ProgrammerMost software development methodologies focus entirely on the technical or procedural elements required to build quality software and ignore the human element. The scrum framework is different. By putting the human element front and center, scrum acknowledges the importance of things like motivation, team dynamics, and communication.

We know that intrinsically motivated teams do better work (Dobre, 2013), and one thing that has always impressed me about scrum is how it seems purpose-built to maximize that motivation. I’ll draw upon the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation to help illustrate my point. In SDT there are three factors that are essential for intrinsic motivation: autonomy, competence, relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

Autonomy is the need to have some say or control over what we do during the day.

How scrum helps: scrum believes in the autonomy of teams and it shows in the concepts of self-organization and cross-functionality. In scrum, no one is giving commands. The product owner is fashioning vision, the scrum master is building capabilities and removing impediments, and the development team is deciding for themselves what to build and how to build it. Moreover, by having members be horizontally-integrated and cross-functional, the team can be entirely self-sufficient.

Competence means that the work that we do should be important and have purpose.

How scrum helps: The product backlog and sprint goals are essential in creating a global vision for the project. The backlog acts as a roadmap that the scrum team can use to see where they’re headed in the future and look back on what they’ve already accomplished. The sprint goal keeps purpose at the forefront of the development team’s collective mind. Each member of the team knows exactly what they are working toward and why it’s important. The sprint cadence is also a powerful motivator. By delivering working software in short cycles, the scrum team can watch as the product evolves and improves.

Relatedness is the need for people to have meaningful relationships with others.

How scrum helps: The scrum values make the scrum framework truly unique. By making courage, focus, commitment, respect, openness an essential part of everyday work, scrum allows practitioners to fashion group norms around a set of principles that genuinely work to foster trust and engagement. There is no better way to create a sense of relatedness than working in an environment of mutual trust.

So if scrum is so well-designed, why do so many organizations insist on tampering with the framework before they’ve had to chance to see how it really works? One of the statements I hear most is “that’s great in theory, but it doesn’t work like that in the real world.” I would urge leaders to put those knee-jerk reactions aside, embrace empiricism, and let their future success metrics do the talking.