. Our mission is to understand and improve project management practices. The research team comprises Dr. Blaize Horner Reich and Dr. Andrew Gemino from Simon Fraser University, Canada and Dr. Chris Sauer from Oxford University, UK.
© Reich, Gemino, Sauer (2012)