Saturday, June 23, 2007

Can Agile development increase worker satisfaction?

The May 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review (HBR) has an article by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer titled "Inner Work Life: Understanding the Subtext of Business Performance". At first it sounded like it was going to be a little soft and fuzzy. However, as I read (listened actually, I fell in love with Audible years ago and have never looked back) I heard the authors summarize something I have been thinking a lot about lately: the subject of work satisfaction.

Recently the HR team at GenoLogics completed a thorough employee survey. They also spent some time with a focus group of developers asking more detailed questions around our hiring and retention practices. One of the themes that come from all this work was that nearly 50% of the satisfaction our employees receive at work comes from the work itself: doing work they are proud of, feeling like their work matters, having good tools for work, etc.

It is no surprise then to read in Amabile and Kramer's article that researchers have found the same thing with a much larger group. Most interesting, the article was focused on what a Manager can do to help increase the performance of their employees.

There are the (hopefully) obvious things around employee recognition, fair treatment, consistent guidance, etc. However, what surprised the authors was how clear it was that employees need to feel that their work is valuable. In hindsight, this shouldn't be so unexpected. I can't imagine being satisfied with a job where the environment was incredible, everybody loved me and we had lots of fun, but all the work we performed was entirely useless.

Nevertheless, when you sit down and ask the question in a vacuum, as did the HBR researchers or our HR team, the answer isn't as obvious.

So what did Amabile and Kramer teach me about Software Development? They indicated that the most powerful action a manager can undertake to improve business performance is to provide clear goals for employees and to share your own explanation of why those goals are valuable.

"Hold on!" I thought. One of the things I like best about Agile development, and Scrum in particular, is the idea of task lists and burndown charts. Couple those tools with the way developers are closer to the customer in most Agile methods, and you get an almost perfect solution to the problems identified in HBR.

When your developers are involved in customer discovery and work together to help design solutions, they have an almost automatic understanding of the value of their work. When they get together to create user-stories, tasks lists, and commit to a set of work for each iteration, they are setting clear goals for themselves.

By following Scrum principles, a software development team automatically provides solutions to the greatest issue identified in the HBR article. Anyone who has used Scrum, and given it a real chance, usually finds that they prefer it. Now Amabile and Kramer have helped us learn why.

No comments: