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Creating High-Functioning Development Teams

Tending to the needs of individual members on an Agile team

1 February 2016

Working in Agile, we look to our developers as creators. They are the brains behind the products we sell. Developers no longer work as individuals, competing with one another as they once did; they now work as a team. They have team names and typically refer to themselves as "we" rather than "I." Teams sit together in pods and spend a majority of their time together. Often, the individuals on a team receive little recognition for their personal contributions. These individuals' needs may be overlooked as well. If an individual's needs are not being met, both his or her work and the achievements of the team may suffer. The goal of any team is to deliver great code as efficiently as possible. Therefore, to create a high-functioning Scrum team, the first step is to ensure that each team member's well-being is met.

By using an adapted version of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, we can view each team member individually and assess what that member needs to reach his or her full potential. Furthermore, by viewing the end point of self-actualization as a means to reaching a state of flow, as thought of by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we can lead individuals to a potential outcome that promotes a maximum output of work with minimal distress. As managers or ScrumMasters, it is our hope that all individuals on a team reach a state of flow where they are "in the zone." This will allow them to find a place of development that is neither boring nor anxiety provoking, thus creating an outcome of development efficiency that spans an entire team. The ideal end result is to "enable individuals to achieve working goals as well as facilitate personal growth and curb job demands . . . individuals can express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during their work. They can thus immerse themselves in their work rather than worry about other demands and expectations" (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).

I conducted this research to gain insight into the needs of an individual employee in an Agile environment. The knowledge in this article can be used to aid in the development of optimal performance for an Agile team by ensuring that the needs of its individuals are being met.

The goal of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is to bring individuals to a level of self-actualization, whereby they have a chance to develop self-fulfillment. To get to this point, as a team member, you must acknowledge that you have met all of your more basic needs.

Stage: Level 1
Motivation: Physiological
Needs: Breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing, sleep

Stage: Level 2
Motivation: Safety and Security
Needs: Health, employment, property, family, and social stability

Stage: Level 3
Motivation: Love and Belonging
Needs: Friendship, family, intimacy, sense of connection

Stage: Level 4
Motivation: Self-Esteem
Needs: Confidence, achievement, respect of others, the need to be a unique individual

Stage: Level 5
Motivation: Self-actualization
Needs: Morality, creativity, spontaneity, acceptance, experience of purpose, meaning and inner potential

To understand this theory, members must recognize that: "If a lower level is not met, then a higher level does not matter. If someone's safety is threatened, their esteem and sense of accomplishment will not matter towards their happiness" (SolutionsIQ). If an individual needs to focus on where they will sleep tonight, how can they work toward finding confidence in themselves, or finding acceptance? When an individual feels that their first four levels of needs have been met, they will then be able to learn about their true inner potential and share that potential with those around them.

Maslow's Hierarchy is typically viewed as a tool to help with someone's personal life. For the purpose of this research, I will be using Maslow's Hierarchy to see what an individual's needs are in an Agile environment. We will use this to help a member of a Scrum team find what they need to reach their full potential or, more accurately, "the Agile individual's hierarchy of needs" (Beck et al). The fifth principle of the Agile Manifesto states that we should "[b]uild projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need and trust them to get the job done."

When incorporating the hierarchy of needs into the Agile work environment, there are some overlaps but, for the most part, we are focusing on what an individual needs in terms of support as well as what that individual, as a developer, needs to work effectively in his or her position. In an Agile environment, individuals rely deeply on each other; if one individual is not receiving what they need to do their job, it affects not just them but an entire team and subsequently a whole project. The Agile individual's hierarchy still consists of physiological, safety and security, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization, but what those terms represent are altered to fit the Agile environment. Ultimately, the goal in an Agile environment is to get individuals to the self-actualization stage, because "Agile Business Management focuses on engaging staff at the level of self-actualization by emphasizing creativity, problem solving, and personal empowerment" (Leybourn, 52).
Stage Agile Individual’s Hierarchy of Needs
Physiological Correct hardware, software, appropriate workspace, project funding
Safety and Security Job security, good wage, safety from physical and emotional harm, support from manager, working hours
Love and Belonging Friendship connection to teammates, acceptance and respect by team and organization, feeling of being an integral part of team
Self-Esteem Confidence in own ability, confidence by manager, confidence by team, support from organization to make decisions
Self-Actualization Feeling of professional purpose, notion of potential, ability to make a difference in the team and organization

For developers to work in their most basic roles, we must consider the bare minimum of what is needed to do their job appropriately.


If we consider an individual in an Agile work environment, we would have to ensure that the following elements are included in the hierarchy of needs under the Physiological motivation:
  • Correct hardware
  • Correct software
  • Physical permanent workspace
  • Project funding
Without the proper hardware and software, developers are unable to access their files, write new code, or even view their user stories and tasks.

Agile scenario: Appropriate software and hardware

Aaron is a new quality assurance (QA) expert on a Scrum team. He received a story to test, but his computer is very slow. To perform testing, he needs to view the new code in his company's test environment. Whenever he loads the environment, his computer hangs, and he cannot touch the system for fear of it freezing or becoming unresponsive. If Aaron has to go through this every time he checks a story, he will inevitably slow down the QA process because he has to spend extra time waiting for his test environment to load. If Aaron's computer is replaced with one that has adequate speed, he would no longer take extra time to load his environment before testing, and he will be able to spend more time testing and less time waiting to get started.

Lack of a physical work environment means that individuals simply will not have a place to do their work. If a developer picks a place to work only to find out after an hour that he has to move, that individual will be absolutely unable to reach a continued state of flow. Lack of a dedicated workspace will also have an effect on the individual's feeling of acceptance in the workplace. They may feel unneeded or unwanted because no one has taken the time to give them a place where they can comfortably sit and work. If these minimal requirements are not met, an Agile team member may be unable to meet their team commitments and inevitably delay development and potentially an entire project.

Safety and Security

Once we have ensured that the individual has the tools and environment in which to do his or her job, we can move on to Safety and Security, which is the stage at which our minimum emotional and physical safety needs are being met.
  • Job security
  • Good wage
  • Safety from physical and emotional harm
  • Support from manager
  • Manageable working hours
To create an environment conducive to flow, individuals by themselves and alongside their teammates should feel that their job is secure. The perceived notion of being on the chopping block causes undue stress and reduces productivity.

Agile scenario: Emotional harm

Sasha's manager makes her feel as if her job is always on the line. The stress caused by enduring this pressure negatively affects the quality of her work, and she begins to forget important information. In the worst scenario, one's productivity will be reduced to the point where the rest of the team becomes less effective and demoralized.

Along with job security, individuals should feel that they are being appropriately compensated for their work. If they do not feel they are being compensated well, it often becomes a major factor when deciding to move to another company.

In any work environment, individuals should always feel free of physical and mental harm. An individual who feels threatened in any respect will not perform at optimal capacity. No individual should feel threatened by another employee. If this does occur, the situation needs to be remedied immediately. In Agile, " . . . we are no longer competing with each other; we are working together as equals and work with each other in checks and balances. . . . A lot of status-seeking behavior is good, and productive. But there are times that people will do bad things, or tolerate bad things, out of a desire to gain more status, or to protect the status they have" (Brother). This is not acceptable behavior.

Jared is an employee giving it his all for the company. He works hard and loves his job. Jared comes in one day to find that someone had started a rumor about him, and people look at him differently. Jared now feels out of place and uncomfortable. He doesn't know whom to trust and begins to close himself off from his coworkers. His work begins to suffer, and he feels like his only option is to leave the company and start over somewhere else. If individuals feel they have to do desperate things to retain their place on a team, management will need to look deeper into the situation and figure out why this is happening.

Another way Agile teams are able to create a safe environment is by having total communicative transparency. This means that all the individuals on a team are privy to the same information when it comes to a project. "Need-only communication between team roles was further related to conflict-based relationships and feelings of dissatisfaction towards group work” (Whitworth, 4). When Whitworth interviewed an individual, they explained their experience working on a non-Agile team as, "I was recently working with a non-Agile team, and I couldn't believe how much I did not feel a part of the team. I didn't understand where the information was coming from — they didn't have Scrums. You know, there was some flow of information but it was really hard to figure out where it was. . . ." (Whitworth, 6).

Love and Belonging

Individuals spend a large portion of their time at the office, so it is important that they find a sense of belonging to the team and a connection with their teammates. The third level of the hierarchy is when a person is brought into a team and accepted. The stage of Love and Belonging contains:
  • Friendship
  • Connection to teammates
  • Acceptance and respect by the team and organization
  • Feeling of being an integral part of the team
Individuals need to feel accepted by their team (and accepting of the team) in order to truly mesh. Once an individual feels acceptance and is comfortable, a cohesive bond can form. This bond is the foundation of a high-functioning team. It is crucial for teams to understand the value of cohesion and trust. "We asked about software development teams characterized by strong feelings of excitement, and participants discussed well-functioning teams that 'clicked,' 'gelled,' or 'really worked together' to successfully develop software. Such 'cohesive' teams can be distinguished from non-cohesive teams, which were not associated with feelings of excitement" (Whitworth, 2).

Once a team has reached a level of performance, it's common for them to do what they can to help keep the ball rolling.
. . . in addition to the information needed to complete their tasks. Participants were further concerned with detailed information, such as who was having problems, what the problems entailed, and what was being done to fix them. Awareness of team-wide problems, issues, successes, and progress, was related to a sense of comfort, sense of control, and feelings of responsibility from individuals towards the project as a whole. The absence of such awareness, on the other hand, was associated with insecurity, discomfort, and a lack of sense of control in the project environment" (Whitworth, 5).
One person may feel that they can do everything by themselves, but in the Agile environment, this is not possible. For Agile to succeed, everyone needs to work together. Teammates don't need to be best friends, but they do need to be able to work as a team. When everyone meshes, they can use each other's abilities to grow stronger and closer.

Agile scenario: Acceptance and respect by the team

Sprint Team X is well established. Most of the team members have worked together for years and have established relationships with each other. Sometimes they meet for drinks after work; they even have inside jokes that no one outside of the team understands. A month ago, one of their QA members moved to a different team and was replaced by a new hire, Alan. The team acknowledges that Alan is a hard worker and gets things done. However, they have noticed a decline in the amount of work getting accepted. Since the only thing that has changed is bringing in a new team member, they naturally blame Alan for the decline in accepted work. Alan is new to the entire company. He comes to the office and sits at his desk and works. Alan doesn't feel like the team has embraced him. He doesn't get the inside jokes and isn't being brought into the fun conversations. In this situation, the team hasn't seemed to embrace Alan, by attempting to bring him into the friendly banter of the group. The result is that Alan has not had the chance to mesh with Team X. Since the team is no longer fully clicking, they are having trouble getting to where they used to be. Team X should attempt to embrace Alan. Perhaps doing some team-strengthening exercises would allow them to open up to a new member and, in turn, make Alan feel more comfortable getting involved.


In a team environment, people build each other up by raising each other's confidence level and self-esteem. Consider an individual coder, working alone on a project, with no one to encourage or guide him. They most likely will not be able to reach the same level of confidence that a member of a team will. At the Self-Esteem level, one has determined that their physical world is stable, they feel safe and secure, and they have the support of the people around them. Here, a person can start to find confidence in their abilities. When an individual finds their confidence, they can grow as a developer in a stress-free environment. A great aspect of Agile practice is that it is typically a learning environment that will help to increase self-esteem and promote growth.
The learning environment promotes growth. An environment that fosters learning decreases negative feelings of one's self, and thus other people. An environment that fosters learning isn't run by guilt, or feelings of not being good enough, or doing something wrong. A learning environment allows people to grow. A mentor helps the individuals self-determine the direction they want to develop. . . . People will want to learn more and more and reduce competitiveness that can destroy a team (Crowder, 14-15).
A company that is willing to train both new and old employees will find a happier workforce. This practice raises an individual's self-esteem and helps to elevate employees to the next stage in the hierarchy. "A worker transforms boredom into flow by finding new challenges and overcomes anxiety by building new skills" (Lazarus).


The final stage in the Agile individual's hierarchy, just as in Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, is Self-Actualization. An individual who has reached self-actualization feels a purpose in their profession, both on the team and within the organization. All of their lower hierarchical needs have been met. The individual feels safe and secure in their job, has a sense of belonging to their team, and is confident in their abilities. In Agile, a sense of purpose is very important. It could be the difference between stating your opinion in a grooming session or keeping quiet. It could mean noticing a defect and fixing it or leaving it alone because you are unsure whether you are correct or not. Self-actualization creates a confidence that allows developers to code in peace. It means that one can "become everything that one is capable of becoming" (Cherry).

The Agile individual can now reach a state of flow that has an effect on the entire organization.

In What Is Flow?, Kendra Cherry describes the flow state as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." Similarly, Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 1990) defines the experience of flow as a sudden moment where everything "just clicks" or a state of "being in the zone," when affective and cognitive modes are perfectly synchronized, giving rise to people's greatest performances and personal best.

Everyone has been there: You are working on a project, and time slips away. Everything you are doing is just right, and you have found that sweet spot where you're neither challenged to the point of anxiety nor bordering on boredom. In a work environment, flow is even more beneficial because employees use this time to make their work more efficient for the organization. It helps them as well as their coworkers. "High skill and challenge is related to employee performance. Specifically, high perceived skill and challenge was most strongly associated with organizational spontaneity among achievement-oriented employees. These activities included the extent to which employees looked for ways to improve the effectiveness of their work, made constructive suggestions to improve the overall functioning of their workgroups, and encouraged other employees to try new and more effective ways of carrying out their jobs" (Eisenberger).

Flow, which was developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, has nine factors that account for being in the state; though not all of them need to be present for the flow to occur:
  1. There are clear goals every step of the way.
  2. There is immediate feedback to one's actions.
  3. There is a balance between challenges and skills.
  4. Action and awareness are merged.
  5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness.
  6. There is no worry of failure.
  7. Self-consciousness disappears.
  8. Sense of time becomes distorted.
  9. The activity becomes an end in itself.
Csikszentmihalyi also notes that "[d]uring this optimal experience they feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of their abilities" (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Pursuit of Happiness). Anyone who has reached this state knows this exact feeling. "Flow experiences are suggested to be intrinsically rewarding because they allow one to become fully involved in a task and stretch his or her skills and abilities to the limit" (Csikszentmihalyi and Rathunde, 1993).

Envision an entire Scrum that team "concentrate[s] so hard on the current task that they forget about time and the world around them: They are thoroughly engrossed. Further, these activities are accompanied by positive emotions. They termed this quality of experience 'flow'" (Schweinle). Optimal performance such as this is one of the aspects we dream that teams get to. We also desire these teams to be self-sufficient and self-organizing, and to mesh well. As managers or ScrumMasters, it is our goal to assure that each member of our team has reached a level where all of this is possible. We need to ensure that each team member evaluates and grows beyond each level of the hierarchy.

To get a group of individuals to this point means that all the team members trust each other and feel secure. There is a sense of camaraderie within the team, along with confidence in each other and a feeling of purposes within the organization. Should a team be able to meet all of these criteria, they either are or are on their way to becoming a happy, high-functioning team.


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Chen J. "Welcome to Flow in Games." Flow in Games. 2008. Accessed July 1, 2015.

Cherry K. "What Is Flow? Understanding the Psychology of Flow." About Education., n.d. Accessed July 1, 2015.

Crowder JA and S Friess. Agile Project Management: Managing for Success. Springer Cham Heidelberg, 2015.

Csikszentmihalyi M. Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play. Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1975.

Csikszentmihalyi M. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper and Row Publishers, 1990.

Csikszentmihalyi M. Flow: The Evolving Self. HarperCollins, 1993.

Csikszentmihalyi M. The Pursuit of Happiness. Accessed July 1, 2015.

Eisenberger R et al. Flow experiences at work: For high-need achievers alone? Journal of Organizational Behavior. 2005. doi: 10.1002/job.337

Lazarus R. 1991. Cognition and motivation in emotion. American Psychologist

Leybourn E. "1: You, the Agile manager." Directing the Agile Organisation: A Lean Approach to Business Management. IT Governance Pub, 2013. 51–52.

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Maslow AH. A Theory of Human Motivation. Merchant Books.

Schweinle A and Bjornestad A. Factors Influencing Flow: Motivational Consequences Implications for Teachers. Flow Theory. 2009.

Maslow's Hierarchy as an Agile adoption framework. SolutionsIQ . 2008.

Whitworth E and Biddle R. The social nature of Agile teams. Agile Conference (AGILE ), 2007.. doi: 10.1109/AGILE.2007.60.


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