High Performance Team
Agile Pendentives

Empowered Teams Are Dead – Long Live Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Demotivated Agile methods emphasize and encourage empowerment and creating empowered teams, but empowerment is not enough. Empowerment, according to Daniel Pink author of “Drive: The Surprising truth about what motivates us“, is just a slightly more civilized form of control. This control is part of a broken motivation system corporations use that he calls Motivation 2.0.

Here’s the quick summary. Motivation 1.0 is our basic desire to find food, shelter, sex, etc. Once met, people look to higher levels of rewards to motivate us. Motivation 2.0 has been traditional management’s carrot and stick motivation system. If you do this…, then you get this…. The trouble with IF-THEN rewards is that while we like them at first we quickly tire of them. Then because the reward can never continue to escalate at levels that excite us, we grow used to them and get discouraged if we fail to meet the IF condition and do not get the reward or worse, if the IF-THEN reward is removed.

Daniel Pink states several MIT studies where adults and children were rewarded for conducting work, hobbies and play activities. Once the reward is removed people stopped doing them, even if the had previously happily voluntarily done them before. Once tainted by IF-THEN rewards, the motivation was sucked right out of it.

Pink asserts the current IF-THEN extrinsic motivation corporations use, that he describes as Motivation 2.0 is flawed and needs an upgrade. Hence the need and rise of Motivation 3.0 based on the intrinsic concepts of:
•    Autonomy
•    Mastery
•    Purpose.

Autonomy means giving people control over how they work. Moving beyond empowered teams who are required to be in work for stand-up meetings at set times each day, instead giving them control over:
    Task – the work then do and how they undertake them
    Time – when they choose to work in the day, week, year
    Technique – How they perform tasks and from where
    Team – How they organize, interact and collaborate

I have written previously on Results Only Work Environments (ROWEs) where people are given these freedoms and Ricardo Semler’s Semco is the poster child, but Pink offered additional examples of Meddius and Best Buy headquarters. Not only do people prefer it, but productivity and profits increase as satisfaction and motivation blossom.

Mastery describes the pleasure we get from doing what we love and following our passion. This can be seen when someone is so absorbed in a task that they are in the zone, or what Pink calls finding their flow. “Flow” is a great term to describe the state of mind when time seems to disappear and we are just immersed in the task. This feeling of flow can be difficult to find when our work environment puts obstacle after obstacle in font of us, whether it is admin and rules that limit our time in the role that we love, or restrictive work processes that impinge too much to allow us to get into this flow.

Mastery comes from:
    Flow – having the time, space and freedom to find and exercise your passion for a profession
    Goldilocks Tasks – Not too difficult and not too easy, but just right. We need enough Goldilocks tasks to stretch, engage and indulge our desire for completion and satisfaction.
    Mindset of learning – people who believe intelligence and knowledge is not a fixed capacity we are endowed with, but rather a muscle or skill we can grow. People who are happy to face their limitations and continually find new learning opportunities achieve mastery easier.

Purpose describes tapping into people’s belief that there should be more to work than just making money and being successful. Instead aligning company goals with individual’s aspirations for doing good and meeting a higher guiding principle.

This is why companies like TOMS Shoes were created that give away a pair of shoes to poor countries for every pair sold. Buyers feel good since their purchase has a charitable impact and the workers at TOMS feel good since they are doing more than just generating shareholder value. Instead they are tapping into their motivation 3.0 principle of a compelling Purpose.

Motivation 3.0 for Agile Teams

The good news is that agile teams are half way there. The stepping stone to autonomy that empowered teams have is a huge leg-up on those people caught in command-and-control hierarchies.

Agile teams already have good autonomy over task, technique, and some aspects of team. Time, the remaining component of autonomy is seeing some progress too. Kanban approaches that are being adopted by agile teams have a more pragmatic view to iteration structures and scheduled meetings. If these time structures add value, then fine go ahead and use them, if they do not, then try without them; using a more of pull model of task selection and work scheduling. Not only does this remove delays and eliminate waste, but it also affords the team more autonomy over their time.

Some agile organizations go further and allow 20% time (or 10% time) for pursuing new ideas and experiencing the joy of flow, being in the groove doing work you love. These one day a week (or half day a week) opportunities for self-directed work provide more Autonomy, an opportunity to experience work Mastery, and pursue a goal with a Purpose, perhaps for a good cause. Companies like ThoughtWorks who have a mission to bring positive social change in the world also embrace strong elements of Purpose, motivating employees through more than just rewards.

Regardless of your organization, all project managers can tap into the more sustaining benefits of motivation 3.0 even if you do not have the influence to change the company focus. Try to give more autonomy over task, time, team and technique by insulating people from petty office rules and unproductive admin, this will give them a little more freedom (to be more effective). Promote mastery by showing enthusiasm for the craft, encouraging code reviews, new tool evaluations, technology spikes, and local events like code-challenges, conferences and presentations.

Finally look for the purpose, perhaps your project can help your company become environmentally more responsible, or you can use your role to help rally support for community events. The “forced fun” and “manufactured moral” of team building events can wear thin on many people, but if redirected into a Habitat for Humanity Build or other such tangible benefit, suddenly we are engaging the motivation of purpose and gaining the side effect of team-building. Is this manipulation? No, I believe it is simply smarter motivation and hopefully the type of things we will see far more of in the future.


Pawel Brodzinski

I don't like this versioning metaphor since these aren't 3 separate "products" but rather different approaches which are mixed with each other.

Anyway, I look at motivation and empowerment differently. You start with people. Specific individuals. What you need to do as a leader is to learn what drives these people and create environment where they can get it.

Every now and then I see people who are driven by remuneration and they consider bonus system as a crucial part of motivational system. Others value much freedom at work (which is very short way of describing model you discuss in the post). There are people who value order, which usually means less individual freedom etc. I could count almost endlessly.

I think that a better metaphor for motivational systems would be something like that: version 2.0 was about stiff solutions (you do this, you get that) and version 3.0 is about finding individual solutions crafted for specific persons. But it isn't black or white decision - life is gray and so are motivational solutions.

Mike Griffiths

Hi Pawel,

Thanks for your comment, personally I don’t have a problem with the version number concept, I think it helps identify there are different types of motivational approaches. However I am definitely with you on the idea that they can be blended and should always be individually tailored for each team member. I wrote previously on Verifying Individual Team Member motivators here http://bit.ly/c1oguO and think it is vital to effectively motivate people. I guess when writing a book to popularize an idea it is simpler and more effective to focus on the central concept – with Pink the idea that Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose being more important than if-then rewards. Yet, as you say, people are complex and there are shades of grey, whatever new ideas we come across we need to weave them into what we know already works and tailor them for individuals to be really successful.

Thanks again for your insightful thoughts.


Love Pink's work. However, I've never thought of his motivation recipe as a replacement for empowerment. Rather it appeals to me as a three=pronged method of empowerment.

Mike Griffiths

Hi TheLeaderLab,

Yes, whether empowerment is a subset of autonomy, or autonomy is a subset of empowerment is probably just semantics, they both speak to the same goal of giving more authority to people. I am not sure if Pink’s concepts of mastery and a company purpose are fully captured under empowerment though, again I guess it depends on how much you read into empowerment.

He is actually pretty critical of the term empowerment saying “Indeed, just consider the very notion of “empowerment”. It presumes that the organization has the power and benevolently ladles some of it into the waiting bowls of grateful employees. But that is not autonomy. That’s just a slightly more civilized form of control” P.91 and “Unfortunately, despite sweet-smelling words like “empowerment” that waft through corporate corridors, the modern workplace’s most notable feature may be its lack of engagement and disregard for mastery.”P.111

It was this dislike for a term preached so much in agile that I thought might form an interesting hook for an article. I think we are both on the same page, and looking for ways to give more control to the team. If Pink’s ideas catch on, the term “empowerment” might gather a negative spin and perhaps people will start to use terms like autonomy more?

Anyway, thanks for reading and posting your thoughts.

Best regards

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