Based in London, UK, here you can find my writing and thoughts on all things related to my work as an Agile Coach and my love for Creativity, People and personal happiness.

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose: Why it’s never just nine to five

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose: Why it’s never just nine to five


Here’s a question for you. Why do you work? I’ll let you have a think about that for a moment. Why. Do. You. Work? 

What’s your motivation? Is it an end of year bonus? A promotion that you may have been promised? Or…do you just quite simply love what you do? I get asked this question a lot, along with ‘Why do you enjoy your job so much?’ For those who know me personally or those who follow me on social media (Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn), you will see that I’m quite open and transparent about my work. That is, what I do day to day as an agile coach, as well as my side projects: speaking gigs, organising my own events and workshops, or even simply writing and sharing this blog post. 

I’ve recently been thinking about what the word work means. What it means to me; how I view work; how I value and prioritise work. Because in my world, work isn’t just a nine-to-five affair. In fact, quite a big chunk of my work happens outside of my day-to-day agile coaching role. 

What do I mean by this? Well, the hours of nine to five are dedicated to working with my teams, facilitating meetings, preparing workshops or having 1-2-1 catch-ups over coffee. But my mornings, evenings and even weekends are taken up designing logos for secret projects, preparing and practicing upcoming talks, having 1-2-1’s with my own mentors, brainstorming new ideas and models and sometimes even voluntarily training the local scouts. 

You might be thinking, ‘Why would someone spend more time working if they’re not getting paid for it?’ A valid question. I don’t get paid to write this blog post, I don’t get paid to prepare workshops or coach scout leaders. I don’t even get paid to organise and host my own events. So…this begs the question: 'Why do I (and others like me) spend so much time outside of work, working?’

We all have our personal motivations and goals we set out to achieve, both in our lives and our careers. How we achieve those goals, however, differs massively from person to person. When I think of my work, whether it's my role as an agile coach or my personal side projects, these activities are steering my personal goals. However, there’s something deeper, more meaningful and more powerful that drives my motivation to pursue my goals: 

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. 

I design and evolve my own career journey to achieve my goals and dreams (autonomy). I have the desire to always find ways to improve and challenge myself, reaching new heights and discoveries (mastery). And my true drive is to serve others and share knowledge with others - because people, no matter what background they are from and how complex they are, matter (purpose). 

Some of you reading this post, might be well versed in Daniel Pink’s TED talk Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose: The puzzle of motivation’. If you haven’t seen this talk or read his book Drive, I will add the links at the end of this post. When I first watched Pink’s talk back in 2014, it was a big lightbulb moment for me. My own journey, especially in my career, has led me to realise the true value and essence of autonomy, mastery and purpose. Three simple yet powerful words. [1] 

Money isn't always the most powerful or effective motivator

Back in the 1970s, two young psychologists, Dr Richard Ryan and Dr Edward Deci met at the University of Rochester. Legend has it that they had a conversation there that would change their lives and how we as a society understand human motivation. Through possibly one of the greatest collaborations in contemporary psychology, which revolutionised the idea of behavioural motivation, Ryan and Deci developed the Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation. SDT completely flipped the idea that the best way to get humans to perform tasks is to reinforce their behaviours with rewards on its head.  

In 1971, Edward Deci ran an experiment with two groups of psychology students who were tasked with solving puzzles. Deci ran three rounds of experiments. In the first round, the task for both groups was to simply solve the given puzzles as part of a 'research experiment'. In the second round, one group of students were incentivised with a reward, that for each successfully completed puzzle, the group would be paid money. In round three, he reset the terms back to the original state i.e. solving the puzzles as part of a 'research experiment’, with no pay incentive. The ground-breaking moment for Deci was when he announced the time was up after the third round. He saw that the group that had been initially incentivised with money stopped trying to solve the puzzles and eventually became disinterested, whereas the group that had never been paid kept on going and were more likely to keep trying to solve the puzzles with more interest. 

The conclusion that Deci came to was that the group who had been offered the pay incentive no longer valued solving the puzzles. There was a lack of intrinsic motivation and his work also soon uncovered the significant differences between extrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from outside sources, and intrinsic motivation, the kind that comes from within yourself. Through experiments and research, both Deci and Ryan have continued to address the issues of controlled motivation (carrot and stick) vs autonomous motivation (willingness and choice), a topic that has a contentious yet core importance, especially when it comes to operating and running our organisations. [2]

So, how do you attain that intrinsic motivation? Enter, Daniel Pink. 

Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose

Daniel Pink has massively contributed to how companies view the modern workplace. With a focus on the science of human motivation, he talks about the three key elements of the 'motivation formula’: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  

Autonomy: the need to direct your own life and work. To be fully motivated, you must be able to control what you do, when you do it, and who you do it with. Autonomy motivates us to think creatively without needing to conform to strict rules. By rethinking traditional ideas of control - for example regular office hours, numerical targets or even strict dress codes - companies can start to embed autonomy, build trust, and enable innovation and creativity. 

Mastery: a desire to improve. If you are motivated by mastery, you'll likely see your potential as being unlimited, and you'll always seek to improve through learning and practice. An athlete who is motivated by mastery wants to run as fast as they possibly can. Rewards and medals that they receive have less importance than the process of continuous improvement, challenging themselves and finding ways to reach new heights.

Purpose: the bigger picture! People become disengaged and demotivated at work if they don't understand the ‘bigger picture’. Those who believe that they are working towards something more important than themselves are usually the most engaged and hard-working. So, finding purpose in your work is key. From an organisational standpoint, it’s important to take everyone on the journey. This way, not only do people have a purpose for why they are working on a project, product or piece of innovation; they are also enabling success for the company. On a personal level, this can be a little harder to discover, as finding your own personal purpose deep down takes a little more soul-searching. Remember it’s not just about winning minds, it’s also about winning hearts.

In his TED talk Pink sets out to make a case that what we (as humans) have discovered about motivation through science, and the model on which our businesses operate i.e protocols, benefits, resourcing, are on two different sides of the spectrum. He explains that higher pay, bonuses and other extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks) can result in better performance ONLY if the task consists of basic, mechanical skills. In other words, problems with a defined set of steps and a single answer, which he also refers to as ‘twentieth century tasks’. But if the tasks we do involve cognitive creative thinking and skills, higher pay results in lower performance and extrinsic motivators often do not work. [3]

It’s to no surprise that through years of research, psychologists such as Deci and Ryan and influencers such as Daniel Pink and more recently, Simon Sinek have discovered that people perform better when they are motivated, however, there's still a widespread debate about whether traditional motivational strategies, such as the ‘carrot and stick' method, really work. When most or all young entrepreneurs building successful businesses and tech start-ups operate under this idea of the 'growth mindset', it seems that working for a greater cause and having the ability to effect change has more value these days than a high salary and a promotion. 

Empowerment versus Command and Control

Today, the very nature of work has undergone a massive shift, much of which has stemmed from the technology evolution. But evidently, this shift is also tied to how we as humans have evolved over the last decade. We are starting to prioritise other aspects of our lives over work: our health, our families and travel. Our values have shifted towards modernised social norms. We also no longer see the ‘career ladder’ as the only way to progress or - dare I say it - make it to the top. These factors have all influenced how we work, and more importantly, why we work. This has not only had a big impact on organisational culture and ways of working, but it has also changed the way we understand management and hierarchy. 

As an agile coach, I am always encouraging teams to find creative ways to solve problems. Inspecting and adapting is an imperative element of a team’s agile journey. Its very nature is to observe, learn and experiment, making mistakes along the way and learning from those mistakes, continuously improving. I don’t tell teams how to solve problems or the kinds of problems that they should be solving. I simply ask questions, challenge ideas and enable teams to ascertain the most valuable outcomes for themselves and their organisations. Then I let them get on with delivering those outcomes. What has been interesting, in my experience, is the number of blank faces and stares I receive when teams realise that they are empowered to make decision. These blank looks usually come from the less mature teams, at the start of their agile journey. That feeling of autonomy is alien to them. In some cases, it comes down to misconceptions of what an agile coach or ScrumMaster role is (we’ll leave that for another blog post!). But in most cases, it comes down to mindset, behaviour and the missing piece of the motivational puzzle: empowerment.  

As human beings, we're so used to receiving instructions starting from a young age with our parents and teachers all the way into the corporate world, from our managers and leaders, that when someone gives us the space to make and implement a decision (especially if it’s an area we’re not too familiar with), we tend to draw a blank and don’t know how to respond. We start to panic, stress levels go through the roof, because god forbid we make a bad or wrong decision, we get a slap on the wrist - or worst in some cases! What a sucky feeling, right? Who wants to feel that way? 

Let’s play the ‘what-if’ game. What if you weren’t told what to do by your manager, instead coached and enabled? What if you could make a decision (individually or as a team) and discover new ideas? What if you were given the space to learn from those decisions, especially if they sometimes led to mistakes?

Many organisations seem to have this unrealistic perception about what empowerment really is. The truth is, empowerment is a two-way stream between the organisation and the employee, which requires a great deal of trust and - in my opinion - a lot of leading by example. I believe that actions speak way louder than words. If managers and leaders of organisations are genuinely empowered to do their job, this will naturally filter down. When you’re at ’the top’ everyone is always watching. EVERYONE. 

I have always believed that a good leader or manager will hire the best talent, give them the space to do their job, support and coach them but above anything else, will get out of their way. Don’t hire smart people and then tell them what to do (good old Stevie J!). [4]

Empowerment leads to motivation

Throughout my career, especially during my time as a ScrumMaster and coach, I have learnt a great deal about what it truly means to be empowered and to enable empowerment. It’s a core behaviour that can champion true motivation and along with motivation, autonomy, mastery and purpose. If you are empowered to make decisions, to discover and to learn, you can establish independence and solve problems, without the need for someone to tell you what to do or how to do it. Once you open the doors to this way of thinking and working, you soon discover the art of the possible. But there are still the challenges of traditional mindsets and breaking down those barriers in organisations where hierarchy can be an obstacle to new ways of working. I could go on for days about how we fight these obstacles, but we might be here forever. What I will share with you are my top actionable learnings to encourage and enable empowerment within organisations. 

1. Successes are born from complexity

It’s so common to hear stories of the good old leaders and managers carrying battle scars or being the people that swoop in last minute and solve problems when s*** hits the fan. In the short term, this is great, a problem may be fixed, but in the long term, who benefited from the save? Exposure to challenges and solving problems helps grow resilient teams and individuals. And through this, the roots of your organisation will be nurtured. On the flip side, it’s also important for team members to learn how to take brave steps towards the challenges. Remember, mastery doesn’t serve itself…you need to find those challenges and take a leap into the unknown! What’s the worst that could happen? Everyone could do with a few more battle scars. 

2. The side-line has a pretty good view

Empowerment isn’t just about delegating responsibility. It’s about handing over ownership and trusting teams and the individuals within those teams to make decisions. The best managers and leaders are usually those who stand on the side-lines and guide teams in the right direction. We’ve all seen a football game. We all see the manager/coach standing on the side-lines coaching, guiding and, yes, on some occasions sometimes going incredibly nuts. Remember the game is not about the manager or the coach! It’s about the bigger picture, the goals, the win! Imagine if the manager/coach ran onto the pitch and started taking control of the ball and playing themselves…what would be the point in that? What’s the purpose of your team? 

3. Don’t underestimate the power of community

I know I talk about communities of practice a lot and I will be doing a dedicated post on this very soon. Communities of practice are one of the most valuable tools that can truly steer and encourage empowerment. Honestly, I don’t hear enough about them in the industry. I have come to learn that management and leadership's responsibility is to create an environment which helps foster the ability to be creative, to grow both individuals and teams to work towards a common purpose through their abilities. Throughout my experience, I have learnt that one of the best ways to encourage this behaviour is through communities of practice. The very nature of the concept is to allow people who share a passion for something they do to regularly interact and learn how to do it better. This right here is a great opportunity to empower individuals and teams to take ownership of their domain and to encourage decision-making, experimentation and learning.  

Empowerment leads to autonomy; autonomy leads to mastery and mastery serves purpose. At the end of the day, we are all individuals and we are all motivated by different types of recognition, rewards and outcomes. There are many who enjoy and are motivated by extrinsic motivators such as money and status. However, I wonder how many of us have a deeper desire, a desire that’s far greater than just what goes into our bank account every month? A desire that drives why we get out of bed in the morning, go out of our way make a meet-up or even spend our waking hours Skype-ing our business partners to figure out the next game changer? 

So, the back to my original question at the start of this post: ‘why do you work? I will let you ponder that one for a little while longer.

References and Links

[1] Dan Pink - Drive (Amazon)

[2] Edward Deci - Intrinsic Motivation

[3] Dan Pink - TED Talk 

[4] Steve Jobs - Hiring smart people...


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