Discipline versus Motivation

Post written by Chris Spagnuolo. Follow Chris on Twitter 11 comments

A lot of organizations I’ve worked with have said that they think adopting agile practices requires a tremendous amount of discipline for teams to be successful. I’ve thought about that a lot and I’m not sure I agree. Actually, it’s more that I don’t like the word discipline. Usually, when people refer to discipline in terms of successfully implementing agile practices, they mean the self-discipline of team members. Looking up self-discipline on Wikipedia, here’s what I found:

Self-discipline refers to the training that one gives one’s self to accomplish a certain task or to adopt a particular pattern of behaviour, even though one would really rather be doing something else.

Now, I don’t know about you, but applying that type of discipline to anything, be it agile practices or riding your bike, doesn’t seem like a way to ensure long-term success.

Actually, what I think makes agile teams successful in the long-term is motivation. Motivation is very different from discipline. Organizations try so many different tactics to motivate others and themselves and continually fail. I think it’s because they overcomplicate what motivation is. I think if you boil it down to it’s essentials, in order to truly motivate yourself or others, you can do two simple things:

  1. Make it enjoyable
  2. Use positive public pressure

I believe that at its core, agile practices embrace and promote both of these tactics. First, make it enjoyable. In life, and in agile, find the enjoyable parts of what you are doing and focus on those. If you’re on an agile team doing iteration planning, agile encourages you to select your own tasking for the next iteration. People will naturally gravitate toward tasks they enjoy. Take advantage of this natural tendency to ensure that your entire team is enjoying what they are doing over the next iteration…and the next…and the next. Continuous enjoyment. When was the last time you thought about your work that way. You can make it happen.

Second, use positive public pressure. Many people see pressure as a bad thing, and it is when used incorrectly. Positive public pressure is a good thing. It’s committing publicly to achieve a goal. But this public pressure of commitment has to be tempered so as not to become harmful to the team or the individuals. The pressure and commitment has to be kept at a high enough intensity level to motivate but low enough not to burn anyone out. In addition to inviting public pressure, regularly reporting on your progress toward your public commitment keeps others updated on your progress and keeps your commitment at the top of your thinking. These practices enforce positive public pressure and really help motivate. Agile embraces this concept wholeheartedly. Teams publicly commit to each other and their organizations and stakeholders to complete a set amount of work in a short iteration. Then, on a daily basis, they report to each other on their progress. They also have the additional public pressure of having to demonstrate their completed work to their organization and stakeholders at the completion of each iteration.

I believe that when used together, enjoyment and positive public pressure can be used to motivate teams into becoming highly productive. People are enjoying their work and making their own public commitments that they can sustain iteration over iteration. They are not relegating themselves to someone else’s tasking or commitments, and that, I think, is the key to this motivational strategy. The result is happier, more productive teams with a very low burnout rate.

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  1. Hubert Smits said,

    Hey Chris,

    Thank you for this post, it triggers some thinking. Looking up ‘motivation’ in the Wikipedia it mentions ‘reward’ as import when motivating. Agile is working aggressively with this concept: it builds feedback loops (hopefully rewards!) on a daily basis (standup meeting), on an iteration basis (demo and retro) and on a release basis (public feedback). Darn, there’s a lot of sense behind this agile concept :-)


  2. Chris said,

    Your welcome Hubert. And I agree, “reward” is a big part of this equation as well.

  3. delicious_prog (delicious_prog) said,

    Discipline versus Motivation: Too many organizations waste time and money trying to create discipl.. http://tinyurl.com/3o8gwz

  4. Alexander Yermakovich said,

    Agree with both points (Make it enjoyable; Use positive public pressure) and want to add that usually human beings are much more complicated and I do not think that there is silver bullet for each of us. For me to be an Agile manager means to find approach to every new person on the team every time. It changes even for one team member though the time. Psychology helps :)

  5. Mike Kireev said,

    Agree as well. But it is often not so simple to make work enjoyable and use positive pressure

  6. Rana Kundu said,

    I think motivational strategies are important. The problem is that an “initiative” to create a motivational strategy tends to take on a life of its own. It becomes easy to get distracted with producing artifacts for the initiative, and to lose sight of the outcome of the initiative. Creating an enjoyable and unfettered work-day everyday for the team, fostering a collective sense of accountability, and letting a motivational strategy evolve might prove to be more effective. Discipline does not need to be perceived negatively either – as long as the set of rules to abide by has evolved within the team as a protocol for mutual interaction.

  7. Patty Altstetter said,

    I agree with Alexander’s comment…know what works for your team members as individuals. Actually in some ways you are both saying the same thing. I think if you know what the strengths are for each member of your team and allow them to spend the majority of their time in that area (and acknowledge that you know you can’t when the project constraints don’t allow it), then you are making work more enjoyable and increasing their motivation.

  8. Chris said,

    @ Alexander: I agree completely. I was offering more general guidance, but the actual implementation of either idea really needs to be tailored to teams and individuals on a case by case basis.

  9. Ricardo Colusso said,


    I would like to comment that Agility does not mean “lack of discipline”.

    Actually, that’s the opposite.
    Thinking for example on teams using Scrum, discipline is there all the time:

    - well defined roles for ScrumMaster, Product Owner, and Team
    - estimations are done by Team members
    - user stories in the commited backlog can not be changed until the current sprint ends (otherwise the sprint has to be broken)
    - stand up meetings every day, in the same place, timeboxed to less than 15′
    - every team member updates how long it will take to complete an unfinish task he already took, at the end of the day

    So the best Agile teams have clear rules and discipline that help them to enter into “flow”, to achieve a lot by having a constant rythm that could not be achieved without discipline.

    Discipline, commitment, “work on team flow”, teamwork, and effective leadership is what keep Agile teams motivated!

    Ricardo Colusso

  10. Chris said,

    @Ricardo, I wasn’t implying that agile meant a lack of discipline. What I am saying is that too many people think that agile success is based on discipline alone. I agree that discipline is part of agile success, but in a broader sense, agile success, or any kind of success, is based more on motivation than discipline. Just because you can follow rules, doesn’t make you successful.

  11. Eric said,

    Well, this is a nice post. Perhaps ironically, this article just gave me motivation to not skip my workout tonight!

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