Since the creation of the Manifesto in 2001, Agile has expended from hardcore software (dev/ops) into a lot of other functions, including marketing, human resources and even risk. This is, amongst others, driven by need for flexibility and the wish to empower the people on the work floor. This brings better performance and happier employees. Moreover, Agile increases the transparency and prioritization.
Over the years that I helped teams with their Agile transformation, I frequently coached people, who regardless of their age, position or background, struggled with this transformation, especially the self-organization part. This raises the question whether Agile is really beneficial for the people?
The human needs defined
To answer this question, I looked at two models describing the generic human needs. The first one is the ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ from Abraham Maslow (1943). The second is the ‘SCARF’ model developed by dr. David Rock (2008).
Maslow described the various levels of needs that have to be fulfilled in more or less consequential order. He starts at the bottom of the pyramid with the basic Physiological needs (food, sleep, shelter, …). Via Safety (security, order, freedom of fear, …), Love & Belonging (friendship, trust, affiliation, …) and Esteem & Accomplishment (dignity, mastery, autonomy, but also status and prestige) the ultimate goal is reach Self-actualization or personal growth.
The SCARF model (see above) uses different words, but there are quite some similarities with Maslow. Both models include the need for autonomy. Where SCARF uses certainty and relatedness Maslow calls them safety and belonging.
The difference in approach is that Maslow talks about moving from the bottom to the top of the pyramid, while David Rock looks at the impact of the way the human needs are fulfilled. If these needs are addressed in the right way people will respond positively and see it as a reward. However, when these needs are not or addressed in the wrong way (f.i. micromanagement conflicting with the need for autonomy), people will perceive this as a threat and bail out.
Pre-requisites for a true acceptance of Agile
In an Agile transformation it is important that leaders are aware of these needs and able to assess and manage the impact of the transformation to all of these needs in the right way. When implemented properly, Agile
– provides more autonomy to teams and individuals;
– creates a good sense of belonging or relatedness as part of a specific team;
– looks after the need for mastery and;
– increases fairness, when rewards are set more at team than individual level.
If not managed well though, an Agile transformation can negatively impact two of the identified basic human needs: Safety/Certainty and Esteem/Status.
Impact on Safety/Certainty
We live and work in a changing and uncertain world. This requires flexibility from organizations, teams and individuals. Hence the call for Agile. This new way of working does, however, also creates uncertainty, at least in the first months. Not only do people need to learn new routines, rituals and artifacts, they also work in a different way (short, iterative planning cycles). They are part of smaller, cross-functionals teams working with people they may not have known before. All these changes create uncertainty and reduce the feeling of the safety and certainty at individual employee level.
When implementing Agile it is important to explain these changes and address any feeling of unsafety/uncertainty. Leaders should provide guidance and set clear boundaries within which the teams can operate. Sometimes it may help to use old-school ‘project’ tools to help a team to feel in control.
Sometimes an Agile transformation is part of a broader reorganization. This creates a risk that this transformation is seen as a serious threat to the need for safety and certainty. As per the SCARF model, people will move away from or even against the Agile transformation. At best people may do Agile but will they will never really adopt an Agile mindset.
Impact on Esteem/Status
This element is a bit more complex in my view. Agile focusses more on teams and their performance than on individuals. It is also more about roles then official functions, formal hierarchy or individual status. Depending on the type of company (start-ups will be impacted less than a large organization) it is important that an Agile transformation is combined with less hierarchy and less formalities. The senior leaders play herein an important supporting the value of the teams and letting go of their own formal status.
When Agile is implemented in stages old hierarchical structures often remain in place. As a consequence, communication may continue along these old structures stimulating people to hold on to their old functions and titles. As per the SCARF model this can then cause a threat to the human need for Autonomy.
Agile transformations do cater for quite a number of basic human needs, including autonomy, belonging/relatedness and self-actualization. However, if not managed well this transformation may become a threat to some of the other, evenly important human needs, like safety/certainty and esteem/status. To make Agile transformations a success, leaders have to be well aware of the human needs and manage the potential impact carefully.
 McLeod, S. A.: “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”, updated 2018
 Rock, David dr.: “SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating and influencing others”, NeuroLeadershipJournal, Issue One, 2008.