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Leveraging the Agile Manifesto for More Sustainability

Key Takeaways

  • Sustainability means taking a holistic perspective on social, environmental, and economic issues.
  • The Agile Manifesto can be leveraged for increasing sustainability. For example, when focusing on business people and developers working together, explore the target group and ensure that you embrace accessibility.
  • Addressing sustainability is becoming a key success factor for companies to find and keep both talent and clients.
  • The focus of the Agile Manifesto is on uncovering better ways of developing software; by doing so, the Manifesto puts people in the center. Consequently, agile organizations are expected to focus on humanity and therefore on sustainability.
  • Sustainability is part of the vision of the biggest organizations in the agile community, namely the Agile Alliance and the Scrum Alliance.

Together with Claudia Melo, I’ve co-created a workshop that focuses on how agility can leverage sustainability. In order to do so, we explore how the principles of the Agile Manifesto can contribute to sustainability, and how a greater awareness can change the current way of working and contribute to increasing sustainability.

In this article we will look at what sustainability exactly means, the current status of sustainability of the major agile organizations (Agile Alliance and Scrum Alliance), and the impact of software development on sustainability.  However, the main focal point of this article is at the same time the core of the workshop: using the principles of the Agile Manifesto to guide actions that contribute to more sustainability.

What exactly is sustainability?

Sustainability is foremost defined by the Brundtland report as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. In more detail, of course the 17 sustainable development goals defined by the United Nations’ agenda 2030 come to mind as a common understanding for sustainability.

Moreover, true for both is what has become to be known as the triple bottom line, where sustainability is defined by a synthesis of:

  • Social: aiming at ending poverty.
  • Environmental: protecting the planet.
  • Economic: improving the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere.

And the social, environmental, and economic perspectives are sometimes also referred to as the people, planet, and profit perspectives.

Very often when hearing sustainability, people think of the planet/environmental aspect only. Yet, if the three aspects are considered conjointly, we will focus on sustainability in its entirety. Otherwise, concentrating on the environment might have a bad consequence, for example, on the social aspect. Thus, I prefer the holistic definition of the triple bottom line by thinking all three aspects - social, environmental, and economic - together.

How does the agile manifesto address sustainability?

I would like to start by looking at how the agile community seems to address sustainability mainly:

  • Often the first thing that comes to mind is the “sustainable pace,” as pointed out by the 8th principle of the Agile Manifesto: “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”  So, sustainability in this sense will ensure people will not be burned out by an insane deadline. Instead, a sustainable pace ensures a delivery speed that can be kept up for an infinite time. This understanding of sustainability falls into the profit perspective of the triple bottom line.
  • Another way sustainability is often understood in the agile community is by focusing on sustaining agility in companies. This means, agility and/or agile development will govern the work even after, for example, external consultants and trainers are gone. The focus is then on how to build a sustainable agile culture or on sustainable agile transformations.

Over all these years, the agile manifesto has served me well in providing guidance, even for areas it hasn’t originally been defined for. In 2002, I found great support from the agile manifesto when scaling agile. I looked at each of the principles and examined what it meant when scaling up. For example, examining the third principle: Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale in a larger context means: “Integrating a system with a large team is often regarded as a difficult task. Therefore, you will often find that large teams lean towards developing several subsystems instead of one integrated working system.” (quoted from Agile Software Development in the Large). In 2010, it was a great help for me when applying agility in global and distributed settings. For example, examining the fifth principle for such a setting: Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done leads to the understanding that “trust generally is built by proximity—a default obstacle in a distributed setting. The sense of closeness, though, must be fostered so as to bind teammates together despite physical distance.” (quoted from Agile Software Development with Distributed Teams). Similarly, at some point in between (I guess it was around 2007) I used the agile manifesto as a guide when using agility for hardware development.

Thus, I keep coming back to the agile manifesto looking for guidance by exploring mainly the principles from a different angle, or in other words by looking at the principles through a different lens. Certainly, the agile manifesto has not been created with sustainability as defined by the triple bottom line in mind, but rather, with an understanding of sustainability, the agile manifesto can provide great guidance for making our products while addressing sustainability. Melo and I have co-created a workshop that examines the principles of the Agile Manifesto from the perspective of sustainability (see below for more details on the workshop). We (have) offer(ed) this workshop at various conferences (Agile Coach Camp, XP 2021, Agile 2021, eXperience Agile) and for companies who want to understand how they can make the development and their products more sustainable. The latter typically is supported by the chief sustainability officer or comparable roles.

How big is the carbon footprint of software development?

Certainly, the answer to this question is: it depends (on the software). What we all have to understand is that software does have a carbon footprint and we can influence how big that footprint is. All too often, “we” assume that software reduces the carbon footprint (only) because, for example, software makes it possible for us to meet virtually and not have to travel to a conference/meeting. Yet, note there are different forecasts about energy consumption of ICT. One of the forecasts projects that by 2030 (this is in the not-so-far future!) ICT will consume 21% of the overall energy consumption!

Another big topic is the e-waste that is created. For example, in 2016, 44.7 tons of e-waste were generated. (And trust me, this amount gets higher and not lower over the years…) Of course, you can argue that software is not e-waste. However, the software we are creating sometimes requires that our clients update their hardware and therefore, e-waste is also created by features that do not support older systems.

And a final example I want to provide is the cloud. The cloud sounds like it is light and weightless, yet the opposite is true. The server farms the cloud runs on use a lot of energy, and we can make a difference depending on the server farm we choose. For example, there is a huge difference between the carbon footprint of the cloud provided by Amazon, Google, or Apple. Therefore, when deciding on a cloud platform, also factor in the carbon-footprint. Thus, energy source and consumption should be one of the aspects to be discussed, as other requirements for your system like performance or stability.

How is sustainability addressed by the Scrum and the Agile Alliance?

The two most important organizations in the agile community, the Agile Alliance and the Scrum Alliance, both mention sustainability in their vision:

  • Agile Alliance: building a more effective, humane, and sustainable way of working.
  • Scrum Alliance: our vision is to be a trusted ally for our members as they create a world of work that is joyful, prosperous and sustainable.

For both the Agile Alliance and the Scrum Alliance, it sounds like in their visions they understand sustainability as a sustainable pace. However, the following initiatives of the Agile Alliance focus on different aspects of sustainability:

At this time there is neither a focus on the environmental aspect, nor is there an attempt to think about sustainability holistically as the triple bottom line. However, at the last Agile 2021 conference, sustainability was definitely an important topic in the program. Therefore, we can expect this trend to continue, and sustainability will edge ever closer to the spotlight in the near future.

Investigating the relationship between agile and sustainability

As mentioned earlier, Melo and I used sustainability as a lens to examine the principles of the agile manifesto,  As a result, for every principle we created a kind of flashcard (as you might have used for learning a new language; we think this is exactly what needs to happen now) that covers some background information and/or examples for that principle using the sustainability lens, and in addition, we came up with a collection of deep and thought-provoking questions people can ask themselves about making their products more sustainable. In order to make this more concrete, below is a sample abbreviated flashcard:

These flashcards are a great means for teams and companies to first and foremost increase their awareness of their impact on sustainability; moreover, they spark the necessary discussions to get an idea about how agility can be leveraged for increasing sustainability, and as a consequence, it helps them to make a difference in their way of working by deciding on concrete next steps. Some of the resulting comments or considerations from workshop participants were:

  • Could having a more socially conscious collaboration help us build products for all of society without exclusions?
  • Try to get business and IT to agree on the importance of sustainability
  • Add metrics on sustainability to management reports

The feedback of the participants suggests that we managed to increase their awareness, and with that we hope that the participants will take that back to their teams and companies and start a discussion on the topic there as well.

How agile development can help to decrease energy consumption

The way we create our products can make a huge difference; it starts with measuring the energy consumption and questioning the kind of energy (fossil or regenerative) that is used to create and run our products. For example, at a recent (German) meetup on the topic, the participants stated that all the small to mid-sized software companies they’re aware of are running on regenerative energy. The next step for those companies is to ensure that not only the creation, but also the usage of their products, will be climate neutral.

However, energy consumption is only one aspect of sustainability; the really important things to consider are the social, environmental, and economic aspects together - only then can we make a difference. And note, making a difference is not only important because we want to be good, or rather, better citizens of the planet, it is also important because sustainability becomes more and more a success factor for every company: finding and keeping both clients as well as talent. For example, especially the young talent (millenials and younger) are preferring companies who are sustainability-aware over those who are not, and consumer goods are already boycotted if they are not environmentally friendly. Most likely this behavior will also spread to all kinds of goods, including software.

Additionally, for a company claiming (or aiming) to be an agile organization, this is important because people will take it for granted more and more that as an agile organization, you also focus on sustainability. That’s why we (my co-author John Buck and I) pointed this out at in the final Part of the BOSSA nova book, that “no company is an island [and needs to understand its] connected perspective incorporates the surrounding environment (economic, ecologic, societal, and social) in which companies operate.”

Hence, it is time that the agile community understands how to leverage agility for making the world a better - environmental, social,  and economic - place.

About the Author

As an independent coach, consultant, and trainer, Jutta Eckstein has helped many teams and organizations worldwide to make an Agile transition. She has (co-)authored a number of books, the most recent one with John Buck on Company-wide Agility with Beyond Budgeting, Open Space & Sociocracy (dubbed BOSSA nova).  Eckstein can be reached @JuttaEckstein | LinkedIn | Blog and here you’ll also can find here some publications on the topic.

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