This has been our pace for years; it’s already sustainable!

How can sustainable be viewed from a lean-agile context?

On occasion, during early discussions with leaders that I’ve started to work with as part of agile coaching, when the subject of sustainability for how their team(s) are operating is raised, the reaction is one of ‘we have been operating this way for years; it’s already proven to be sustainable’.  When I’ve had those conversations, I recognize that the foundations of the discussion are perception and the context of where things are at the time.  Thinking about ‘sustainable’ from one perspective, a Scaled Agile goal from adopting a lean-agile mindset is to deliver the maximum customer value in the shortest sustainable lead time1.  Thinking about it from an Agile journey perspective, what ‘sustainable’ means may vary for one person or another (e.g., for leadership or for an Agile Team member), particularly when seen through the prism of different points during an Agile transformation.

Is ‘sustainable’ seen the same way by leadership and the team(s)?

I believe that how members of an organization see ‘sustainable’ is a reflection of the organization’s culture; I submit that in addition to wanting a healthy organizational culture, we also want a shared perception by members of the organization of the culture.  If there is tension within an organization regarding its culture or how the culture is seen by different members of an organization, it’s understandable when questions about whether teams’ operation is sustainable are met with defensive reactions – all members of the organization want to have a healthy culture, and it’s easy to be defensive if that health is challenged by how teams operate.  Here are some examples of patterns as part of an organization’s culture which I’ve seen impact sustainable team operation:

  • Heroic efforts are encouraged and rewarded. Shit will hit the fan eventually in every organization.  Once the crisis is over however, in addition to appreciating those who helped to resolve the issue, it is imperative that an equally strong emphasis is placed on 1) acknowledging that those heroic efforts are not something that we want to repeat and 2) understanding how the crisis developed in the first place and taking actions to reduce the likelihood of a similar crisis happening again.
  • Actions do not consistently value work-life balance. Speaking to work-life balance is very common in today’s corporate environment, but actions are often inconsistent with that.  Whether it’s implicitly expecting email responses from home, or when a scope/time plan is not being followed that extra work hours will be applied to bring it back on track, or to just finish something and deal with defects/issues/complaints afterward; failing to ‘walk the talk’ of work-life balance impacts sustainability.
  • It is expected that relentless improvement will require relentlessly more sweat (and, perhaps tears). Similar to ‘walking the talk’ of work-life balance, we have all heard the aphorism of ‘work smarter, not harder’.  However, when improvement activities are seen as something that can only be done ‘on top of’ all other responsibilities and deliverables, with no allowance for sustainable capacity of the team, the perception of a culture of relentless improvement can become different for different members of the organization.

What could sustainable mean for a team?

I’ve offered some examples of patterns that I’ve seen negatively impact sustainable team operation (and to an extent, the perception of an organization’s culture).  Other than just saying, “don’t do those things”, here are some more specific ways in which I think sustainable team operation can be improved:

  • Capacity for something other than the ‘tyranny of the urgent’2. It’s important for the team to have regular, ongoing capacity available for innovation, experimentation and craftsmanship.  This means that 1) the available capacity for a team over a period of time is something that they determine for their local and current context, and 2) an amount of that capacity is carved out for regular commitments, and some amount of capacity regularly remains for them to do things beyond their commitments which they believe will benefit them (and the organization and its customers).
  • Commit to scope or time, but not both. We have seen far too many times that the ‘iron triangle’ of scope-time-cost is comprised of 3 inflexible commitments that must be made by the team(s), and that delivering on all 3 of those is not entirely successful (see: above, heroic efforts).  Rather than asking a team to commit to both scope and time, leadership needs to take responsibility for determining which of those 2 is more important to them, and then allow the team to deliver consistent with that priority.
  • The team determines what they can deliver, or by when. Leadership taking responsibility for determine whether scope or time is more important is the first necessary step.  Equally important is to allow the team – given that priority as their prime directive – to determine what the corresponding second priority will look like.  In other words, for example, if leadership determines that having working software in hand for a product release date is the top priority, allow the team to determine how much scope will be delivered by that date.
  • Embrace Theory Y3 and the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers4. This may be the last example, but fundamentally it is the most important ingredient toward sustainable team operation (and a healthy organizational culture): trust.  We have to trust that a team of knowledge workers, with intent based leadership5 as their inspiration, will deliver the maximum customer value in the shortest sustainable lead time.

What could sustainable mean during an organization’s Agile journey?

Having talked about how ‘sustainable’ can be perceived, what can negatively impact how sustainable a team’s operation is, and what could positively impact sustainable operation (and organizational culture), how does sustainable fit in with an organization and its Agile journey?  One example is to bear in mind that the transformation that is part of an Agile journey has implications in terms of human resources.  There are organizational change management aspects to an Agile journey which have been extensively studied to help them be more successful6.  One of the ways an agile coach can help with an organization’s agile journey is as a companion for these change management practices.

In addition to the change management aspect of an Agile journey, we need to keep the ultimate outcome we are trying to accomplish in mind: delivering maximum customer value.  The goal of a transformation is not to move forward on an Agile journey; the goal is to relentlessly improve the delivery of customer value and the transformation is only a means to that end.  How we move forward as an organization – including the culture – is another area where a coach could assist, for example by collaborating on how to organize around value7.

What the desired culture looks like is not something an agile coach can give an organization the answer to; the organization has to decide what they want their culture to be, and how to improve its common perception by all team members.  As an adjunct to that, it is possible for an agile coach to help with identifying and reinforcing what a sustainable transformation journey for that culture could look like.

About the author Brad Sherman: Outside of his career as a software engineer, software director and agile coach, Brad Sherman has found himself riding his bike again during these times of social distancing.  Long ago – during his early college years – he and some friends rode their bikes down the Pacific coast from Oregon to Southern California, along with rides across the continental divide.  At that time, sustainable pace meant that they arrived at the next campsite before falling off their bikes.