• Niel Magsombol

Goal Setting: Motivating an Agile Team

Updated: May 23, 2018


Goals Provide Guidance

I was asked one time by a very respected colleague, to help him with a project. It was a research project for the analytics department with some of the best minds in our company. However, they were having difficulty progressing. They had numerous challenges, including the fact that the team was completely remote: team members came from 3 different cities in the US, and 2 in India. I already had several projects that I was serving as the scrum master, in addition to coaching numerous other scrum masters on a daily basis, conducting SAFe training sessions for enterprise, etc. But he was really in need of help, and was a very good guy.


This project was a bit different than a classic software development project. The goal of the project was to research a new technology capability and make a recommendation if this capability was something the organization was worth investing in.


The first meeting I came to, I listened at first. The team consisted of 8 data scientists:

  • 5 with masters degrees

  • 2 with PhD's

  • 1 person (my friend) w 2 PhD's

  • 1 person w ADD (me :)

Although I had absolutely no where near the technical skills they had and much of the conversation was above my head, it was obvious that everyone had different opinions on what should be done. Though it was Skype meeting, and no one was on video, you could sense the frustration and anxiety from the team, and I could sense the nervousness of my friend. It just seemed like they were going around in circles and weren't getting anywhere. There was no agreement on how they would conduct the research, let alone the recommendation. Finally I spoke up. I said, "Hello everyone this is Niel. It seems like we have a lot of great ideas. We have a reveal (sprint review/demo) in a few weeks with our product owner. Agile is all about incremental delivery. He has invested a lot of money into this team, and I just would like to know what incremental value we will deliver?" After a few moments of awkward silence, someone said "Priya and I will deliver this..." Everyone else began to speak up about what they would deliver, no one wanted to be left out. I began to work our agile tool to make sure it reflected what everyone was committing to. I made sure to be very positive and reaffirm everyone's contributions. So after everyone shared what they would be working on I asked everyone "Ok, just making sure, this is what we are agreeing to deliver, right?" Everyone gave their agreement. The whole vibe of the team had completely changed.


I had helped facilitate numerous Sprint planning sessions over the years, and had teams create sprint goals and then commit to them, but this one gave me such an Aha! moment about goal setting. By essentially asking the basic question "what is our goal for this sprint?" it redirected the team. It caused such a dramatic shift. Instead of emphasizing the disagreements of the individuals, it caused them to band together and rally around a common cause. "Locke and Latham stated that 'the goal setting theory was based on the premise that much human action is purposeful, in that it is directed by conscious goals' (O'Neil & Drillings, 1994, p.14) I love that part, "human action is purposeful." I don't believe anyone deep inside their heart wants to just go through the motions. I was an athlete & martial artist for most of my life. I was never the most athletically gifted, so I had to train very hard to be competitive. Even at a young age, I would set overall goals (Reduce my 40 yard dash time by .5 seconds amount, increase my strength 40 lbs on the bench, be able to round kick a six footer in the head, etc) then I would set short term goals for training (run 10 sprints vs 8, increase 5 lbs on weight training, kick 6" higher on the heavy bag etc). I kept doing the same thing as an adult with my career: being goal oriented is woven into the very fabric of who I am as a person, that sometimes I don't even realize I am doing it. There is a certain level of accomplishment and satisfaction we get from accomplishing goals, even more so at the team level. People want to engage in things that are purposeful. A good scrum master, or any leader for that matter, helps teams discover and define a goal that is purposeful, and helps to keep them on track towards that goal.

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