The Dangers of Burnout in Agile Transformations
The promise of Agile has always been simple: get your organization to do more with less. From “Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time” by Jeff Sutherland to nearly every framework that has risen over the past two decades, we are sold the benefits of delivering value faster and getting to market sooner.
But, even with the promise of improved speed, we see that over 70% of change initiatives fail.
Among other factors like leadership, unclear goals, and forgetting about people, one of the major reasons for failure comes from change fatigue and burnout of people. In our years of driving change and transformation at large organizations, the promise of “doing more with less” can lead to unrealistic demands in pursuit of agility that can burnout employees, diminish morale, and ultimately kill the goals of the transformation.
There are so many proven benefits to agility. When implemented well, agile methods can increase team efficiency, improve product quality, and enable organizations to respond faster to changing customer needs.
The key is making sure that we seek the benefits through sustainable changes, focusing on the impact to people and culture. To promote real, lasting change, leaders need to be mindful of common anti-patterns and foster a culture of sustainability.
Let’s dive into a few of those anti-patterns, and what we can do to mitigate them.
Unrealistic Expectations Around Velocity and Delivery
One of the most common anti-patterns is leaders setting unrealistic delivery expectations, stuffing the backlog and expecting their teams to have a “Yes, and” approach to delivery. In their enthusiasm for greater agility, they demand teams complete more user stories in each sprint than is realistically possible. When teams inevitably fall short of these expectations, leaders apply more pressure and make unreasonable demands for working longer hours.
This kind of reactionary management stifles morale and creativity. People feel anxious and exhausted, resulting in lower-quality work and knowledge worker burnout.
Instead of trying to extract more velocity through brute force, leaders need to take a step back. Limit WIP (Work in Progress). Look at roadblocks getting in the way of progress and find ways to remove them. Prioritize your goals more clearly.
Lack of Support for Self-Organization
Agile frameworks like Scrum emphasize the importance of self-organizing teams. But many leaders struggle with letting go of command-and-control tendencies. They refuse to give teams authority to decide how to accomplish their goals. Or they micromanage and second-guess decisions, undermining team autonomy.
Leaders need to understand that agility depends on empowered teams closest to the work making decisions. Provide guidance and mentoring but avoid prescribing solutions. Make it safe for teams to experiment, fail fast, and learn from mistakes. Nurture a culture based on trust rather than top-down authority.
No Investment in Continuous Improvement
Adopting agile requires organizations to continually reflect on current ways of working and actively improve. But many change efforts downplay the importance of continuous improvement after the initial rollout.
When leaders fail to make ongoing refinement a priority, early progress gives way to stagnation and eventual decline. Teams lose motivation when they feel their ideas to improve go ignored.
Leaders should invest time and resources into improvement efforts such as:
- Holding regular retrospectives and acting on feedback
- Empowering teams to experiment with new techniques
- Facilitating open discussion between teams
- Using metrics to learn, rather than judge
Empower your people to focus on and own their constant improvement to keep your transformation from going stale.
Lack of Focus on Technical Excellence and Good Design
In the rush to deliver features and velocity, some organizations neglect technical excellence and good design practices. But this eventually catches up with them in the form of accumulating technical debt, frequent defects, and brittle codebases that slow down development.
Great agile leaders know you cannot sacrifice quality for speed over the long-term. They instill a culture of craftsmanship where developers take pride in their expertise. Teams are given time for refactoring, automation, and collaboration activities that may not directly produce business value in the current sprint but pay off in future sprints through a more robust codebase.
Rather than pushing for more and more new functionality, we need to empower our teams to keep quality high.
Insufficient Attention to Collaboration and Meeting Fatigue
While agile focuses on delivering working software quickly, this should not come at the expense of human-centered collaboration. Strong collaboration and communication help teams feel connected to the mission and builds knowledge across the organization.
Meeting fatigue is real.
The best leaders will be able to limit unnecessary meetings while helping their teams collaborate, connect, and deliver value sustainably. On top of that, leaders will focus on helping people connect to the “why” of their work and build quality connections across teams to build strong, productive relationships for long-term success.
Where is Burnout Impacting Your Transformation?
Are these anti-patterns impacting your transformation? Change is critical, but it is also as hard as it has ever been.
When done right, an Agile transformation can propel an organization to new heights of productivity, innovation, and human potential. The reward is a motivated, engaged workforce and an organization positioned to thrive well into the future.
At Cornerstone Agility, we focus on transforming with people and leadership at the forefront of change. By keeping these anti-patterns in mind, we can help you get closer to the promises you were sold on transformation so you can get to the benefits sooner.
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