Apr 012010

In a recent blog I wrote about replacing Empowerment with Autonomy. The words we use are important as they both convey a specific meaning, but even more, they bring along historical context. In a similar vein, I propose that agilists use Inspire as a replacement for Motivate.

Motivate is similar to Empower, it denotes conveying a privilege to another—they are both extrinsic, not intrinsic. Intrinsic things comes from within, they convey something belonging to a thing by its very nature. Extrinsic things comes from without, they are the result of external forces. When a manager attempts to motivate a person or a team, he is trying to influence behavior by offering incentives. When a manager attempts to inspire a person or a team, she is trying to influence behavior by offering purpose.

Money is an incentive. Saving the environment is a purpose. Inspiration is bigger and longer lasting than motivation, it speaks to the heart as well as the head. Leaders can inspire others to greatness, they can’t motivate them to it. The historical context of motivation tends to convey short-term, rewards, narrow focus, and control. Inspiration tends to convey longer-term, internal feelings of satisfaction, broader purpose, wider focus, and is visionary rather than controlling.

Much of the agile movement has been about changing mindset. Sometimes we change mindsets by re-definition and sometimes by re-wording. Inspiring rather than motivating is an example of the second, and usually more powerful, type.

So, as agile leaders, at all levels of an organization, we should strive to inspire rather than to motivate. If we want people to be innovative and creative in coming up with new products and services, we need to inspire them to greatness rather than motivate them to mediocrity.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  One Response to “Don’t Motivate, Inspire”

  1. This is exactly what I’ve been saying the last few months after reading books like “Drive” and “Mindsets” along with the work by Deci and others. Agile enables intrinsic motivation by providing autonomy instead of prescribed methods and proscribed areas of power (aka empowerment).

    Goals, objectives, etc., are all poor stand-ins for providing meaningful and purpose-full work.

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