Agile, The Progress Principle, and a Healthy Inner Work Life

If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend the book: “The Progress Principle.” The authors’ explored the question: “What really makes people happy, motivated, productive, and creative at work…?”

Plot spoiler alert: the title is a dead giveaway on what makes us and our teams tick:

  • The strongest contributing factors: Regular daily progress on meaningful work combined with autonomy and freedom
  • The strongest detractor: impediments (they call ’em “obstacles”) –  the stuff that gets in the way of GSD….

What I found really cool was how all of this fits so nicely with Agile/Lean/Scrum core values and practices…

Inner Work Life

One of the main things that impact regular progress, engagement, and long-term performance is a good “inner work life,” defined as:

“[Our inner work life] is the continuous stream of emotions, perceptions and motivations that we experience throughout our day, as we react to and make sense of events as they arise.”

As an Agile practitioner, it makes total sense to me that one’s internal stream contributes to (or alternatively distracts from) our joy, engagement, and creativity.

A strongly positive inner work life not only makes us feel happy and engaged, it generally leads to higher levels of flow and performance through increased creativity and productivity.

And well, the opposite – a bad inner work life – well we know where that leads….grumpy developers, shitty code, missed commitments…

Healthy Agile Teams – Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity

When it comes to helping individuals build and maintain a healthy inner work life, Scrum Masters, Coaches, and Agile teams themselves play a huge role. (We are after all pack creatures no matter how introverted any of us may behave.)

When we are part of a healthy, strong, honest team, all the members gain a sense of connection and belonging that directly impacts their stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations. It is how we are built. It is part of our neuro-chemical soup.

happiness chemicalsSpecifics influencers of our joy and engagement include:

  • Building on progress
  • Dealing w setbacks
  • Providing catalysts and nourishers
  • Removing inhibitors and toxins
  • Minimizing the negative
  • Creating celebrations

One of the many things I liked about the book’s thesis – of how important the inner work life is – is how strongly it correlates to the magic that happens on healthy, cross-functional, self-managing teams through Agile values and principles, and the ceremonies that accompany the Scrum framework.

Let’s dive in and connect some Agile dots…

Building on Progress The Agile Way – Every Day

Research by the book’s authors has shown that the single most important event leading to positive inner work life is making and noticing daily progress in meaningful work, even seemingly incremental progress or “small wins.”

Hmm, what do we do “daily” in Agile? At the daily stand-up we cover “yesterday, today, and in my way…?” Given the demands of “the current sprint”, it is easy to ignore those small steps forward made “yesterday” and focus on what still needs to be done “today” instead.

celebrate progressObserve your teams. Do the high-performing ones sometimes dwell in “yesterday” a moment longer in their daily, not rushing through it? Do they move that task card on the board with gusto and pride? Do they ring a bell to celebrate and recognize the progress that they’ve made – making what is so often invisible, visible? If not, how could you coach them to explore the positive power of ack’g progress – and the added happiness of regular shots of dopamine?

And when they announce the task for “today” does it come across as a commitment, a promise of progress to come – a preview of tomorrow’s yesterday…?

Dealing With Setbacks and Impediments – Constructively

Of all the events that diminish our inner work lives, setbacks and obstacles are the single most important. And the daily scrum gives us a way to address those impediments quickly. Got a task card that didn’t move from its position of yesterday? The team is there to not only keep you accountable but to help you figure out how to move it. Everyone has a shared fate after all.

The “In my way” aspect of the stand-up taps into the support of the team by replacing extended silent suffering with the possibility of collaboration. Pair programming for example provides the opportunity to work thru hour-long mental logjams that often arise when working in crufty legacy code, or struggling with tests that just won’t pass  – sometimes in a matter of minutes or even seconds.

And the more help offered by others, the more you are likely to offer it when you have the chance. And here’s the really cool part – not only do the givers and takes of the help both get an oxytocin reward but all those observing the interaction get a neuro-boost as well.

To bring an added layer of visibility to impediments, teams can use a “Snake on the Board” (a simple and powerful technique to identify what gets in the way of velocity…) and joyfully rejoice each time something is vanquished.

Catalysts and Nourishers – Bring ’em on!

The Progress Principle also raises the importance of “Catalysts” – the things that directly or indirectly support progress. Catalysts make it possible for individuals and teams to move forward quickly and productively. They are critical for both performance and healthy inner work life, and in an Agile context are:

On a high-performance agile team, everyone is attuned to what’s going on in the team space and consistently make sure they are providing nourishment that supports their teammates every day:

  • Human connection
  • Respect & recognition
  • Encouragement
  • Trust & appreciation
  • Warmth & understanding
  • Camaraderie
  • Support – during good and bad times

Tony Schwartz , president, and CEO of the Energy Project, comments on why these things matter so much:

“Feeling genuinely appreciated lifts people up. At the most basic level , it makes us feel safe, which is what frees us to do our best work. It’s also energizing. When our value feels at risk, as it so often does, that worry becomes preoccupying, which drains and diverts our energy from creative spirit.”

To spread nourishers, do as Dale Carnegie, of How to Win Friends and Influence People fame, poetically suggests, “leave a friendly trail of sparks of gratitude on your daily trips.”

Minimize the Negative: Toxins and Inhibitors

Toxins and inhibitors are the opposite of catalysts and nourishers; they serve to block progress and poison inner work life. Confusion over goals (unclear Definition of Done, or tasks started that didn’t meet Definition of Ready), teams constrained in their ability to solve problems and exercise ownership (command and control leadership, non-fully cross-functional composition), lack of sufficient time, fear of failure, interruptions, constant criticism, too much work in progress, lack of accountability, lack of trust, disrespect, discouragement, antagonism… these are all anti-agile patterns.

Negative events are more powerful than positive ones. Just look at any social network. 10-1 bitching ratio. Setbacks have a greater negative impact than progress, and the negative effects of toxins tend to be more powerful than the positive effects of nourishers. So it is especially important to minimize negative events and to deal with them quickly and effectively when they do happen. (See “How to Notice” below)

Celebrations: Take Your Foot Off the Gas (Once in a While)

The end of the iteration demo/review is a chance to show off what the team has accomplished, and it’s often been a real race (oh, that’s why it’s called a sprint!) to the finish line. So it’s often more a sigh of relief than a shout of joy accompanying this ceremony. So don’t skip the celebration of what value has been created, and how it benefits the customer, nor glance over any adversity the team has overcome – through key process improvements for example. (See Sprint Demo and Review for more on this topic…)

And one more thing – does the team always have to rush ahead to the next sprint? What if we tapped into the “sustainable pace” credo of Scrum and allow the team to take their foot off the gas once in a while? Work a “6 x 2 +1” cycle: six two-week iterations, followed by a 1 week “do something else” – maybe it’s a hack week. A chance to explore something new and have a bit of fun… Relieve the high pressure that builds over extended periods of time and leads to poor inner work life and thus poor performance.

And there’s no reason not to celebrate more frequently. Have an ample supply of kudo cards on hand in the team space (Starbucks gift cards) that any team member can give to another as a way of saying a simple “thanks.” Get gong. Ring it when the team has pushed something customer-facing. Don’t skip thru “stars’” at the retro. Have a monthly all-hands where your teams get acknowledged in a big way for feature releases that went live over the past 30 days.

How to Notice

Metrics, Metrics, More Metrics

Velocity is one of the most commonly used (and abused) agile team metrics. Teams (and their stakeholders) often focus on “improving velocity” without either a proper consideration for root causes that impact velocity or a holistic view.

So often the only other, if any, metrics that teams put in place are purely technical: burn-charts, velocity graphs, and cycle times (For dozens of contenders that teams may choose from see: Understanding Agile Team Metrics)  but technical metrics (Process, Release, Product and Code) offer only part of the picture. And worse yet they are all lagging indicators. By the time team (or management) sees the dip, the canary’s already dead.

Team Health Checks

inner work lifeThe other part of the image – People and Team Health –  is a leading indicator of performance: Their inner work life. And yes it can be “measured.”

A great tool for both individual and team use was Niko Niko [sad update – this app is no more…]. Overlay that graph on the burnchart. See what story that tells.

For more details on inner work-life metrics and a handful of other tools to measure it, see my post: Team Health Check.

Keep a Daily Journal

Product Owner, Scrum Master, Team Member, Agile Coach: Keep a journal focused on progress to help remind you of successes. Track setbacks too. It will make you aware of what is working and what is not, and can help you spot patterns to reinforce or dampen. And then at the sprint retrospective, compare notes – use the “Less” and “More” aspects of the Sand Dollar Exercise.

Following is a short checklist you might use to review your day, as well as to plan your actions for the next.

Catalysts, Nourishers

  • Which 1 or 2 events today indicated either a small win or a possible breakthrough?

Inhibitors, Toxins

  • Which 1 or 2 events today indicated either a small setback or a possible crisis?

Inner Work Life

  • Did I see any indications of the quality of my teams’ inner work lives today?
  • What specific events might have affected inner work life today?

Action Plan

  • What can I do tomorrow to strengthen the catalysts and nourishers identified and provide the ones that are lacking?
  • What can I do tomorrow to start eliminating the inhibitors and toxins identified?

And if your action plan gets long – Manage your WIP… 🙂 –  what is the one thing you can do to best facilitate progress on your team?

The Bottom Line – The Power of (Small) Wins

Is it such a radical concept that knowledge workers, technical wizards, and often introverted engineers are not drones, but artists, with creative spirits, and inner motivations?

Whether we admit it or not, we are driven by others’ acknowledgment of our contributions to meaningful work, and the more challenging the task, the prouder we will be.

As a leader, coach, scrum master, product owner, or teammate – if you want more productivity, more profitability, and more value, (the metrics leaders like to keep their eyes on) maybe you ought to direct your focus to other things (those “intangibles”), like celebrating our progress – no matter the size – every day. Those drive the leading indicators of the tangibles.

Do you want to move mountains? Begins by carrying away small stones.

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