I have recently been working and immersing myself in the Agile space. Among other things, I have been inspired by the promise it holds for empowering a team and maximizing efficiency. However, I have had one niggling concern which I am yet to find a concrete solution for: reward schemes and incetivisation.

It is hardly debatable that one of the core focuses of Agile is "The Team". Cross-functional teams get together and commit to completing units of work as a team. This often involves testers helping developers and vice versa. Individual lines and roles are blurred in favour of maximising team cohesion. While the team is encouraged to self manage, realistically they cannot be responsible for ultimate reward and incentivisation schemes at an organisational level. Retrospectives are geared towards openness and trust, and are hardly the place to evaluate individual behaviour. However, this system in many ways resembles communism. This is obviously a harsh comparison, yet when I research reward schemes, for individuals who spend long durations in their Scrum/Kanban team, the focus is always team performance and thus comparing two developers from different teams is somewhat futile. While there absolutely is value in moving away from traditional, bureaucratic appraisal methods, I still feel anxious at the prospect of people not being rewarded on an individual basis too.

Thus my question is this: are individual reward systems completely contradictory to agile philosophies (is Agile literally ushering in a completely new paradigm in this respect?) and if not, how does one incorporate individual reward systems into an Agile landscape without completely sacrificing team cohesion?

6 Answers 6


Individual rewards and incentives rarely work the way that was intended. Especially not in an agile team. As the old saw goes "Tell me how you'll measure me and I'll show you how I'll behave." As Spock would put it "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one."

But perhaps more importantly, consider why you want to reward individuals and what you would reward them with. Mostly, we reward people to motivate them to do better. Turns out, financial incentives don't work for this. If you really want to motivate individuals and teams, appeal to their sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Have a read of "Drive" by Dan Pink. Fascinating read.

  • Thank you for your comment, I really like what you say about appeal to their sense of autonomy, mastery and purpose. This is vital and definitely represents a shift in perspective with regards to traditional motivation schemes. Jul 18, 2014 at 7:46

Q: Are individual reward systems completely contradictory to agile philosophies A: Yes

There is research showing that bonuses, rewards coupled to some deliveries are actually counter productive in any project, agile or not. (e.g. Get Rid of the Performance Review)

Just think about what you want. Is it a successful project or maximal utilisation of all resources ? Any goal you set beforehand or by example that is not "delivery of a successful project" distracts from that goal. You want all involved to work towards that one goal. If the project needs a specific skill you don't have in the team do you want to punish the person doing it because he is not working as efficiently as in his comfort szone? Do you want to appraise people for working longer or for working smarter? The moment you award behaviour other than "successful project" you tell people your real priority and ask for gaming the system.

In an agile environment you want people to work together. Individual rewards makes them work against each other. Sometimes they will have to choose between the good of the project and their bonus. Why do you want a system like that?

  • Thank you for your comment and very valid points about the dangers of performance reviews, I absolutely agree. However, I have two concerns with this kind of thinking. Firstly, people ultimately care about their personal growth and direction, and feeling that their effort is purely judged as a team, can neglect one's need for self actualization (a basic psychological drive). People ultimately have their career to consider, and when they eventually decide to move, they do so on an individual basis, not as a team: the individual as a unit is always of value despite the immense value of the team. Jul 18, 2014 at 7:42
  • Secondly, the apprehension towards individual reward systems seems to be based largely on traditional appraisal/performance review methods. I cannot help but wonder if there is some alternative system, incorporating Agile thinking, which is still to be birthed. However, I am also aware that such might not be the case, and that Agile's disposal of this individualistic view might end up being the solution, I'm keen to explore this further though before I draw absolute conclusions either way. Jul 18, 2014 at 7:43

I don't think rewarding Individuals is against the agile philosophy/mindset.

As long as the individuals being rewarded have demonstrated great "attitude" above all else, I think it'll actually help to further the cause of agile - which in IMO, is to focus on the desired Outcome rather than generating just more Output.

I think its also important to celebrate the chosen individual's contribution - in a manner that helps to remind everyone else on the team as to what the agile mindset is all about. One way to do this, is to specifically mention a list of the individual's achievements that demonstrate good leadership.

  • In theory, yes. In practice the problem is, how do you capture / measure "attitude"? And how do you avoid individual team members focusing on proving their own "attitude" publicly (towards management / HR) instead of working for the whole team's good? Jul 17, 2014 at 14:26
  • Indeed. I did make an assumption that the leadership at the company has significant experience with agile coaching and evaluating performance against agile principles. The answer to your second question would also be similar - any kind of exhibitionism could easily be nipped in the bud, by strong leadership.
    – Vaidy
    Jul 17, 2014 at 15:12
  • I tend to agree with you Vaidy, the ideal situation is an organisation with mature Agile leadership and coaching in place. It concerns me that Agile is often implemented without this sound backing. I really would like to believe that their is some way to value both the team and individuals simultaneously, because at the end of the day, teams change (so 100% of motivation cannot lie purely in this space, as dissolving a team can then have harmful implications), and people move to and from companies based on their individual needs (there is always an individual driver). Jul 18, 2014 at 7:30
  • Hmmmm, it may be just me, but "strong leadership" sets off alarm bells in the back of my mind :-( Agile leadership IMHO should be soft, not strong. I at least immediately associate to command-and-control style management upon hearing such an expression. Jul 19, 2014 at 8:51
  • Hi Peter, I see your point. And I do agree with you that 'Strong leadership' has the risk of being perceived as 'authoritarian leadership' and perhaps worse, actually turning out that way, unless good checks and balances are in place. My usage of the phrase 'Strong leadership' was to describe folks who are 'confident, experienced, opinionated and long-term thinkers'.
    – Vaidy
    Jul 19, 2014 at 17:34

I agree with other answerers in that individual incentivization is not compatible with agile. A few more thoughts to add:

  • It may be just me, but (during 15+ years in the industry) I have never seen a working approach to measure the real life performance of an individual developer / tester, in a way that is a) objective and b) can't be gamed. Team performance OTOH can be measured by delivered product increments and customer satisfaction.
  • Agile approaches attempt to motivate people internally, by giving them control, autonomy and purpose, and offering them worthy challenges to overcome together. Financial incentives are external, and it is shown by research that external incentives tend to kill internal incentives. So in general one should be very careful in how to apply external incentives. (No wonder Agile is focusing on the internal incentives :-)
  • Instead of trying to invent "objective" metrics / measures of one's performance, it may actually be better to rely on the subjective experiences of team members themselves, as they know each other much better than any manager or HR personnel. This of course can work only if they are assured that they are free to tell what they think / feel, without negative consequences. (I.e. if praising another team member for her contribution means I get less bonus myself, not many will do that, rather the contrary... which can swiftly kill a team.)

Thus one working approach may be to share the external incentives across the team equally, but tie the individual performance to internal incentives only, and in a way that helps the team bond.

E.g. have them evaluate their own and their peers' performance every now and then in an informal way, such as giving praises to each other at the end of a sprint or thanking others for their valuable help. This may even take a written form, e.g. if you write down all such praises and list them at the end of a project / release on a "certificate" handed to each team member, I am pretty sure they will love it and hold it dearly for the rest of their lives!

  • Thank you for the practical tips. Agile definitely is a big shift in perspective. I appreciate your insight and will try incorporating some of those aspects before clinging to traditional appraisal methods. Jul 18, 2014 at 7:48

I agree individual performances should be frowned upon for this contradicts the "whole team mentality." However, why not try introducing some whole team activities that are both fun and help keep team activities fresh. Here are couple things I have done with my teams in the past that have worked well.

  1. New team names every sprint - we would brainstorm new team names every 2 weeks and the team would then vote on them. The names would always be a derivative of a person on the teams first or last name. For example, incorporating someone with the last name Smith, could equate to Fresh Prince of Bel Air (for Will Smith).

  2. Make working agreements memes - Create memes from one of the many meme generators out there and post them around your team area. It keeps things light and adds some humor to the day. For example, we had a Confucius meme that read: "Confucius say all user stories have acceptance criteria."

  3. Play Together / Have Team Outings - regular team outings at least once a quarter are great to keep things fun and get to know each other in a different way. For example, we would regularly play mini-golf as a team and bragging rights for the winners.

  4. Give Thanks - In your retrospectives, hold the last agenda item before you break as an opportunity to say thanks to someone who helped you out or was responsive or in some other way awesome. It is great way to end the meeting on a high note and everyone appreciates being recognized publicly.

Good luck!

  • Yours are good ideas, just IMO aren't answering the OP. Jul 17, 2014 at 7:19

There's a theory that different people are motivated differently in roughly the following ways: One group likes to have challenges and meet the challenges. The fact that they tend to make their team succeed is just a welcome side effect. A second group likes to work with other people and the teamwork involved. The fact that they tend to make their team succeed is just a welcome side effect. And the third group is after their own advantage only, more money, more power. If the team succeeds, that's not because of them.

Try to get members of group #1 and group #2 into your team, and you will succeed. Give them what they want: Challenges and team work. Pay them decently because while they work well without monetary motivation, they will work well for someone else if you don't pay them.

PS. Members of the first two group are usually quite happy with others getting recognition as well.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.