Engagement & Disengagement, Part1: Sense of Control

Everyone knows what engagement is, even if it is hard to define precisely in words. We know when we are experiencing it. It has to do with immersion and focus and “being there”. Engagement rarely has negative connotation. It’s almost always associated with good feelings.

While the exact recipe for generating engagement at work may be subject to debate, we know for sure how to kill engagement: simply reduce any real or perceived control that people have inside their environment. For example, a simple recipe for killing engagement is to simply reduce the level of liberty and the freedom to choose and decide. When prescription is the norm, we can reasonably expect disengagement. This is exactly what goes on in most knowledge-workplaces. Prisons also create a prescriptive environment that is low on freedom of choice. I’m being flip here.

The productivity increases from agile processes like Scrum come from elevated levels of engagement. It’s really that simple. Productivity and engagement are correlated. Same exact people, higher levels of engagement. Scrum properly implemented helps this to happen.

When Jeff Sutherland talks about doubling team productivity and then doubling it again, in my view the workers were about 20% engaged at the start. Then engagement went to 40% (a double) with the introduction of Scrum and then 80% (another double) after a few more months. This assumes of course people are willingly opting in and not compelled to do Scrum.

In summary: To kill engagement, simply remove any options to decide or to  choose, and make everything a prescription and a mandate. That eliminates any sense of control and with it, any legitimate engagement. The reality of this is self-evident. To reduce engagement, reduce liberty. Liberty means choice, choice means at least the perception if not the actual experience of control. Reducing engagement is a simple matter. Simply replace the option to choose with a mandate. The founding fathers referred to this as ‘tyranny’.

See also:

How Good Games Deliver Happiness and Learning

How to Botch Perfectly Good Agile Adoptions