E91: Deliver Value Installment #3: Happy Contributing People

Deliver Value: Happy Contributing People

According to Aristotle - Happiness consists in achieving, through the course of a whole lifetime, all the goods — health, wealth, knowledge, friends, etc. — that lead to the perfection of human nature and to the enrichment of human life.

Happiness is based on experiences that are metabolized in our mind, body, and spirit.  When people say, “think happy thoughts”, they are referring to past experiences that we can recall and dream about.  Oswald, Proto and Sgroi (2015) found happiness made people around 12% more productive while unhappy workers proved 10% less productive.  Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings. People are the center of delivering value to customers and provide innovations that allow the organization to thrive.  The more happiness people experience the better opportunity for the organization to have more satisfied customers and thrive.   Daniel Pink (2009) said if people were paid the right amount of money, given autonomy, purpose, and mastery they would be motivated to be their best selves at work.  Psychological safety is another popular topic that resonates with people.  In a Psychologically safe workplace people experience the freedom and courage to express ideas so the individuals and organization can thrive.  The same concept applies to enabling satisfied customers that volunteer personal time to show the world how amazing your organization's people are via social media or word of mouth.  If happiness is such a critical emotion and experience to invigorate people, why do organizations invest so little to create an environment where happiness can be experienced.

I spoke to four people who have an influential opinion in business and the agile community. My question was: What would you include in a working environment that would enable “Happy Contributing People”?  Please share one or more experiences.


Diana Larsen, author of Agile Retrospective and co-founder of Agile Fluency Model:

The Agile Fluency model has four zones, which 1) focusing on value (shift team culture), 2) delivering value (shift team skills), 3) optimizing value (shift organizational structure), and 4) optimizing for systems (shift organizational culture). The approach that you're going for is either the focusing zone or you're going for something that includes those skills of the focusing zone.  It's embedded in the whole model and those are the skills that allow for becoming effective as a team. When people have that sense of effectiveness of building good products, I mean, it's very tied to the project Aristotle ideas of psychological safety and dependability and having structure and clarity around what we're working on and you know those, those five keys that they talk about.

When we have the project Aristotle experiences for our teams, they tend to have much higher job satisfaction. I tend not to think so much about happiness because that has certain connotations for certain people, but I believe that people deserve job satisfaction. They need to be pleased with their work. They need to have that sense of accomplishment. They need to have that sense of control over their work lives as a team and the autonomy that they must think about.  That is true at the individual level, but it's also true of the team level. Does this team, and when we think about self-organizing teams, we begin to talk about autonomous teams.

Teams that can make decisions together to move forward together and that feel they have the mastery and the skills that they need. That's what fluency is about.  We've got the right skills that match the work that we need to do, or our company is willing to invest in us gaining those skills. When you've got all that together, you have high levels of job satisfaction. I really think that the agile fluency model is a lot about creating teams that have good meaningful working experiences together and the sense that they can work well enough together that they have a positive impact in the world and that becomes important.

The agile fluency model doesn't talk about software ethics, but I think that's another conversation that's starting to rise a lot in our industry.  The questions people may ponder include a) do I feel good about my work? b) does it feel like ethical work to do?  and / or c) am I really serving everyone? I think the agile fluency model speaks to that happiness job satisfaction question indirectly, but it's embedded there, and it is an outcome when people have invested in their teams to create work that feels like success and achievement, people tend to feel better about the work that they do and they're working together.


Howard Sublett, CEO, Scrum Alliance:

Happy contributing people? I’ve already described my ideal environment, so I’ll talk about my ideal culture: one where people are free to try new things and it’s OK if they fail. Not just OK, but people cheer when it happens because they tried something risky and failed early. The byproduct is that people are happy to contribute to things because they aren’t afraid to speak up. They have permission to say the wrong thing sometimes, and don’t have to guard every word or worry that they might say something dumb. In that kind of culture, no one feels stuck; there’s always a path forward.

I want the whiteboards too, but the joyful, prosperous workplaces—the ability to work at a sustainable pace—those for me are more important than the physical space.  For example, at the last two consultancies that I was with, we had an open and engaging environment. People couldn’t wait to come to our Office Days, what we called our Gatherings. They were excited to learn and create together.

And we had town halls, where 97% of employees would show up every single month. It wasn't the administration telling them something; it was the team coming together to share their stories and learn from one another. Everything—even small things like our employee handbook or expense policies—was open for discussion, interpretation, and revision.

I would count both of those companies as great experiences for learning how to create those cultures and live within them.


Marty Nelson, Alchemy Code Lab founder:

Meaningful work, shared purpose, creativity. In my own life, I struggled in college because there was no one being served by the work I was being asked to do. But I remember one of my early jobs as a developer working at a company that did legal services and we were building a system to process claims from 9/11 World Trade Building and looking through the data and the responses were so emotionally strong, and the loss and tragedy was palpable. I saw this connection from work we were doing to significant things going on in the real world and real people being impacted. People need to feel that their work has meaning and produces impact.

Having a sense of purpose within the team or organization is also important. It wasn’t until I had my first job as a development manager that I was aware of how dependent success was on the work of the team. It was out of my hands, I had to rely on and trust everyone to do their jobs. But what I noticed was that the successes felt better, we got more out of each win. That team delivered in six months on a project that had floundered for almost two years. We all did our part, and everyone felt really good about that.


Dave West, CEO, Scrum.org:

Most important thing is ‘purpose’. We need to know why we do something, what our ultimate purpose is. It is important that the purpose is not abstract, but very tangible and real. For example, I was working with a big pharma sales and marketing IT group – one product they provided was a social network for people that suffered from multiple sclerosis (MS). Their purpose at an abstract level was to connect individuals who suffer from MS with caregivers, and for caregivers to find patients to help them deliver better care. But ‘build Facebook for MS patients’ was not a tangible mission. They took pictures of real MS customers and built personas around them. They made their needs very tangible and described how the work the team was doing made their lives better. Every Sprint Review asked ‘how does this help Sally (a persona name)?  Everyone was motivated, focused on the outcome. It was not just a set of features on a Facebook knockoff it was a way for Sally (and others) to get advice on her pain at 3am. It was a feature to allow Simon to get better feedback on a protocol to help Sally, etc.

And yes, to quote Dan Pink after purpose, autonomy (or being trusted) and mastery (getting better at something) are key. We build environments that enable that – that then creates happiness – which in turn improve outcomes. To quote Richard Branson ‘happy people make happy customers which make happy shareholders’ or to badly change a quote from Lion King ‘it is the cycle of value’.


Belonging Leads to Happiness


Another way that people experience happiness is through a sense of belonging.  A variety of studies have shown that belonging is essential to happiness and satisfaction with life.  People are born into groups and spend many years being members of varying dynamic collectives that include work, sports, and hobby groups.  Social integrations promote wellbeing by giving individuals a sense of meaning, purpose, and support during stressful times in life.  Not every social integration generates happiness.

Creating a generative belonging workspace is such that people are resilient in their ability to give birth to new ideals of who they are.  This means individuals have a sense of purpose.  People are allowed to bring their whole self to work and experiment to improve who they aspire to be.  The space of belonging is for everyone in the organization to participate and co-create a generative work environment.   We spend approximately 50% of our awake hours in the workplace so feeling connectedness to a group or community by being accepted by your people increases a sense of happiness.  Happier people are 12% more productive at work and we may be able to reason the same percentage in life.



The way people work certainly differs and happy contributing people are no different.

Here is what was revealed from conversations with some business leaders:

Mike Cohn shared that “I like when a workplace provides opportunities for both solo and teamwork. There are times when I need quiet time to concentrate but other times when I need to collaborate with others”.

Diana Larsen shared, “the agile fluency model speaks to that happiness job satisfaction question indirectly”.

Howard Sublett stated a work environment “where people are free to try new things and it’s OK if they fail”.

Dave West said, people “need to know why we do something, what our ultimate purpose is”.

Marty Nelson stated, “Having a sense of purpose within the team or organization”.

Happiness is a catalyst to improve individual and team productivity and innovation.  Given this knowledge perhaps more organization leaders would strive to create environments that are conducive to more happy contributing people.  Why not focus on helping to increase the bottom line of increased profitability?  Happy contributing people help your organization deliver value.


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