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Using Agile to Create a Mentally Healthy Workplace

Val sat down in the kickoff meeting for the upcoming project. The project manager proudly unfurled the lengthy project Gantt chart, and said,   “Here is all your work for the next year plus. Your team lead, Michelle, broke all the work into tasks, gave each task hour estimates, and put them in sequential order. […]

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June 14, 2020

Val sat down in the kickoff meeting for the upcoming project. The project manager proudly unfurled the lengthy project Gantt chart, and said,

 

“Here is all your work for the next year plus. Your team lead, Michelle, broke all the work into tasks, gave each task hour estimates, and put them in sequential order. She also assigned one of you to each task. Based on this information, I was able to put this end-to-end chart together. The chart shows that our release date will be exactly 14 months from today. Now grab a donut and get to work.”

 

Val walked over to the donut table, pulled Zed aside, and groaned, “Same as last time. Too bad they won’t listen to any of us. There is no way we will get all that done in 14 months.”

 

Zed closed his eyes, put his face in his hand, and said, “Looks like another round of hoping that everything will go perfectly to plan this time while we pull months and months of all-nighters.”

Sound familiar? The scenario above exemplifies how product development often looks under a traditional management paradigm. Working like this causes undue stress. Unhealthy, prolonged stress can lead to serious psychological problems like anxiety, depression, and anger. It can also cause health problems like high blood pressure, digestive problems, insomnia, and headaches.

Many of us know what it’s like to be treated as an interchangeable cog who isn’t invited into the discussions that lead to decisions that will directly affect us and in which we have the most expertise. Working within an organization that enforces an autocratic process and management model has a negative effect on mental health for both the managers and the workers alike. Creating a mentally healthy workplace is good for business. It reduces absenteeism and improves employee morale and productivity.

Let me introduce Agile. Agile values and respects people and culture over process. The Agile values, principles, and practices are 180 degrees different than traditional management. Practicing Agile well doesn’t damage employee mental health. In fact, it actually improves it.

The following S.T.R.E.S.S.  acronym provides a prompt to six of the key components of Agile that, when implemented, will reduce stress and improve overall mental health in the workplace.

Self-organization

Transparency

Retrospect

Experimental

Sustainable

Simplicity

 

Self-organization

“The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams”. – Agile Manifesto

In traditional management, initiatives are created and planned by a few like-minded individuals in management who formulate detailed, hierarchal, siloed processes and project plans that will be imposed onto the workforce. Workers are expected to commit to a long, prescriptive plan they didn’t help create, and may not even believe is possible. Employees in these types of companies have responsibility over the delivery, but no control over the timeline, the scope, and how the work will be done. Being micromanaged this way is de-motivating, time-consuming, and leads to to inaccuracy. One of the biggest job dissatisfactions employees report is a lack of control.

Agile promotes autonomy. The people who do the work know the most about the work; so, in Agile, the workers have a seat at the “deciders table.” They have a strong voice in how much work they will take on in a given time period. They “self-organize” and decide amongst themselves how work will be broken down, how long they expect it to take, and who will do what. Having this type of autonomy is empowering. Having a sense of control within our jobs is critical to our psychological well-being.

Since managers no longer are expected to dictate the team’s every move in Agile, they are freed up to do the job they should be doing. Among other things, an Agile manager “goes to bat” to get the tools and training the teams need to be successful. They remove roadblocks to enable teams to do their best work. They hire awesome people, then coach and mentor employees to grow and develop. They set the direction, share the vision, then let the team take it from there. Manager’s in an Agile world have healthier work-life balance. They aren’t expected to do everything anymore, which is an enormous relief and a recipe for improved mental health.

Transparency

“Significant aspects of the process must be visible to those responsible for the outcome.” – Scrum Guide

Transparency starts with open and honest communication between people at all levels of the org chart. It is exceedingly difficult to establish trust within an organization when decisions, strategy, ideas, and even mistakes aren’t openly shared. When key bits of information are kept hidden, several negative things happen. To make smart decisions, people need all the information. A lack of transparency forces people to think and act upon assumptions and rumors. This leads to working in darkness, where people will inevitably end up doing the wrong thing or doing the thing wrong. This is extremely frustrating. It’s like trying to hit a moving target and then getting reprimanded if you miss. This can lead to psychologically damaging feelings of helplessness due to the lack of control in the workplace. organizations are open and honest and encourage everyone to do the same, people are better set up for success. They have the needed information and can make better informed decisions. Transparency provides impartial data that helps people make informed decisions. It aligns all the participants to a common goal, which is very empowering. When an organization commits to being transparent, people are encouraged to be open and honest, without fear of retribution. Being able to openly share our doubts, new ideas, and even our failures creates a breeding ground for collaborative success.

Retrospect

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” – Agile Manifesto

It is exasperating to continually work a certain way knowing that there are better ways to be more efficient, creative, and productive. If people don’t have the time, support, or autonomy to regularly reflect as both individuals and as a team to improve their practices and processes, they will start to feel powerless and frustrated. Human beings thrive on solving problems.

Agile practices have built-in events that ensure the team and the organization have regular retrospectives to improve what you’re building and how you are building it. Retrospectives are an opportunity to hear the pain points and ideas from every single person, then provide the space to collectively decide what changes to try in the next iteration. Having a vehicle for continuous improvement improves emotional well-being. It takes people away from the negative thoughts and feelings of treading water and empowers them to make real change to improve working conditions and output.

Experimental

“Empiricism asserts that knowledge comes from experience and making decisions based on what is known. Scrum employs an iterative, incremental approach to optimize predictability and control risk.” –Scrum Guide

Agile acknowledges that complex, novel work requires experimentation. When we start a new endeavor, we often don’t know what we don’t know. In many circumstances the only way to figure something out is to try it, learn, and adapt according to results. In an Agile shop, experimentation is welcome (or even encouraged!), and learning cycles are kept short to minimize the cost of change. A workplace that acknowledges and welcomes experimentation allows people to try new things and make mistakes along the way without being punished.

Encouraging experimentations is the only way to develop truly innovative solutions. Having the freedom and support to work like this is liberating. It makes work interesting and rewarding for everyone. Being excited to go into work each day to try new things brings us greater job satisfaction, happiness, and a sense of purpose.

Sustainable

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

In traditional management, managers are often expected to pressure employees to work late nights and weekends for a prolonged amount of time to meet deadlines. This is unsustainable. There will be bursts of activity, followed by long troughs of unproductivity. Over time, being overworked decreases the workers’ overall mental well-being. A lack of work-life balance leads to attrition, chronic unhappiness, health issues, lower productivity, and decreased product quality.

Agile practices and principles support sustainable work. Agile increases productivity by eliminating waste, aligning everyone to the overarching purpose, and implementing short feedback loops, not by burning people out. Limiting work to eight hours a day is a guaranteed way to improve mental health.

Simplicity

Simplicity, the art of maximizing the amount of work not done, is essential.

Traditionally managed organizations have a lot of overhead. People are rewarded for “being busy” and “being fully utilized.” For example, having to create a document, have it signed by 20 people, and then filing it away and never looking at it again is probably work that is just process for process sake. If work doesn’t add value, and is not required, it is a waste of your capability. In Agile, this type of unnecessary work is eliminated. In Agile, work maximizes value directly or indirectly. Working on things that matter is both empowering and motivating. Working on busy work is boring and unfulfilling.

 

If your workplace is consistently putting you in a foul mood, and even damaging your overall sense of well-being, consider learning more about how transitioning to Agile can improve your thoughts and feelings in the workplace. While Agile isn’t a silver bullet that will cure all your work stress, it is a proven way to decrease stress and increase mental well-being through human prioritization and open communications.

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