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Will Your Agile Transformation Improve Employee Engagement?

ill Your Agile Transformation Improve Employee Engagement?

Anthony Mersino

November 30, 2018

12:00 AM

I’ve been looking into employee engagement ever since hearing Marcus Buckingham of Gallup speak about it at a conference many years ago. It is hard to overlook; Gallup keeps updating us on it and I think tries to scare managers with it. The good news is that employee engagement has been trending upward since 2005. As of 2018, engagement has hit a high of 34%. Woohoo, that is good, right?

Whether that is good or even acceptable is debatable. The question I have, is with so many organizations taking on Agile Transformations right now, how will an Agile Transformation impact employee engagement? Will agile increase employee engagement? McKinsey seems to think so citing an average boost of 20-30 percent in engagement for those organizations that complete a transformation.

This article provides a detailed examination of the link between Agile Transformation and employee engagement to determine if agile improves employee engagement. We start with a look at Employee Engagement and how it is measured. They we walk through each of the engagement questions in detail to evaluate the impact agile might have. Finally, we will make some recommendations on next steps. Feel free to use the links below to jump to the section that is of interest to you.

Some Background on Employee Engagement

What is the Relationship between Engagement and Agile Transformation?

Could the Actively Disengaged Kill Agile Your Transformation?

Question by Question Analysis of the Impact of Agile on the G12 Questions

Next Steps for Your Agile Transformation

The G12 Questions on Employee Engagement

Some Background on Gallup’s Employee Engagement Survey

Let’s start with a look at what “engagement” really means and how it is calculated. Gallup published what they called the G12 engagement survey in 1996 after years of research and testing. Since then, more than 25 million people have been surveyed.

The engagement survey is called the G12 because there are 12 questions. Employees respond to the questions with a 1 to 5 answer. (We’ve included the 12 questions at the bottom of this article [Jump to the G12 Questions].

There are other employee surveys that attempt to measure engagement and I’ve no idea if Gallup’s is better or worse. I recall taking Employee Opinion Surveys at IBM when I went to work there in the 1980’s. These probably measured engagement as well as your opinion about your manager and the company. Though anonymous, the survey process often went sideways, with managers on a hunt to determine who gave what scores.

What engagement is trying to get at is how aligned or engaged employees are with the company goals. Gallup says it can be evidenced by their willingness to contribute discretionary effort. The results break down into engaged, disengaged, and actively disengaged.

Engaged employees are generally those enthusiastic and high-performing employees that everyone likes. They have drive, commitment, and work as effectively as possible.

Disengaged employees are just there to earn their paycheck. They put in the bare minimum of hours needed to keep their job, don’t sign up for extra work, and show little enthusiasm or creativity.

Actively disengaged employees are actually quite harmful to have in your organization. They are unhappy and not afraid to show it or talk about it. Not only are they low performers, they will often work to undermine the performance of others. They complain and blame others for their lack of career growth, salary, and misery.

As of the latest survey data from 2018, the breakout of these 3 categories was as follows:

  • Engaged = 34%
  • Disengaged = 53%
  • Actively Disengaged = 13%

Gallup Employee Engagement Survey 2018

Thankfully, actively disengaged is at the lowest point since 2000. Though the survey data also means that 66% of employees are disengaged which can’t be great.

What is the Relationship between Engagement and Agile Transformation?

Now that we understand the engagement measures, the question is, how does this relate to Agile Transformation? Will an Agile Transformation improve engagement?

I see a direct correlation between Agile Transformation and Employee Engagement. I don’t suggest that engagement is driven by transformation, but I do think an Agile Transformation can influence and improve employee engagement. Done well, an Agile Transformation should improve the lives of the employees.

Could the Actively Disengaged Kill Agile Your Transformation?

On the other hand, those disengaged employees are going to be difficult to convince about a move to Agile. Particularly those that are actively disengaged. They will make things difficult and likely act to undermine any sort of improvement. Their cynicism and negativity will be like a poison.

What to do? Try to isolate those that are actively disengaged. Choose your pilots carefully.

On the other hand, moving them into an environment where they have transparency and work closely with others could force one of two actions. Either the actively disengaged worker finds it too difficult. They don’t like the exposure that their lack of productivity is getting. So they choose to leave the organization. Great!

Or, they get on board with the change to agile. Perhaps the pressure to perform as a team – coming from their peers – will provide an environment where they are able to be engaged. It’s easy to blame “the management” but much harder to do so with the 5-6 team members who you rely on to deliver results in short sprints.

Question by Question Analysis of the Impact of Agile on the G12 Questions

Let’s take a detailed review of each of the G12 Questions and look at how an Agile Transformation might impact it. In summary, seven of the questions were a definite YES, meaning that agile transformation will positively impact the responses to that question. The remaining five questions were MAYBE. For these questions, it is possible that there will be a positive impact of agile though organizational context, the actual agile implementation, and the employee themselves will determine whether or not agile improves the responses.

Question #1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?  YES!

Solid Yes! Anyone on a proper Agile Team will know exactly what is expected of them.

Agile teams definitely have a clear mission and mandate. Done properly, the team has a product backlog that represents the work or the “what” needs to be done. Every sprint, the team meets to plan “how” they will accomplish that work. Each team member contributes to that plan.

Plus, as a self-organizing team, each team member is expected to collaborate with the others to plan and execute the work.

Question #2. Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right? MAYBE

This one is a maybe. Done properly, there are mechanisms to surface problems with having the right materials and equipment. In Scrum, the Scrum Master is responsible to make sure that impediments are removed. This could include any materials or equipment.

On the other hand, this is a maybe because in many organizations, the development toolkit is lacking modern capabilities like version controls, automated test, continuous integration and continuous deployment.

One client of mine has teams stuck on old versions of Microsoft Team Foundations Server because the centralized tool police have deemed Jira the organizational standard. This is something that the Scrum Master has been unable to fix.

Question #3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?  MAYBE

I would say this is a maybe as well. If you are on a team that is focused on the work that you like doing and are best at, then sure. But agile teams are focused on one particular backlog and the work to complete that backlog may or may not be what you do best.

Plus, there is an expectation that all team members will swarm to complete the work of the sprint. That means that if the remaining work of the sprint is testing, and I absolutely detest doing testing, or I suck at it, then I won’t be doing what I do best every day.

4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work? YES

This should be a solid yes. If a team is using Scrum, they meet every day in a daily standup, and have a Sprint Review and Sprint Retrospective at the end of the sprint. Every one of these meetings is an opportunity to be recognized or praised for doing good work.

This recognition could come from the team members, or it could come from the Product Owner or other stakeholders.

This is where Agile methods shine over traditional ways of working. In a traditional project environment, phases are long and the results that the teams deliver is often not visible for months. Recognition and feedback is rare and generally comes at the end, if the project was a success (most are not). It is easy for any individual’s work to go un-noticed with long development cycles and much of the technical work under the hood so to speak. At best there might be a launch party with the (surviving) team members. More commonly the meeting at the end is a post mortem to talk about all the things that went wrong.

With Agile and Scrum, there are frequent built-in opportunities for feedback and recognition. During the daily standup, team members can affirm each other for completing tasks or helping each other. At the end of every sprint, the team showcases their results in the Sprint Review and invites feedback. Finally, the team retrospective is an opportunity to recognize each other and discuss improvements.

Of course, if your work is shoddy, I am not sure that recognition or praise is due. You are likely to get negative recognition from your team.

5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person? YES

This is a solid yes for a proper Agile team. By this I mean a team that is not too big, that works closely together on one backlog. And a team where all the team members are dedicated and not shared with other teams.

In this case, we have a team of about seven people who are all focused. Then hell yes, they care about each other. After all, success in this context is team success, not individual. So the team needs every team member to be performing. They care about everyone.

6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development? YES

Similar to the previous item, the team depends on each other for success. They care about and invest in the development of each other because that will help the team to succeed.

A key part of agile teams is learning and growing. Team members are encouraged to cross-train, continuously learn and develop T-shaped skills. They teach other the skills they are good at and learn new skills from others. It would be odd in this context if team members did not encourage each other.

7. At work, do your opinions seem to count? YES

Agile teams are self-organizing. This means that there are no bosses or managers on the team, and the team collectively makes decisions using participatory decision-making techniques. Agile teams are taught and coached to use things like roman voting, fist of five, and dot voting to make sure all voices are heard. Scrum Masters help facilitate open discussions and encourage all voices to be heard.

8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important? MAYBE

This is a maybe because it really has little to do with Agile. In many organizations, there is no clear connection between what an individual does and the broader mission of the organization. It is entirely possible that being on an Agile team will connect the mission of the team with that broader mission or purpose of the company. But then again, it may not.

9. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work? MAYBE

This one depends entirely on the associates that were put on the team with you. If you were put on a team with a bunch of actively disengaged employees, then you might find them not very committed at all. In fact, they might discourage you from doing anything productive as a team. In my experience this is pretty rare.

In fact, in most of the 100+ agile teams I have seen, the team members apply subtle pressure to do good work. Most agile teams have to support what they build when it breaks. No one wants to get called on weekends to fix bad code that should have been done better.

10. Do you have a best friend at work? MAYBE

Gallup says that only 20% of respondents agree with this question; 80% do not. And it turns out this is a huge predictor of company performance. As Gallup states, “When employees possess a deep sense of affiliation with their team members, they are driven to take positive actions that benefit the business — actions they may not otherwise even consider.”

Chances are that being part of a team is going to help you with having a best friend at work. It will definitely foster a “deep sense of affiliation” with team members. Long-standing agile teams provide plenty of opportunities to bond and grow together. Agile teams meet social needs for belonging. It is quite common for agile teams to go out to lunch together or engage with each other socially outside work.

Note that it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have a best friend at work, which is what the question states.

During an Agile Transformation, we create teams of people and align them with products. In most cases, these are long-standing teams. Now my tribe or group is clear. I have a tribe and we have a common mission.

11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress? YES

Similar to question 4 about praise and recognition, this should be a yes. The progress discussion could come as part of those team meetings like daily Scrum or Sprint Retrospective.

The key here is that in Agile, the role of the manager is often diminished and the role of the team is increased. You are likely to get continual feedback from your peers who are in the trenches with you daily. Over time team members know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and feel the safety to provide feedback.

12. In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow? YES

This should be a solid and emphatic YES! If you are on an agile team, you have the opportunity to decide how work is done. There should be a focus on cross-training, pairing and learning. I’ve written about “learning as the bottleneck for Agile Teams” in other posts.

Learning and growing is one of the most important aspects of agility.

Next Steps for Those Considering Agile Transformation

If you are trying to bolster employee engagement or considering an Agile Transformation, here are some recommendations that you might find helpful.

  1. If your employee engagement sucks, don’t try to fix it with an Agile Transformation. An Agile Transformation is a huge undertaking that carries considerable risk.  Agile Transformation changes the culture which can improve employee engagement. But transformation is not for the faint of heart. While Agile Transformation can help improve employee engagement, it is not the most direct way. Instead, try to get some clarity on why employee engagement is so low. If it is poor managers or unsatisfying work, a transformation may not fix that.
  2. If you are at the beginning of an Agile Transformation, measure employee engagement and retain that as a baseline. Be aware that engagement may go down initially (see my related article, We are Using Agile, Why are things getting worse?) And when you measure employee engagement, share the results with everyone! I am amazed at the number of people that tell me that they were surveyed but never saw the results. Good bad or indifferent, transparency of the results will foster trust.
  3. Remember that employee engagement is going to lag culture change. So any impact that you hope to have on Employee Engagement will be separated in time from your Agile Transformation.
  4. When measuring employee engagement, avoid manipulation or gaming. I once worked in an organization that surveyed employees each year. Department managers were required to review the results with their team and come up with action plans. For those managers who had dissatisfied employees, many used a perverse form of torture by requiring that the department come up with the ideas for improvement. Sitting through just one round of those meetings convinced me to never respond honestly again.
  5. Don’t misuse agile as a way to get more out of people. If you weaponize Scrum and use the 2-week sprint cycle to beat people up, push more work on them or cause them to work at a sustainable pace, then you are most certainly going to make the employee engagement scores goes down. Read more about weaponizing Scrum and other abuses in We Fix Bad Scrum.

The G12 Questions on Employee Engagement

I hope you found this analysis of the impact of agile on employee engagement helpful. For completeness, I’ve included the list of 12 questions that Gallup uses in their G12 survey below.

  1. Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  2. Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?
  3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?
  4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?
  5. Does your supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about you as a person?
  6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?
  7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?
  8. Does the mission/purpose of your company make you feel your job is important?
  9. Are your associates (fellow employees) committed to doing quality work?
  10. Do you have a best friend at work?
  11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?

In the last year, have you had opportunities to learn and grow?


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