Agile processes promote sustainable development – tl;dr

I recently published a blog post on Agile Manifesto tl;dr
One of my readers suggested I make it into a series, going through the agile manifesto principles. Great idea – I thought – where do I begin?
In the end I chose this one:

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Here’s why: If the Agile Manifesto is tl;dr for you, chances are you have no time to spend to read it thoroughly.
If that is the case, chances you are in, or en-route to, a state of burnout.
Not wishing to stress you out, but you should know that burnout can have catastrophic consequences:
The term burnout is borrowed from rocket technology. Yes, it’s rocket science, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand its implications.

What is Burnout?

Burnout rate is how fast a rocket is burning fuel. In normal rocket launch fuel burnout of one stage triggers separation and the start of the next launch stage. 
When, however, an airplane reaches burnout, people physically die. As in the Chapecoense Crash

In humans, burnout, or occupational burnout, is a condition in which a person is depleted of energy, efficacy and empathy. Since WHO’s ICD-10 (released 1994) and in more detail in ICD-11 (To be released 2022) Burnout is classified as a disease, although not a medical condition.

In medical care, burnout has been identified as a major problem. In “Physician Burnout: A Serious Symptom, But of What”, by JAMA, The Journal of American Medical Association, the authors conclude: ״The profession has violated the very way it has taught, and been taught, to approach the care of patients. The profession can and should do better.״

Why does this matter?

At the end of the day, a CEO cannot be held responsible for the well-being of each and every employee, right?
Not so.
In a “A Message To Our Fellow Health Care CEOs”, a consortium of CEOs of the leading U.S medical institutions say that “Physician Burnout Is A Public Health Crisis”. They concluded that:
“The consequences of physician burnout are significant, and threaten our U.S. health care system, including patient safety, quality of care, and health care costs. Costs are impacted by burnout in direct ways (e.g. turnover, early retirement, less than full time work) and indirect ways (e.g. poor quality , including medication and other errors, unnecessary testing and referrals, greater malpractice risk, and possibly higher hospital admissions/readmissions).” emphasis added.

Just substitute health-care with customer care, medication with h/w & cloud resources and hospital admissions with unplanned support calls. There is an almost 1:1 analogy to software development groups.
In Agile Manifesto speak that’s like saying that burnout eats all other principles for breakfast, leaving behind a mush of formerly brilliant employees and a trail of occupational-hazard lawsuits and other social benefit liabilities.

Note that the authors are not doctors or other medical practitioners. These are not CEOs of some dollar hungry, revenue driven institutions. These are the CEOs of the world’s forefront institutions of medical care: Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, Duke University, etc. If you’re an executive of a medical-care organization, you cannot choose anything more prominent that one of these.

Imagine what Colombia’s football, journalism and national history would look like if flight 2933 would have taken off with enough fuel, and Chapecoense team would survive the flight? This specific flight would have been a non-event, just like any of the other ~100,000s commercial flights taking place every day.
But it didn’t. And as a direct result it crashed.

Back to the agile manifesto

Sustainable pace means that “The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.” 
That is, you must refuel. Regularly.
Otherwise, the results may be catastrophic.

What is Sustainable Pace?

So far I’ve discussed unsustainable pace. 
What is the desired state? What is sustainable pace?
Think of the difference between commuting to work on a highly congested day, during a good flow of traffic and on Boxing Day.
When traffic is flowing you feel you’re making progress, it feels healthy.
On a highly congested day you feel stuck and frustrated.
And driving to work on Boxing Day you know you’ll be alone at work, under-energized.

A Sustainable Pace means you could work at this pace indefinitely – it’s not overly frustrating and it’s not below your skill-level. 
It’s just right, most of the time, as in 90% of the time.

What to do?

You don’t have to do anything. Quoting Prof. Deming: You don’t have to change. Survival is just an option.
If you do plan to change, here are some ideas what you can do to bring yourselves from a collision course towards burnout back to a state of sustainable pace:

  • Hang out with people who maintain a sustainable pace, and learn what they do. Copy their behaviors until you master them yourself. There is (almost) nothing more impactful than being “infected” by people who respect their right to be healthy
  • Ask people who maintain a sustainable pace how they do it? What do they practice daily to maintain that state?
  • Read The Four Fold Way by Angeles Arrien. Or better – listen to it
    Or read/listen to The Four Agreements.
    Or The Power of Now.
    Any book that helps you internalize the importance of being mindful.  
  • Practice mindfulness, meditation, Tai Chi or any activity that soothes and suits you to refuel your mental capacities
  • Under commit
  • You probably spend a lot of time in meeting.
    Read Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There by Marvin R. Weisbord and Sandra Janoff. In particular, pay attention to “Learn to say No, if you want Yes to mean anything”
    And then practice their teachings.
  • Find and develop your own path to sustainable pace

So before attending to any other principle of the agile manifesto:
If you don’t have the privilege to take the time to study what “sustainable pace” means, consider the alternative.


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