Key Factor Motivation - Manage More Complex Software Development Projects
- Agile methods established as standard in software development projects
- Challenges for agile methods in terms of motivation and self-responsibility
of the participants in transition phases, in more complex project structures
- Adaptation of proven methods increases transparency and enables a high degree of intrinsic (re-)motivation
Agile methods are established as a standard for the implementation of software development projects across all industries. The motivation of those involved in the project – and their willingness to take responsibility – is an essential factor for the success of agile procedures. Agile project management – be it Scrum, DSDM, Kanban or others – systematically integrates the prompt feedback of users and thus creates high transparency in progress. The orientation towards achievable objectives, the quick feedback of success as well as the possibilities of co-design directly promote motivation and willingness on the part of the participants to take personal responsibility.
Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done (Agile Manifesto, 2001)
Contrary to what is suggested by this maxim, however, the factor motivation is neither a given situation – and in the case of lacking motivation, a deficiency – nor is motivation a constant. Accordingly, maintaining, controlling and increasing motivation is an essential executive function and critical to success during the term of a project
In the course of more complex – i.e. longer-term projects with a broader scope using several teams in asynchronous governance – direct and indirect management measures by those responsible are regularly required in order to ensure the project’s success. This typically concerns phases in which the activities are only specified methodically to a limited extent. These are recurring transition phases such as go-lives and major releases, but also times of pending decisions, unclear responsibilities – common conditions even in agile projects.
Figure 1: Critical factors in more complex projects
In the run-up to a major release, for example, a suction regularly builds up aligning all activities to finalization at a certain point in time and postpones further activities. After going live, a phase of less focus and greater disorientation follows regularly. This is accepted in the sense of recovery, but involves time risks and capacitive malpositions. While the project is concerned with the analysis of productive operations, stabilisation and, if necessary, the prioritisation of technical debts, there is usually no further, overarching functional guidance within the participants. This opens up opportunities to question the scope through external influences and ideas (the dynamic of requirements over the course of the project is known to be a crucial factor for the failure of development projects, see Figure 1); disorientation is further exacerbated by continued coordination without clear guidance.
For the direct and indirect control and increase of motivation, three consecutive elements for the extension of the basic methodology have proven themselves in practice. At the centre of these elements is transparency, firstly to ensure continuity between development stages and secondly to draw attention to the connections between components. This enables direct motivation or re-motivation. In addition to setting up agile governance, which has already been discussed in a previous post, these elements are:
- Establish an overarching, long-term project vision
The formulation – not the guideline – of an overarching and jointly shared project or product vision aims to establish a background motivation across the achievement of milestones and intermediate stages, to which reference can always be made. In addition to developing this vision, the project management should also coordinate with the parties involved the graded derivations from the vision for further upcoming project phases.
This long-term vision can develop an impact that can also be used for upcoming prioritizations. In concrete terms: The degree of coverage of known business requirements and the reduction of technical debts are important, but not an end in itself. This should be carried out differentiated according to which further goals and product elements are to be realized. This allows to keep the focus on speed and business value.
- Concretize stages and milestones
A proven method along the agile approach is the definition of OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), which are supposed to assign each goal a measurable key result. Such metrics can be consciously formulated and thus serve as a drive for those involved in the project. As a result, the focus lies on specific milestones and all activities can be prioritized early and in a targeted manner.
It is important to involve all participants, whose work contributes to certain parts, e.g. the business side and the developers. This promotes the active participation by inviting everyone to think, act and commit. This can be the development of “logical” further developments of the current functionalities or deployments, which open up the next business benefit. This intellectual further development is necessary for every element of a project: on a business, technical and comprehensive level. This allows the assignment of responsibility to be strongly linked to the acceptance of responsibility, i.e. self-responsibility linked to results.
- Illustrating dependencies transparently
The extension of the project methodology by including supplementary tools such as PI Planning (PI = Program Increment; SAFe methodology for scheduling cross-module and cross-team functionalities) has proven its worth for the systematic management of system-wide functionalities. PI Plannings enable dependencies between individual business requirements (user stories) to be shown and visualized, using a PI board (see Figure 2). Thus, the individual business dependencies become transparent, even in an agile context without falling back to a waterfall model
Figure 2: Illustrative Figure PI-Board
Furthermore, PI Plannings serve to increase the level of detail in medium-term planning and to harden the estimates for the completion of further features. In addition, they reduce complexity by structuring dependencies and reduce risks. Senses of achievement become tangible and motivation is promoted by visible progress on complex topics.
The supplement of agile methods with the elements of the overall project vision, the derivation of goals and the transparency of contexts allows the advantages of agile procedures to be used also in more complex project structures: with a larger business scope, longer runtime, multiple participants as well as asynchronous governance in conception and implementation.
The critical factor of motivation and thus self-responsibility shows that an overarching project vision, derivations and concretization of objectives as well as the presentation of transparency on the connections of single result objects increase the probability of ensuring continuity over stages. Simply said:
- Overarching vision: keeping an eye on the big picture, ensure context and permanent prioritization
- Objectives and milestones: concretization helps in coordination with those involved
- Transparent connections: the value of the components in relation to each other
West, W. and Grant, T.
“Agile Development: mainstream adoption has changed agility”, 20 January 2010:
“Agile Goal Setting with OKR – Objectives and Key Results”, 28 August 2015:
[German only:] http://agilemanifesto.org/iso/de/manifesto.html
[German only:] „OKR – Googles Wunderwaffe für den Unternehmenserfolg oder: Raus aus der Komfortzone“, 3 March 2015:
Scaled Agile Inc
“PI Planning”, 18 April 2018: