SAFe Lean-Agile Principles

It appears that the performance of the task provides its own intrinsic reward . . . this drive . . . may be as basic as the others. . . .

—Daniel Pink, Drive

Principle #8 – Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers

Lean-Agile Leaders operate within a relatively new, fundamental truth—the “management” of knowledge workers is an oxymoron. As Drucker[2] points out, “knowledge workers are individuals who know more about the work that they perform than their bosses.” In that context, how can any manager seriously attempt to manage, or even coordinate, the technical activities of those who are infinitely more capable of defining the activities necessary to accomplish their mission than they are?

Indeed they cannot. Instead, what they can do is to unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers. Some guidelines are provided in the paragraphs below.

Leverage the Systems View

Before delving further into additional motivational constructs, we note that a significant understanding emerges. This is the understanding that the Lean-Agile principles of SAFe, are themselves, a system too. And the elements of this system collaborate to create a new, and empowering paradigm. One wherein the knowledge worker is able to communicate across functional boundaries, make decisions based upon an understanding of the economics, achieve fast feedback as to the efficacy of their solution, participate in continuous, incremental learning and mastery, and more generally participate in a more productive and fulfilling solution development process. That is one of the most powerful motivations of all.

Understand the Role of Compensation

Many organizations still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated … rooted more in folklore than in science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm [1]

Pink [1], Drucker[2] and others have pointed out the fundamental paradox with respect to the motivational factor of compensation for knowledge workers:

  • If you don’t pay enough, people won’t be motivated. Under-compensation is a major de-motivator.
  • But after a point, money is no longer a motivator. That is the point of intellectual freedom and self-actualization. Here, the knowledge worker’s mind is free to focus on the work, and not the money.
  • After this point, adding incentive compensation elements is again, a de-motivator. It can serve as an insult to the intellectual integrity, or cause the worker to focus on the money, rather than the work.

Lean-Agile leaders understand that ideation, innovation, and deep workplace engagement of knowledge workers can’t be motivated by money—nor the reverse—threats, intimidation, or fear. Such incentive-based compensation, as often embodied by individual MBOs (Management by Objectives), cause internal competition and the potential destruction of the cooperation necessary to achieve the larger aim. The enterprise is the loser in that competition.

Provide Autonomy with Purpose, Mission and Minimum Possible Constraints

Drive [1] also “drives” home the fact that knowledge workers have a need for autonomy—the ability to self-direct and to manage their own lives. Providing for autonomy, while harnessing it to the larger aim of the enterprise, is an important leadership responsibility.

Managers and workers also know that the motivation of self-direction must be within the context of the larger objective. To this end, leaders must provide some larger purpose—some connection between the aim of the enterprise and the workers daily work activities.

When building systems, knowledge workers participate as part of a team. Being part of a high-performing team is yet another critical motivational dimension. Leaders can inspire teams to do their best by providing [4]:

  • The mission. A general goal and strategic direction—a strong vision
  • Little, minimal, or even no specific work or project plans
  • Challenging requirements, along with the minimum possible constraints as to how teams meet these requirements

Create an Environment of Mutual Influence

To effectively lead, the workers must be heard and respected” [2] in the context of an environment of mutual influence [4]. Leaders create such an environment by giving tough feedback supportively, by a willingness to become more vulnerable, and by encouraging others to:

  • disagree where appropriate
  • advocate for the positions they believe in
  • make their needs clear and push to achieve them
  • enter into joint problem solving, with management and peers
  • negotiate, compromise, agree and commit

Contemporary system builders live in a new age, an age where the workers are smarter and have more local context than management can ever have. Unlocking this raw potential is a significant factor in improving the lives of those doing the work, as well as providing for better outcomes for customers and the enterprise as a whole.

Learn More

[1] Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Books, 2011.

[2] Drucker, Peter F. The Essential Drucker. Harper-Collins, 2001.

[3] Bradford, David L. and Allen Cohen. Managing for Excellence: The Leadership Guide to Developing High Performance in Contemporary Organizations. John Wiley and Sons, 1997.

[4] Takeuchi, Horokata and Ikurijo Nonak. The new new product development game. Harvard Business Review. January 1986.

Last update: 11 May 2015